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A party’s need for renewal and three options

Thursday 24 May 2007, by KHARE*Harish

Will its recent electoral debacle in Uttar Pradesh prod the Congress establishment to take a hard look within? As an all-India party, the Congress has an obligation to produce systemic equanimity.

AFTER THE Congress’ unimpressive performance in the recent Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, its spokesperson made bold to say the party would have to reinvent itself. But a few days later party president Sonia Gandhi and her son and heir apparent Rahul Gandhi were both reported to have attributed the disappointing result to "organisational weaknesses." Rather obvious. The question is how does a 122-year-old organisation re-design itself? Let us consider three options.

One, re-design the party as an open and democratic organisation. This means a definite and conscious decision to move away from the present moribund system. The Congress, despite all its democratic trappings, has become a closed shop, with an unfair and undeserved advantage accruing to the practitioners and beneficiaries of the status quo. This was not always so.

Unlike many other political parties, the Congress has the unique advantage of having a provision for an internal election, based on honest and genuine recruitment of members. Its constitution and rules detail a very elaborate, well-defined and time-tested election process, from the block level all the way up to the Congress president.

It was one of Ms. Gandhi’s major decisions in 2000 to constitute a quasi-independent mechanism for internal elections. That decision was hailed as the first positive step towards reform of the party system. That promising initiative was killed slowly by the status quoist party managers in collusion with the state leaders. Perhaps the prospect of a truly open and genuine electoral process was too disquieting for everyone at the top of the Congress hierarchy.

Recruitment, renewal, and enlargement of membership is one of the strategies open to a political party to re-invent itself. A live and dynamic party keeps its doors open for newcomers; in particular it does not advertise itself as out of bounds to the angry and the discontented. A vibrant and growing party is also an instrument of social mobility and group recognition, enticing those who feel excluded or are on the margins to join the democratic high table. If a party does not keep itself consciously open to the new voices and new forces, it courts stagnation and dysfunctionality. Somehow the Congress has managed to achieve precisely this.

The Congress’ signature tune has been its history and its claim to inclusiveness. However, the claim now holds only on paper; technically the party remains open to all, none is barred from joining it, none is actively discriminated against on the identity basis. But in practice the party has increasingly cultivated a massive internal organisational dishonesty: instead of any genuine membership drive, the party leaders in a State bargain and are allocated certain number of districts.

How many districts a "leader" is allotted depends upon the level of comfort between him and the AICC establishment. These "leaders" in turn get the right to nominate their "followers" as "active members" who then determine the roster of the PCC delegates, constituting the core of the membership (and, also constituting the presidential electoral college). The results are often absurd. In Uttar Pradesh, for example, in district after district the Congress is presumed to have enrolled many times more members than the votes it gets in an Assembly election.

This cultivated bogusness suits everyone. Subversion begins at the AICC level, and the name of the game becomes the manipulation of the roster of Pradesh Returning Officer (PRO). And since everybody knows — from the very top to the block level — that the electoral process had become an elaborate charade, no leader is able to command genuine respect, either of the party workers or of the average voter.

This very nature of organisational membership has a debilitating impact — the party activists and leaders come to believe that their leadership claims hinge on their capacity to work and manipulate the patronage and protection network within the party; that their very organisational survival or political prosperity no longer depends on their ability to engage with the larger societal constituency, the only engagement that gives a political activist any kind of acceptability. If the Congress wants to re-invent itself, it will have to find a way of realigning itself with the people of India.

The second option is the renewal of the family matrix. Notwithstanding the disapproval of the proponents of middle class-centric political correctness, the family option is not a totally unhelpful strategy. It has to be assumed that Rahul Gandhi will gradually ease into the leadership slot. The Prime Minister has already designated him the "future."

In a way the family option gives the Congress a significant advantage over other political parties: there is no leadership crisis nor any doubt over the succession (like the one on display in the Bharatiya Janata Party). As and when Ms. Gandhi calls it a day, young Rahul will take over, and should he stumble or want it out, as the Americans say, his sister waits in the wings.

The problem is that the family option is predicated on sustaining the myth of the Nehru-Gandhi name’s Midas touch, a phenomenon that began with Indira Gandhi’s 1971 electoral victory, revived with her return to power in 1980, confirmed with Rajiv Gandhi’s massive 1984 mandate. Since then, admittedly, the spell has been gradually waning but Sonia Gandhi’s `tyaag’ in May 2004 restored the respectability, if not the efficacy, of the mystique.

The family option, unfortunately, can only be renegotiated through the democratic idiom. It will have to be reconstructed in the present context, defined by the fact that (a) the Congress is no longer the omnipotent political force in the country; and, (b) that other forces and players have come to defy and live without the indulgence of the mighty Congress. These other players have come to enjoy their autonomy and see no reason to pay any homage to a declining dynasty.

However, an active pursuit of the family option will need to begin with a realisation that there are obligations that go with the job. The leader has no personal space, no private life. In fact, choices made in private life do have consequences in political arena. Nor is leadership a painless process or a one-way traffic in which the leader indulges in his or her whims and fancies, demanding obedience and consent from the followers without being able to reward them. And in any case, the family option in no way changes the leadership’s job profile: mobilise the troops, raise morale, ignite hope, kindle passion, excite ideas, fire imagination, and create illusions of bonding.

The third option is an organisational choice: function like a normal, modern outfit that converts its history and its organisational spread into an asset. In practical terms, this option means that as the leader, Ms. Gandhi has to overcome her present preference for compromise and accommodation with the old, tired, and defeated "senior leaders" who dominate the Cabinet and the Congress Working Committee. There is very little these faded and fading men can do either for the party or, by way of retaliation, to her; they have not justified all the respect and space she has given them. It is time to bring about a different organisational culture, based on capacity and performance instead of an excessive reliance on age, seniority, and past services.

A geriatric overload is definitely hampering the party’s electoral footwork. It also prevents the party from rediscovering the usefulness of the accountability principle. Nor does it allow an effective taming of egos and overweening ambitions, invariably pursued at the expense of collective goals and objective.

The strategic objective of a modern organisation option should be identification of a group of 20-30-odd men and women, sharing common dreams and visions, producing an infectious chemistry down the line. Sadly, the present Congress lacks even this minimum degree of ideological and personal coherence.

Unfortunately, history teaches that unless confronted by a massive calamity, large organisations do not easily undertake architectural re-designing. Perhaps in the end, the Congress will tinker with a combination of the three options. But in any case, the party cannot escape its obligation to provide equilibrium at the Centre by producing a core of political equanimity, anchored around centrist impulses, a gradualist approach, and a revolutionary vision.

See online : The Hindu

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