DURING the first two decades or so after independence, the Congress party had a reasonably strong organisation in nearly all of India’s states. It was not a ‘cadre-based’ organisation, but it had plenty of substance as an institution. In most parts of the country, its influence penetrated downward quite effectively, at least to the sub-district level and sometimes further.
This was possible in part because, as the governing party, it commanded massive state resources. But it usually also had the logistical capacity to oversee the delivery of goods, services and funds fairly efficiently to a broad enough array of social groups to ensure re-election. It was also a formidable instrument for the performance of several other key tasks – three of which were especially important. It could gather and transmit upward accurate information (political intelligence) from lower levels in the system. It could represent the views of important social groups. And it could arrange political bargains with and between those groups.
From 1970 onward, however, the party’s organisation underwent severe decline. This began with the abandonment of intra-party democracy which was crucial to its ability to perform these vital tasks. Power was then radically centralised by the Congress national leadership. And before long, a systematic assault was mounted from the apex of the party on its institutional substance. Factional conflicts were encouraged – and indeed institutionalised – within state-level units of the party to prevent challenges to the apex from below. The result, over the last thirty years, has for the most part been a weak, strife-torn organisation.
At various points since the late 1980s, national leaders of the Congress have signalled their awareness of this and of the need for organisational revival, usually by way of a re-democratisation of the party.
Rajiv Gandhi told the All India Congress Committee (AICC) centenary session in 1985 that ‘the revitalisation of our party organisation is a historical necessity.’ But as A.G. Noorani has documented, party elections to serve that process were then announced and postponed on at least five occasions, and it proved impossible to hold them in his lifetime.1 Later, P.V. Narasimha Rao during his premiership, actually held an organisational election. He knew that the process in such a faction-ridden party would be immensely untidy – especially the first time that it happened. And so it proved, with an embarrassing number of irregularities, squabbles, and indeed violent (even murderous) clashes between factions across the country.
There was even a case of Congressman biting Congressman. But Narasimha Rao reckoned that if elections could be held regularly, over time they would weed out unpromising and unproductive elements so that the party would cease to be ‘like a railway platform’ where ‘anyone can come and go as he likes.’2 But such was the chaos during and the fallout after that election that he drew back from holding further rounds of elections every two years – as he had initially intended.
Sonia Gandhi’s organisational work within the party has so far mainly focused on higher levels – through initiatives and adjustments within the AICC and the Working Committee. But the recent meeting of block-level officials of the party summoned by her suggests that a desire for deeper organisation building survives at the apex of the Congress. This is an important priority, but major impediments stand in the way.
Conversations over the last 18 months with Congress activists in Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, and with well-informed observers of the party in Delhi and Karnataka, reveal deep pessimism about this. Their views are summed up by a comment from one observer in Karnataka: ‘It can’t happen. If they try it, they will unleash chaos. Vendettas will come into play. You will see more squabbles, more violence – maybe even more biting!’
This means that Congress must rely on five other things to keep power where it now holds it and to gain power where it does not:
* popular discontent with incumbent governments (state and national) headed by other parties – which may not be sufficiently intense;
* popular excitement with Congress leaders and their campaign themes – which may not be sufficiently potent;
* campaign funds mainly raised from states where Congress is in power – which will not match the funds available to an alliance that holds power at the Centre;
* pre- and post-poll alliances with other parties – which Congress is less well-placed than the BJP to forge, and less inclined to seek; and
* the developmental records of its state governments – which are strong only some of the time.
If this is all that Congress can rely upon, if it cannot achieve much organisation building, then its future is unpromising. But is party building really impossible? Perhaps not. There is hard evidence from the state level to indicate that it is indeed feasible to strengthen the Congress organisation. Let us briefly consider just two examples.
In Andhra Pradesh during the late 1980s, the Congress was in opposition after a second successive, crushing defeat at the hands of the Telugu Desam Party then led by N.T. Rama Rao. The leadership of the state unit of the Congress fell to M. Chenna Reddy. He identified certain state government policies that were widely unpopular and persuaded Congress activists to undertake large-scale non-violent protests which – as he anticipated – led to the imprisonment of many of them.
