Aam aadmi test for Rahul

New Delhi, Jan. 15: At its upcoming Jaipur conclave, the Congress will have to start grappling with a challenge that will be key to Rahul Gandhi's political future: how to balance the party's pro-poor agenda with complex economic compulsions.

The Congress's core "aam aadmi" plank has come under severe strain in recent years but sources say the pro-welfare thrust will soon return.

However, they admit that it will be more difficult for Rahul to embrace this agenda than it was for his mother, who used it as a bulwark against the BJP's India Shining campaign.

Sonia Gandhi had been in the Opposition 10 years ago when, at the Congress's last brainstorming session in Shimla, she coined the chant "Congress ka haath, gareeb ke saath (the Congress stands with the poor)". The "aam aadmi" slogan followed.

Rahul, however, is having to function in a vastly different situation: the government his party leads is under pressure to cut subsidies and take "tough" economic decisions.

Both Sonia and Rahul have explained the Centre's compulsions and the need to mop up revenue to sustain welfare schemes, but the majority of Congress leaders want the party to return to a decisively pro-poor politics.

It had been easier for the Congress to build up Sonia as pro-welfare, since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's undoubted pro-liberalisation credentials provided a counterweight to keep the corporate and urban middle classes interested.

Rahul's packaging as future Prime Minister will, however, require a merger of the two roles ' a task the Jaipur meeting will try to accomplish.

The Congress hasn't changed its philosophy but its nine-year stint in government, coupled with the need to project a new leader, has confronted the party with a changed situation.

It must now explain to the common man the reasons for the ceaseless rise in the prices of essentials, unpopular decisions such as the LPG subsidy cap, and the eruption of so many corruption scandals.

If the Shimla conclave accused the NDA government of reckless reforms and resolved to give economics a humane face, Jaipur will try to clear the misgivings about liberalisation and reassure the country about the Congress's overriding welfare agenda, sources said.

A glimpse of the party leadership's mind is perhaps visible in the composition of the panel to draft the background paper on socio-economic challenges. Most of the members, such as Digvijaya Singh, Kishore Chandra Deo and B.K. Hariprasad, are perceived as left of centre.

On the political front, the nation will be reminded that the threat of communalism isn't over yet, particularly with the possibility of Narendra Modi's entry into national politics.

As for organisational matters, the transition of power from Sonia to Rahul will require a shake-up that can be unsettling for many. It may also test the younger Gandhi's commitment to democratising the system.

Rahul has forced internal elections in the Youth Congress and party student wing NSUI. It remains to be seen whether, as functional head of the party organisation post-Jaipur, he prefers to stick to his parents' more pragmatic way of picking and choosing without antagonising the entrenched interests.

The importance of ordinary party workers and the methods for selecting poll candidates and office-bearers will figure prominently in the discussions at the Jaipur All India Congress Committee session.

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