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Is the Congress being ignored by its Ministers?

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The Congress headquarters at 24 Akbar Road in New Delhi.
The Congress headquarters at 24 Akbar Road in New Delhi.

K.V. Prasad

The Congress party has no proper institutional mechanism for interaction with its Central Ministers.

AT A convention on the National Rural Employment Guarantee programme in New Delhi last month, Congress president Sonia Gandhi lamented that party workers lacked access to Ministers. She suggested that during their tours, official or otherwise, Union Ministers schedule party functions in their itinerary or at least visit the local party offices.

The idea is: party workers need to hear from the Ministers the Government's policy initiatives and their intended impact. This could be used to educate the workers who, in turn, could explain complex issues to people and, of course, defend the Government.

Ms. Gandhi's gentle but firm suggestion received applause from the District Congress chiefs at the convention.

But how seriously do Ministers take their party chief's word? Leave alone party offices elsewhere in the country, hardly any Central Minister visits the AICC headquarters at 24 Akbar Road in New Delhi. Since the Congress returned to power at the Centre in 2004, the number of visits by Ministers to the party headquarters can be counted on one's fingers. There have been exceptions Shivraj Patil, P. Chidambaram, and S. Jaipal Reddy among a few.

Finance Minister Mr. Chidambaram held a meeting with party office-bearers last year and another one this year before presenting the Union budget. This was part of the budget-making exercise; Mr. Chidambaram extended its scope to include the party. It did not matter whether the "suggestion" finally found reflection, party workers were satisfied that the Minister heard them out.

Mr. Patil made just one visit to the party headquarters and spent time with the members of the media department, which he headed once. He shared his experience in the hot seat of North Block and got appreciative nods from party colleagues.

The former party chief spokesperson, Mr. Jaipal Reddy, visited the party headquarters to interact with his colleagues as Information and Broadcasting Minister. It was around the same time that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited members of the Media Committee for a luncheon meeting. These were isolated instances, mostly on the initiative of the then head of the media department, Girija Vyas.

Another exception is Oscar Fernandes, who is a regular at the party office. He shuttled between the Programme Implementation Minister's office at Sardar Patel Bhawan and the Congress office to discharge his additional duty as chairman of the Congress Election Authority. Now as a Minister without portfolio he can be spotted in the AICC in pursuance of his responsibilities as the person in charge of party affairs in the northeastern States.

There is hardly any institutional mechanism available for interaction with the Government for the party and much less for the media department, which has to defend the Government's policies and programmes. For instance, during the row over reservation for the other backward classes in higher educational institutions, the party found itself on a sticky wicket. It was just not prepared.

Incidentally, the party secretaries found themselves being kept out of the official dinner hosted by the Prime Minister to mark the second year of the United Progressive Alliance in office. Information from the Prime Minister's Office to the party is less than a trickle. But the party still has to tackle the bouncers from the media.

A part of this attitude of Ministers towards the party can be attributed to the increasing tendency on the part of the Congress president herself to carry out party work from her official residence. Barring an odd occasion to condole the death of the former Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao even the Congress Working Committee meetings are no longer held at the AICC headquarters. The Congress president's room in the AICC is permanently shut except for periodical sweeps by the security set-up. Ms. Gandhi prefers to meet workers at her 10 Janpath residence and during the last two years, she has made more visits to the 7 Race Course residence of the Prime Minister than to the party headquarters.

The top echelons of the Congress and the Government have evolved a system of meeting regularly under the banner of a core committee. But the rest of the party is in the dark about the rationale behind all decisions the Government takes. Is there a case for charity beginning at home?


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