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How India’s Grand ‘Old’ Party Has Been Relegated To The Sidelines

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Even as India continues to fight a deadly virus, the age-old infection afflicting the country’s grand old party has reared its ugly head, again.

This time it is in Rajasthan, one of the few states that a Congress-led government rules. As tensions between the two leaders simmered, Sachin Pilot, now sacked from the posts of Deputy chief minister and PCC Chief, mounted a rebellion along with 18 other MLAs, against CM Ashok Gehlot government, less than two years since the party came to power in the state and barely four months since it lost hold of Madhya Pradesh.

Hit by several twists and turns, including audio leaks purportedly showing criminal conspiracy to topple the state government, the political imbroglio has now reached the judicial corridors. As old-hands and allies desert the high-command’s embrace for greener pastures elsewhere, the oft-repeated question that the Sonia Gandhi-led party should answer is this: is it simply hunger for power or the Congress has failed to nurture talent?

As several party insiders and political pundits say, the Rajasthan crisis was waiting to happen. Pilot, 42, was reportedly disappointed over not being handed over the reins of the government, after the party’s triumph over the state in the 2018 assembly election. After a major drubbing in the 2013 polls, where he lost his seat from Ajmer, Pilot launched a renewed campaign in order to mobilize voter support. He went down and dirty while reaching out to the grassroots, even leaving his Lutyen’s bungalow for the same. However, just when he expected the high command led by the Gandhi-Vadra clan to reward him or his feat, the lobbyists among the old guard chose 69-year-old Ashok Gehlot, a son of the soil politician in his own right.

Photo credit: Twitter/Sachin Pilot

Even after being made the Deputy CM, Pilot claimed of facing constant pressure and obstacles during his tenure, and the recent Rajasthan Police notice, in a case of alleged attempts to destabilize the government, proved to be the last straw that made him look for an alternative political future. While having denied plans of joining the BJP for now, with Pilot’s revolt, the Congress has lost another charismatic leader with a mass appeal.

Inevitably, parallels are bound to be drawn with the episode involving former Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia, whose exit along with 22 MLAs from the party to join the BJP brought down the Kamal Nath government in Madhya Pradesh, propelling four-time CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan to power. Several reasons, such as being denied a leadership role in the party since the 2018 assembly polls, and a seat in the Rajya Sabha resulted in a dramatic coup by one of Rahul Gandhi’s closest confidants, other than Pilot. Clearly, being handed the role of general secretary in-charge of eastern UP did not fix matters in the party’s favour.

Photo credit: PTI

Apart from the young aspirants, the phenomena of Congress leaders jumping ships has a history to it. In the north-east, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who left the Congress in 2015 after a feud with the high command, has proved to be BJP’s knight in shining armour. He quickly climbed up the ranks of party leadership and effectively managed to overshadow Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal through exceptional crisis management skills.

Other Congress defectors like Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu, Rita Bahuguna Joshi in Uttar Pradesh or Vishwajit Rane in Goa have only added political heft and weight to BJPs electoral artillery.

Clearly, this goes on to show the unfulfilled ambitions and the bleak future these leaders were staring at, in the grand old party, which BJP quickly capitalized on. Young politicians Lok Sabha MP Anurag Thakur, known for using the rhetoric of Hindutva during election speeches and 29-year-old Tejaswi Surya, who after being elected as the BJPs youngest MP in the 2019 polls, has become a prominent face in the south, demonstrate the Narendra Modi-led governments penchant for fresh talent and an urge to groom the third generation of leaders.

Even veterans leaders like Mamata Banerjee, who left the Congress to form the Trinamool Congress and successfully managed to wrest West Bengal from a three-decade-long Left rule, or YSR Congress’ Jaganmohan Reddy, who after being sidelined by Sonia Gandhi-led coterie, eventually took control over Andhra Pradesh through sheer hardwork, or even NCP chief Sharad Pawar, whose sharp political acumen continues dominate contemporary politics.

Following Pilot’s uprising, some political observers have questioned the Congress leader’s ideological integrity and slammed his impatience over not being made the chief minister. However, such an excuse is simply a manifestation of the Congress’ archaic problem of a sycophant coterie handing over the party’s key to the high command. True, along with five portfolios and second-in-command Gehlot, it would seem Pilot has got more than what he could have asked for. But, as per popular theory, not being given the top role in the state has much to do with Sonia Gandhi’s reluctance to encourage talented politicians lest her son and party scion Rahul loses his domineering image as a challenger to Modi.

Photo credits: PTI

However, in 1929, a 40-year-old Jawaharlal Nehru became the president of the party, while in 1966, 48-year-old Indira Gandhi was chosen as the prime minister. Similarly, Rajiv Gandhi, 40, became the country’s youngest prime minister. And lastly, in 2017, 47-year-old Rahul Gandhi took over the reins as the Congress president. No dearth of young blood when it comes to the khandaan (family).

Personal rivalries and ambitions, over expectations from one’s party leadership or vested interests, are part and parcel of not only Indian but world politics. Laying the blame on an individual for what arguably is a structural problem in the party is like missing the woods for the trees.

It increasingly seems that leaders are simply done with the Congress’ mai-baap culture. What makes the BJP emerge as the champion of young upcoming politicians who represent the new-age millennials, while the Congress is stuck in the old ways? The country’s opposition party has to get its house in order and indulge in some navel-gazing, as they say, especially after the 2019 Lok Sabha election blow, else a fate much like the Left in Bengal awaits them. Up next, Milin Deora or Jitin Prasada?

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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