The problem

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WHEN Seminar was launched in September 1959, its first issue was called The Party in Power, an exploration of the ruling Congress Party. Much of what was said then, the issues raised and the concerns voiced, remains with us today, though in an aggravated form. Forty three years later Seminar, once again, attempts to assess the same party, The Party in Waiting.

The Indian National Congress led the grassroots movement that mobilized all Indians to fight for independence from colonial British rule. Despite the trauma of Partition, it swept the first democratic elections in free India. Its constituents encompassed the diverse and varied components of the polity and its manifesto made a grand promise that spoke of self sufficiency, empowerment of the under privileged, social equality, religious tolerance, opportunity without discrimination for all, and so on. These issues remain paramount even today, five decades down the road.

Over the years we have witnessed a dilution of this mass party, the abdicated space usurped by the BJP and other sectional and regional parties. By deviating from its basic premise, the Congress lost its voter base, reducing it to a party that can only make headway in some states, not at the Centre. Not only did it cease to rule federal India, its grassroot infrastructure withered away, and its inability to draw in new blood with fresh ideas and solutions isolated it from the new generation voter.

Over half the voting population see the Congress Party as a party of yore, with fuddy duddies being accommodated in an attempt to play the ‘balancing’ act. An absence of youth and a political leadership well into gerontocracy, carrying the baggage and arrogance of the early, heady years of rule, have come together and painted the Congress into a corner. Change and reinvention does not appear to figure in its agenda. It will be a mammoth task, saturated with passion and commitment, to extricate the party from this position.

It is not enough to competently manage the internal functioning through committees and consensus. It is equally imperative to extend the outcome of those deliberations into the public space, constantly engaging the electorate. Honest feedback is something the Congress tends to shy away from. It has been much too used to being at the helm, its leaders inaccessible even though they are in opposition, hostile to the need for regular and ruthless post-mortems of their policies and political actions.

Despite ruling in many states, there has been no attempt to create and establish new political norms, set new standards and break away from the corrupt and archaic functioning of the past. Had the party enforced these basic changes and come down heavily on the corrupt, it would have gained new constituents. Alas, the Congress states continue to be ruled in the same manner, the ministers and babus making life difficult for all who have to deal with government. Here was a chance to rectify the operation that was in its control and push for a better framework at the Centre. But, that was not to be. There seems to be little difference in the ethic or rule of a Congress and non Congress state. Corruption is rampant. Another opportunity lost by the Congress to show its paces and ‘reinvent’ its operation.

The arrogance towards the media remains unabated. Little surprise that the party has been relegated to a small corner on page seven, unmindful of an age where communication is half the battle, and where perceptions matter. Its public relations department needs an overhaul so that it can start afresh with an open and transparent attitude towards the people of India.

That is what it is all about, constantly addressing the people of India through print and the powerful medium of television. Old, has-been faces may be retained in the back room for advice, if required, but they must stay away from the little screen and from press conferences. The traditional standoffish, imperious attitude has to give way to help cultivate a rapport with the people. To nurture a few journalists to toe the ‘line’ is a dead game. Instead, its younger leaders should be out showing their face and the Congress President must lead them in this. The days of playing the shy enigma are over. The party better compete in the public arena.

Alleviation of poverty, health and education, through empowerment of the grassroot workers, both men and women, is critical for rebuilding the mass base. The other side of the coin is to address the new middle classes, their needs and aspirations. Without actively doing both, the party is bound to fall between two stools. To treat the entrepreneurial class with disdain is a death wish; to ignore the aspirations of this fast growing segment will compel these constituents to look for a catalyst in other political formations. If no other comprehensive alternative is provided by the Congress, the middle class will opt for neo-nationalism – the easy option.

Creating the ‘alternative’ is the key, not being second in the race following the agenda set by others to garner support of the majority. Those very same constituents could well shift their political allegiances for a contemporary and original paradigm, one that makes sense in circa 2003. This kind of invigorating stance could swing the vote. Most old timers in the Congress have an aversion to the new generation and their aspirations, driving the young away from the party. Those ‘young’ today make up over 50 per cent of the voters. To scoff at them is suicidal.

To assume its new avatar tinkering will not help. The older Congressmen spend their time playing Iago and are disruptive. This leads to frustration, particularly in the middle rungs of the party. The latter not only have no point of reference, the party does not provide a platform for free, frank, transparent and critical debate. Secret parleys, the norm, only encourage and nurture friction, speculation and dissension. Secrecy should be abandoned and all made accountable, old and young.

There are simple steps which will help. Drop corrupt ministers in Congress ruled states and deny them tickets for the next elections. Corruption affects all, the poorest and the richest. Establish unflinching support for a younger core team. Spell out the task, make them accountable and forbid the Iagos to poison the atmosphere. Once the signal goes out, and examples made, the majority will fall in line. Only in such ways will energy to deliver the goods be restored.

Status quo, balancing acts between the young and old, complacency and arrogance should be hammered out. Experience comes from facing new challenges, from rectifying the mess, from making errors and mistakes, from admitting them and not by depending on the ‘experience’ of the past. That needs to be the maxim. Dialogue with those out in the field, with people of differing opinions, with the farmers and the corporates, with critics and supporters is essential. That is what energises the mind and enthuses workers and functionaries to act.

Access to those responsible is critical. Why should the Congress President not open an office in Lucknow, be in residence there for five days in the month, encourage workers from across the state to meet her, and thereby send out the signal that the party is serious and committed to re-establishing its presence in Uttar Pradesh? If UP is important, the Congress President should be the de facto UPCC chief. This in itself would unnerve the ruling party. The scenario has radically changed and the Congress needs to accept that reality if it is to survive and make a fresh bid for the Centre.

This issue of Seminar attempts to engage in a discussion on what has gone wrong and what needs to be done by India’s oldest political party. How should it reinvent itself? What should it discard? What should it do to represent the contemporary Indian regardless of caste and creed? How can it conquer the inherent problem of caste and communalism? The real question however is, how can it win back the confidence of the alienated voter?