New Delhi: The Congress party has decided to target women voters as it gears up for the next general election scheduled for 2014, but which, some political analysts believe, could be held sooner.
The party has already adopted the government’s cash transfer programme and the still-in-the-works Right to Food legislation as electoral planks. If it wins the next general election, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) will get its third successive term in power. That’s something that hasn’t happened to any party or alliance since 1971, when the Congress came to power for the fifth time in a row.
The party will likely discuss ways to appeal to women voters in its brainstorming session in Jaipur on 18 January and could revive efforts to pass a law that reserves seats for women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies. The legislation, opposed by some members of the Congress itself, was passed by the Rajya Sabha in March 2010, but is yet to be passed by the Lok Sabha.
The UPA government has come under fire for its mishandling of the economy—although it has unveiled a series of measures to cut the fiscal deficit and improve investor sentiment in recent months—and a rash of corruption-linked controversies. The thinking within the Congress is that the focus on women voters, the cash transfer programme and the food legislation will revive the morale of party workers and also the party’s electoral fortunes.
While the party officially denies any move to focus on women voters, two senior Congress leaders who spoke on condition of anonymity admitted that this was very much on the agenda for the Jaipur meeting. People in the know also claim the party will adopt a slogan to indicate this approach: “Pehle hoga naari samman, baad mein hoga Bharat nirman (Respect for women first, nation building will follow)”.
The Congress party is big on slogans and had come up with a similarly catchy one in 2004—“Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath.” (The hand of the Congress is with the common man; the hand happens to be the party’s symbol.) The slogan was used to hard-sell inclusiveness, the platform for its surprise return to power in 2004 and more recently with “Aapka paisa, aapke haath (Your money in your hand)” to propagate the direct cash transfer scheme.
Sensing that women as a group are increasingly becoming an important audience, one that is yet to be targeted effectively by any party, the discussion in Jaipur will have a special session on empowering women, apart from the usual themes of political challenges, socio-economic policies, international affairs and organizational matters.
The aam aadmi slogan is the one that brought the Congress party, which was in the wilderness between 1998 and 2004, back to power. The party then used its flagship job guarantee programme, the Mahatama Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, and the Rs.72,000 crore farm loan waiver scheme to return to power in 2009.
According to the two Congress leaders mentioned earlier, the Jaipur discussion is likely to take up a resolution on the empowerment of women, the draft of which has been prepared by a panel headed by party lawmaker Girija Vyas, and which proposes the passage of the long-pending Bill that seeks to reserve 33% seats in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies for women.
A psephologist said this wasn’t a bad strategy.
“Women are a major (electoral) force. Women have been targeted by (Bharatiya Janata Party leader) Vasundhara Raje in 2003 (in Rajasthan), (Gujarat chief minister) Narendra Modi in 2007, and (Bihar chief minister) Nitish Kumar in 2010,” said Jai Mrug. But none of the parties or leaders have gone on to deliver, he said, and added that the Congress will be able to successfully take this approach only if it allows more women to contest the elections on its behalf.
If adopted, the women-centric approach will complement the two other threads of the Congress election game plan that are already evident. The party has taken ownership of (and credit for) the government’s direct cash transfer scheme that seeks to use the unique identity or Aadhaar number and a network of banks across the country to transfer subsidies and other benefits under government-run welfare schemes directly to the bank accounts of the beneficiaries. The scheme, which has been initiated in 20 districts, will be extended to 18 states from April and in other parts of the country by 2014. The launch of this scheme, though, has been patchy.
“This could be our major election plank. Though there may be some initial hiccups, the party is confident that it will be a success and benefit us electorally,” said a Congress minister who did not want to be identified.
Women alone may not be the focus of the Congress. With general secretary Rahul Gandhi expected to take over the reins of the party, the Jaipur session will witness for the first time a large number of younger members participating in discussions and putting forward suggestions for improving the organization and the party’s electoral prospects.
In recognition of the youth demographic and their increasing interest in policymaking, as evidenced by the recent public protests over corruption and women’s safety, the three-day meet will end with a one-day session that will have 118 participants from the Youth Congress and the party’s student wing.
The Chintan Shivir will also be attended by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, members of the council of ministers, Congress working committee members, Congress legislative party chiefs and state unit presidents among the 345 invitees.
Congress leaders are also hoping the government will be able to pass the legislation on food security before the 2014 election. The Food Security Bill, which promises to provide subsidized food to the poor, is pending due to differences within the government and with Congress president Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council over the Bill’s provisions.
“The Congress president was very upset that it is still pending. It was the Congress’s agenda and opposition-ruled states like Chhattisgarh have already passed it. We are trying to expedite the process and the Bill will be passed soon,” said another Congress leader who is familiar with the development and who did not want to be identified.
The haste in which the party is pushing its people-friendly agenda indicates that the Congress is readying for elections. “Yes, we are in election mode, especially after the recent results in Himachal Pradesh, which proved that there is no anti-Congress wave in the country,” said a Congress general secretary. “Why not? We are going to face around a dozen state elections this year, and we will have to go for the general election in early 2014,” he added, asking not to be identified.
The Election Commission has announced dates for polls in three north-eastern states— 14 February in Tripura, and 23 February in Meghalaya and Nagaland. Other states that go to the polls this year are Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Chhattisgarh.