The 85th plenary session of the Congress that concluded in Raipur in Chhattisgarh outlined a strategy for the 2024 Lok Sabha election, besides reinforcing Mallikarjun Kharge’s authority as elected president of the party. Apart from a clear expression of its willingness to work with like-minded secular parties, the Congress has resolved to pursue a sharp social justice agenda, a paradigm shift for a party. While the party has always had a welfare agenda, it failed to accommodate the political aspirations of the subalterns who increasingly found other parties more suitable. The party adapted a separate resolution on social justice, and promised a dedicated ministry for the empowerment of the Other Backward Classes (OBC), creation of a National Council for Social Justice, publication of an annual “State of Social Justice” report on the lines of the national Economic Survey, reservation in higher judiciary for Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and OBCs and a Rohit Vemula Act for students of disadvantaged sections if elected to power. Having lost out to regional parties in the post-Mandal era, the party is now aiming to woo the subalterns to its fold. So, as a start, it amended its own constitution to reserve half of the seats to the Congress Working Committee for SCs, STs, OBCs, women and minorities. The party’s pious declarations at the Udaipur Chintan Shivir last year were almost immediately abandoned, and it will be watched for its adherence to the Raipur resolutions in the coming months.
The party has promised “Sampoorna Samajik Suraksha”, a social security framework that will have legal guarantees for minimum income and social security for the poor. It also promises a universal basket of entitlements to all Indians, namely right to basic income through Nyuntam Aay Yojana (Nyay), right to health, pensions for single women, the elderly and persons with disabilities, a comprehensive Integrated Child Development Scheme in line with the National Food Security Act, and quality elementary schooling and maternity entitlements. A new welfare framework is being debated all over the world to mitigate growing inequities and other challenges such as unemployment and underemployment, and the Congress’s ideas should spur a fresh, informed debate in India. Though the party had banked on NYAY or a universal income scheme before the 2019 general election, it did not gain any electoral dividends. The party now hopes that the promise of a better future with assured income, which also accounts for social identity, could counter the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Hindutva plus. By acknowledging the fact that inequality is not merely material, and discrimination is not only along religious lines, the Congress has taken the debate beyond the secular-communal binary that has worked to the BJP’s advantage in recent years. For this strategy to be successful, the Congress will have to build a robust political campaign aligned to its new thinking, breaking away from its characteristic timidity.