The Indian National Congress on Sunday filled the massive Ramlila Grounds in New Delhi to capacity and then made a well-knit presentation fielding its top three guns at what has been billed as ‘the party fights back’. Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi not only made a rare appearance on the same stage as Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but launched his party’s mission 2014.
As both Rahul and his mother emphatically endorsed the government, their party leaders and its policies, and while the prime minister talked about economics and government imperatives, no indication of the ‘bigger role’ for which he seems to have been slotted was available. Neither did the tone and tenor of Rahul’s impassioned speech, strewn cannily with catch words like aam aadmi, corruption, computers and liberalisation, throw any light on his vision of the future.
He wanted to change the ‘political system’ and rhetorically said: “Till the common man — youth from underprivileged backgrounds — come into politics, change cannot happen.” He did not, however, enlighten his partymen about the party’s or its government’s course of action. They were left puzzled about what lay ahead as the Congress heads now into an internal brainstorming next weekend where top leaders will review the implementation of the party’s manifesto. Sometime between now and then, we are told, the 42-year-old MP from Amethi would be conferred with the title of either secretary general or less likely, working president.
Whatever his designation, Rahul will do well to remember that the Congress he is inheriting is very different from his father’s and grandmother’s party. People around him will urge him to restore the party to its former glory. There will be temptation to set his sights too high, to chase too many things at once. While these may be laudable goals in the long run, in the short term, he has to set the bar low and ensure that he meets modest targets. The Congress in its present shape and form bears little resemblance to the party that led the freedom movement and ruled India for the first 50 years after Independence. The party lacks the organisational strength, the depth in leadership and the clarity of vision which characterised it in its heyday. The power brokers his father Rajiv Gandhi spoke about when he assumed command of the party and the government, after his mother’s death, still loom large in the party. These weaknesses have been further compounded by the rather average performance of the Manmohan Singh government in the past few years.
It is true that together with his mother, Rahul Gandhi today enjoys unparalleled authority within the party — perhaps, greater than that exercised by any other leader since 1984, when the Congress won 400-plus seats in Parliament. There is, however, little doubt that the overdependence on the family has resulted in the party withering away from within. It has weakened its capacity to develop organisational cohesion. The practices and tendencies that have led to the party’s atrophy persist because the dynasty has become central to the party’s system. Infighting and factionalism rampant in Congress organisations at regional, state and district levels make it necessary for the party to treat dynasty as neutral arbiter to keep peace.
Ironically, though the dynasty has temporarily arrested fractionalisation of the Congress that started after the fall of the last Congress government led by P V Narasmiha Rao, the emergence of the dynasty has also discouraged emergence of second-tier leadership capable of mounting effective state-wide mobilisations in crucial states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Gujarat and Karnataka. The so-called ‘Baba brigade’ of Rahul Gandhi merely comprises those whose rise is itself related to their family connections. Once politics becomes a family business, it leads to the party’s further alienation from the people.
In such a situation, the institutions of decision-making within the party such as Congress Working Committee (CWC), the All India Congress Committee (AICC) and the Pradesh Congress Committees (PCCs) are reduced to the level of tools for rubber-stamping the first family’s decisions. The absence of intra-party democracy and leadership competitions at different levels allows power-brokers and rootless leaders hold sway and deny grassroot Congress workers to decide who among them is best suited to lead them at various levels of the polity. It also discourages new faces and ideas and dampens substantive policy discussions necessary to invigorate and rejuvenate any political party.
For the Congress to reinvent itself, the party does not need a change at the top but a bottom-up organisational restructuring. There is no sign that either Sonia or her son has the necessary political will and capacity to bring about this transformation.
These organisational challenges are daunting enough, but the choice that Rahul Gandhi will have to make immediately after he takes up the ‘bigger role’ is reconfiguring the Congress’ role in the current era of coalition politics. His immediate challenge is ensure that the UPA returns to power in the next general elections. The romantics might say that winning and losing elections are part of a politician’s life, but a defeat in 2014 will weaken both him and his family’s hold over the party.
His recent forays in electoral politics must have convinced Rahul Gandhi that the ‘let’s go on our own to strengthen the party’ approach will not work anymore. The Congress was traditionally a network of alliances, which once upon a time could accommodate the aspiration of all its constituents. Those days are long gone. Mulayam Singh or Mayawati has to be pursued. Mamata Banerjee or the Left has to be won back. Naveen Patnaik and Nitish Kumar may have to be tapped.
Painting the principal opposition party in Parliament, the Bharatiya Janata Party black — as Rahul, and Sonia sought to do on Sunday’s mega rally — will not help the Congress resolve this dilemma either. Except in central Indian states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and small hill states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, the Congress faces intense political competition by regional parties in most parts of the country. It has to choose whether it wishes to cling to his perennial desire to regain its lost paradise on a pan-Indian basis or adopt a more pragmatic approach towards tactical alliances with these parties to win the elections that can take place any time after the results of the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections. The Congress today stands at crossroads. A wrong choice could set it on down the hill roll.
Yogesh Vajpeyi is Consulting Editor, The New Indian Express.