We’re a party of aam aadmi, says Antony, calling for reforms with a human face

Even as Congress president Sonia Gandhi urged senior party functionaries and ministers to work with greater cohesion, completing unfinished tasks and fulfilling manifesto promises in the run-up to the 2014 general elections, Defence Minister A.K. Antony added a gentle caveat: he had nothing against economic reforms, but they must be reforms with a human face. “We are the party of the aam aadmi,” he said, and their interests must always be protected.

Indeed, on Friday, as senior ministers and Congress Working Committee members gathered at Surajkund, on the outskirts of the national capital, to confabulate, the subject of restricting the number of LPG cylinders to six per household per year came up repeatedly. Even when economic decisions were taken, the speakers said, the political and electoral impact must be factored in — in short, the human face. Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan, on her part, made a strong case for finding a balance between high economic growth and protecting the environment.

If Ms. Gandhi praised Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s “skilful” stewardship of the economy at a time developed countries were experiencing far greater difficulties, Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi virtually offered a riposte to Mr. Antony, even though he did not address him directly: there had been many paradigm shifts, from bank nationalisation to liberalisation, he said, and the Congress had always helped the country adapt to the changes. In short, as at Sunday’s rally on Ramlila Maidan, Ms. Gandhi and her son once again endorsed the Prime Minister’s economic road map.

The Prime Minister acknowledged that his government is often criticised for its focus on GDP growth, but he said, “I want to clarify that it is not a goal in itself: it is the only way to liberate crores of people from poverty, hunger and disease.”

Mr. Gandhi also spoke of the need for using technology to increase transparency: as the party that had had brought in the Right to Information Act, it was all the more important, he said, the conduct of all Congressmen should be above reproach. The transparency revolution should not be a hindrance but should be showcased as an instance of the Congress’ sincerity in tackling graft.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath spoke of the power of the social media, and the beating the party was taking as a consequence of civil society groups using such forums; the new Information and Broadcasting Minister, Manish Tewari, dwelt on the need to improve the government’s image through better communication. Another Minister, Srikant Jena, urged the party to intervene in Orissa to protect the abundant natural resources, especially as the Naveen Patnaik government, he alleged, was involved in mining scams.

Congress general secretary B.K. Hariprasad said officers in Madhya Pradesh were participating in RSS shakhas and this should be taken up strongly; he also spoke of the terrible situation in the Maoist-affected districts of Chhattisgarh. The longest speech was perhaps delivered by Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh, who spoke on a range of issues — from green terror to an attack on the media.

In all, 40 of the 66 who gathered at Surajkund spoke, Congress general secretary Janardan Dwivedi said.

The mood was serious, but the plain speaking that was expected was absent. Of course, key issues — from high prices, economic reforms, corruption, dealing with the Opposition, coping with the power of the social media — were all discussed, but the Congress leaders were careful not to cross the line: a minister said, “Ms. Gandhi did not want anyone to restrain their punches, but most speakers were diplomatic, only relatively frank.” Indeed, subjects were flagged, but it wasn’t a dialogue in the strictest sense of the word. Interestingly, the Congress president, in her closing remarks, said she hoped that answers to the questions raised on Friday would be forthcoming at the long delayed chintan shivir (introspection meeting) — its date is yet to be announced.

As the Congress gets battle-ready, Ms. Gandhi also announced the setting up of a coordination group, along with three sub-groups, at the party level, which will work towards harmonising the party’s various activities.

Gandhis take bus

Ms. Gandhi and her son, Rahul, surprised the delegates headed to Surajkund by boarding the bus arranged for them and driving with them to a hotel which, a few weeks ago, had hosted a similar meeting of the BJP. In the evening, three helicopters were on stand-by but, once again, the Gandhis took the bus, aam aadmi style, with their party colleagues. For security reasons, the Prime Minister was in a separate vehicle.

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