Debating India

CONGRESS

Mass leadership and backroom politics

Saturday 8 April 2006, by SUBRAHMANIAM*Vidya

The Congress will do well to look at the BJP, which has begun to experience the consequences of ignoring its mass leaders.

SONIA GANDHI has a feel for mass politics that contrasts with the sharp, abrupt manner of her public persona. It contrasts also with her choice of Congress assistants - men and women most comfortable in backroom politics. In Parliament and at seminars, the Congress chief is a stiff, stilted reader of speeches. Chased by television cameras, she cannot wait to run away. At party conclaves and alliance meetings, she is less formal but only just so. Ms. Gandhi rarely displays emotion - not even when breast-beating Congress hordes stampede at her doorstep in obsequious solidarity.

Yet put her on the dusty tracks of India’s countryside and she blossoms. Sari pallu draped over the head and tucked into the waist Indira Gandhi-style, she fumes at the injustice done to her, vowing to get back at those for whom there is only one enemy: Sonia Gandhi. The Italian bahu draws crowds like a magnet, and in turn, she romances them, relating to them in a way she does not with the power elite of India’s capital. The answer to the guile of Delhi evidently lies in going to the guileless, connecting directly, instinctively - over her party and her opponents.

Eight years into the roller-coaster world of Indian politics, Ms. Gandhi has transformed - from the tentative, reluctant novice burdened with the care of a disintegrating party to a seasoned politician adept at pulling off surprises. Yet the Gandhi mystique remains intact. To admirers, and they are today legion, the Congress chief is the epitome of grace and dignity, quite the opposite of the greedy, sleazy caricature politician. To critics, she is the incorrigible foreign woman who rules India by proxy, a disquieting reminder both of India’s colonial past, and of the power and pull of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Those in the know - that is a mere handful - will reveal nothing; in not telling lies their own power. But their silences only deepen the suspense around life at 10 Janpath. Those not in the know - that is almost everyone - have to conjecture and deduce. The well disposed will give Ms. Gandhi the benefit of the doubt. Having obliterated her Italian connection, and reached the pinnacle of glory in her adopted country, she cannot have wanted the past revisiting her in the embarrassing and avoidable form of Ottavio Quattrocchi. Similarly, having spurned prime ministerial office, she cannot have asked to keep a possible office of profit via a hasty ordinance. For enemies, of course, everything she does is by design. Either way, questions remain. Who did arrange for the flight of funds from Mr. Quattrocchi’s London accounts? Whose idea was the office of profit ordinance that forced the Congress chief to give up her Lok Sabha seat and chairpersonship of the National Advisory Council? If, as always, she has been made to pay for the follies of her blundering aides, why does she so easily suffer them?

The same guessing games are on at 24 Akbar Road, party headquarters and the supposed hub of Congress activity. For journalists hunting in packs for stories, information is hard to come by; so they look for signals. Meanings are read into promotions and demotions of office-bearers, into the whys and wherefores of Cabinet expansions and who has and who has not made it to the Rajya Sabha. Just who forms the inner circle is an ongoing debate. A party favourite who has been shifted to Government is presumed to have lost favour. Another has retained an all-important post, which is seen as a thumbs-up from the High Command. The smallest gestures are interpreted. None of this can reduce the information gap, which is a curse as much for party spokespersons judging by their daily struggle to spin out credible stories. The reluctance to part with facts reinforces the impression that there is something to hide, and the worst is inevitably assumed - about the Quattrocchi funds, about the ordinance misadventure, about the Naveen Chawla controversy.

The disconnect between the party chief and the party apparatus springs in part from Ms. Gandhi’s style of functioning - aloof, distant, unwilling to be hands on, and choosing to communicate only with the most trusted loyalist. If this `palace style’ operation spawns intrigue and manipulation, it is made worse by the fact that the Congress list of office-bearers is made up almost wholly of backroom specialists. Ms. Gandhi’s USP is her mass appeal. She works hard and wins elections. Yet winners of elections are rare among her chosen aides. The Congress Working Committee is the party’s highest decision-making body. Of its 19 members, only one is a Lok Sabha MP. Of the rest, 13 are Rajya Sabha MPs (among them, Shivraj Patil who made a backdoor entry after losing the 2004 election), two lost the 2004 Lok Sabha election, one lost the 2003 Madhya Pradesh Assembly election, and two others are former Chief Ministers. It is fitting then that they should have made it to the body as nominated, not elected, members.

It is the same story with the office-bearers. Party treasurer Motilal Vora and political secretary Ahmed Patel are Rajya Sabha MPs. Of the seven party general secretaries, three are Rajya Sabha MPs, two lost the 2004 Lok Sabha election, and two are former Chief Ministers. Of the five who hold independent charge, two are Rajya Sabha MPs while the other three lost the 2004 general election. Two Lok Sabha MPs and five MLAs figure among the 32 secretaries. The rest are election losers and present and past Rajya Sabha members.

The outsider

It is not just that the decision makers are men and women cut off from mass politics. The accent is increasingly on a certain kind of politician, resentfully referred to in party circles as "the outsider." The secret of the outsiders’ success is the clout they wield across party lines and the friends they have in business and society. Naturally this is resented by the cadre; there were audible murmurs about defectors and power brokers when the Congress released its list of nominees for the recent biennial polls to the upper house. The trend was noticed in the expansion of the Union Cabinet, which saw Ministers of proven merit yielding place to newcomers acknowledged for their networking skills. The usefulness of the Rajya Sabha can be seen in the composition of the Union Council of Ministers. Of its 79 members, 23 belong to the upper house. Of this 23, 20 are from the Congress.

The backdoor accommodation of power brokers has been made easy by the removal of the domicile qualification for the Rajya Sabha. Just what effect this will have on the upper chamber, conceived as a debating, deliberating house, an intellectual counterpoint to the populist lower house, was underlined recently by Fali Nariman, who argued in the Supreme Court that the decision had "... opened the floodgates to big money bag owners and power brokers [who] descend upon the small people of the state and get elected."

This is not to question the credentials of the upper house as a whole. The Lok Sabha cannot be the only talent pool from which governments and parties draw their resource persons. The Prime Minister, a scholar of international eminence, is from the Rajya Sabha. Yet in another era, he would have felt compelled to contest for the Lok Sabha. P.V. Narasimha Rao, who returned from the wilderness to become Prime Minister, soon contested and won an election.

The Congress would do well to look at the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has begun to face the consequences of ignoring its mass leaders. It started with the marginalisation of Kalyan Singh, once a proven vote getter but now a shadow of himself. Uma Bharti, similarly treated, has left to start her own party - and to much enthusiasm going by the crowds at her public meetings. Her message is simple but effective: The BJP has been taken over by rootless political managers. It is a refrain that finds ready echo in the audience. At her recent rally in Delhi, it was as if participants, whether from Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh or Haryana, had been tutored in one classroom: "Uma didi is a zameeni neta [mass leader] whereas the BJP is full of `Rajya Sabha MPs,’ `political managers’ and `power brokers’." Even if Ms. Bharti abandons her project midway, she will have started a movement that is bound to influence the way parties treat their mass leaders.

The Congress has big hopes for Uttar Pradesh. But this will remain a pipedream unless the charge is given to mass leaders - and not Rajya Sabha MPs directing the campaign from 24 Akbar Road.

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