When they were released, he ensured that many courted arrest yet again. As he expected and intended, the hardships that Congressmen faced while in custody burned away many of the petty jealousies that afflicted what was one of the most faction-ridden state units of the party. In adopting this strategy, the model that he had in mind was – obviously – the freedom struggle where Gandhi had used satyagraha to forge unity within the Congress. The result was a relatively united party at the state election of 1989, which gave Congress 51% of the vote – a figure surpassed there only in 1972 – and a thumping majority of seats.
In Karnataka in the mid-1990s, Congress also found itself in opposition, this time to the Janata Dal. It had performed so badly at the 1994 state election that some observers considered it dead and buried. But two comparatively young Congress leaders from different social backgrounds – Dharam Singh and Mallikarjuna Kharge – worked patiently to massage the egos of various faction leaders from across the state in order to build unity among them. Both of them constantly emphasised that they were not seeking to become chief minister. When S.M. Krishna was named the president of the Pradesh Congress Committee, he joined in their effort to build the organisation and similarly set the issue of the next chief minister aside.
Then, long before the 1999 election campaign, these three men put all of the state’s important Congress leaders into a bus and took them en masse to public meetings in every important centre in Karnataka – providing a visible demonstration of the unity of the party. This persuaded Congress activists in the various districts to play down factional quarrels and work in relative harmony. The result of that, and of the unpopularity of the Janata Dal government, was a solid victory in 1999.3
The unity forged by Chenna Reddy did not last. Resentments and conflicts within the party and within society in Andhra Pradesh were too severe to remain bottled up for long – and Reddy paid too little attention to maintaining consensus within the Congress once he took power. But in Karnataka, considerable harmony within the party has survived – partly because Krishna has attended to it in his reassuringly quiet way, and partly because tensions within society and party in that state are more manageable than in Andhra Pradesh.
Congress (and other parties) in Karnataka have also done more to exploit the opportunities that panchayati raj offers, to draw promising reinforcements from among elected members of those bodies into key posts in the organisation. In one of the state’s districts, six of the seven MLAs and the MP are former panchayat members.
Organisation building is thus possible within the Congress party – even in states like Andhra Pradesh where factionalism is a severe problem. But there is an oddity here that demands our attention, especially at a time when the Congress holds power in so many states. It appears to be far easier to revive the organisation when the party is in opposition than when it is in power.
Where the Congress rules, many chief ministers hesitate to attempt organisation building for two main reasons. First, since a ruling party has control of abundant ‘loaves and fishes’, leaders fear that party building is more likely to trigger factional strife over spoils than when the Congress is in opposition and has little to distribute. Second, sitting chief ministers worry that efforts at organisational renewal will make them seem too ambitious and powerful, so that they risk interventions by the high command.
They badly need a clear signal from atop the Congress to encourage organisation building. There is a systemic need in the party, in which factional strife has been so deeply institutionalised at the state level, for an ultimate arbiter at the apex to resolve intractable issues, and to indicate new directions. If Sonia Gandhi were to appeal for organisational revival, and then to show that state-level leaders who complied would not be penalised, we would see results in many states.
The recent conference of block-level party workers can be seen as a beginning. But more is required, and state-level Congress leaders have been getting mixed signals from the high command. Sonia Gandhi’s initial backing for A.K. Antony in a dispute with the Karunakaran faction in Kerala suggested that chief ministers would be supported, even if they pressed ahead with organisation building. But more recent reassuring noises from party leaders to the Karunakaran group have somewhat diluted the message.
Some other Congress chief ministers have been left alone, but Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan has been forced to accept unwanted ministers in his cabinet, and in Maharashtra the chief minister was changed. There were good reasons for that latter decision, but the messages from the high command have still been ambiguous.
If encouragement from the apex of the party were conveyed more forcefully, we might see greater effort by incumbent Congress leaders in the states to revive the organisation. The resources available to a ruling party might then become an advantage to party builders, as they were in the Congress heyday, rather than a disincentive. But this may be asking too much.
1. A.G. Noorani, ‘Elections in the Congress-I’, in Indian Affairs: The Political Dimension. Konark, New Delhi, 1990, pp. 155-59.
2. Interview, New Delhi, 11 February 1992. Myron Weiner had made very similar arguments to this writer in the mid-1980s.
3. I am grateful to E. Raghavan for a detailed account of this process.