Two Principles the Congress Party Needs to Reinvent Itself
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Two Principles the Congress Party Needs to Reinvent Itself
Rahul Gandhi can either walk away, or do the tougher job of staying to ensure the party becomes more democratic.
The Congress party’s poor performance once again in the 2019 national elections, particularly Rahul Gandhi’s defeat in his home turf of Amethi, has thrown India’s grand old party into a deeper existential crisis. Gandhi’s decision to step downfrom the party presidentship, the refusal by the Congress Working Committee and other leaders to accept it and the subsequent silence on the issue, has created more confusion.
While dynasties exist in all parties including the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress is viewed as a ‘family enterprise’ in which the fifth generation is controlling the party. The BJP used this argument effectively in the electoral campaign, and it worked against the party, particularly among the younger generation unfamiliar with the history and legacy of the Nehru-Gandhi family.
Hence, a central question facing the Congress today is whether it can survive without a Nehru-Gandhi family member, which the party has long believed is the glue that holds it together.
Much has written about the failure of the Congress party to put forward a coherent and effective ideology and programme before the electorate. But little attention has been paid to the urgent need for the party to reinvent itself organisationally in order to survive. This will require a transition from a purely family enterprise to a modern democratic party – with or without the Gandhi’s.
This step is long overdue. Following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the party could have created a new organisational structure that subsumed both dynasty and party, thereby reforming its organisation based on the twin principles of diffusion of power at the top and re-federalisation of authority going down to the local level. However, the party preferred to make no changes and keep a member of the dynasty at the top. Neither did Rajiv Gandhi take any step to introduce change.
Diffusion of power at the top
Today, the party could gradually move from a family enterprise to a democratic party if the CWC, which is the executive committee of the party, were to have both members of the family and other senior leaders in positions of authority, one of the latter being the Congress president. It would remove the High Command or the remote control which has been in the hands of a member of the family.
This arrangement would enable the party to make use of both the family name and allow diffusion of power to other leaders through a mechanism of collective leadership. It could also break the habitual sycophancy and unquestioning authority of the family over the party. It would require removal from the CWC of much of the “dead wood” – leaders who no longer command respect in the party and have proved incapable of winning elections.
The CWC has had different levels of power in the party at different times. Under Jawaharlal Nehru, it was a democratic body with strong leaders who often disagreed with him. After 1967, when the Congress party split between factions loyal to Indira Gandhi and the Syndicate, the power of the CWC declined. But Indira Gandhi’s triumph in 1971 led to the centralisation of power away from the states and the All India Congress Committee, and caused the High Command to become the paramount decision-making body of the party.
This needs to be reversed by changing the composition of the CWC and its relationship with organisational levels below it.
Re-federalisation of authority
A second challenge facing the party is the re-federalisation of the Congress party, which in the immediate post-colonial period had clear lines of communication between the bottom and the top. Elections were held for the Pradesh Congress Committee and lower levels, and the party had a strong ‘machine character’ capable of winning elections.
Indira Gandhi during the Emergency destroyed this structure through centralisation and personalisation of power in the prime minister’s hands over all party and governmental organisations such as the parliamentary board, CWC and central cabinet, creating by the mid-1970s a “pyramidal decision-making structure” in the party and government.
This led to changes whose effect is visible even today.
First, the breakdown of the federal structure with the abandonment of the principle of representation; after 1972, Congress committees and party offices were filled by appointment rather than by election. In Uttar Pradesh, a key state for the Congress, after 1977 there were no elections to the party’s 8,000 cooperative societies which formed an essential link to local constituencies.
The local party organisations largely went out of existence when the Congress lost the 1977 election and did not reappear; the party “atrophied’. The Youth Congress under the leadership of Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay Gandhi became a trusted “caucus” – a militant cadre-based organisation taking over many of the functions of the regular Congress organisation with a strong base in the major cities.
Indira, by centralising all power in her hands systematically throughout the 1970s/early 1980s, removed all potential leaders within the party who could have been considered after her death. Her projection of her own sons transformed the party into a dynastic organisation controlled by a single family.
Rahul has attempted since the early 2000s to revive the principle of election at every level, visible in the electoral success in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, but progress has been slow as party members have become used to patronage and faction building, rather than elections.
Second, the party today has hardly any state-level leaders with independent bases of political power who can manage their states and win elections. In the immediate post-independence period, strong state chief ministers such as Kamaraj, B.C. Roy and Y.B. Chavan were the mainstay of the party. Indira’s constant intervention and change of leadership in the states led to decay of the Congress machine.
In recent decades, the party has performed well only in states where state-level leaders were allowed to emerge: Sheila Dixit in Delhi, Digvijaya Singh in MP and Amarinder Singh in Punjab. Where younger leaders have emerged, they were not encouraged during United Progressive Alliance rule as they were seen as Rahul’s competitors, and even today they have not been given leadership positions. Good examples are Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh or Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan.
The Congress clearly needs to groom and place in positions of authority a set of younger leaders in the states, who would also constitute a second line of leadership for the centre. The shift of 12 out of 18 Congress MLAs in Telangana to the Telangana Rashtra Samithi can be described as desire for power and posts, but it also points to the disconnect between the central and state level leaders.
In UP, while Priyanka Gandhi maybe a capable leader, her projection at a point of time when the BJP was attacking the Congress as a party of dynasts did not help. Projecting her as the face of the party in UP for the assembly elections, unless it also creates room for other young and capable leaders, may not bring much advantage to the party.
Third, it is at the ground level that the Congress party is in dire need of an organisational structure that can carry its message to the people and mobilise them, particularly during elections. During the national movement, it was a mass party with many factions, a ‘big tent’, but today much greater cadre-based discipline is required.
In the 1960s, the top levels of the party built a patron-client relationship with its lower levels, which has not changed; centralisation in the 1970s and ’80s witnessed dismemberment of the party at the ground level. In UP, the Congress lost its ground workers to the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party once it was out of power for over 30 years.
The contrast with the strong electoral machine of the BJP, particularly the panna pramukhs or booth-level workers, is very obvious. Much greater autonomy and power to state and local level units under credible leaders, respected by those below them, is required. The open warfare in Rajasthan, MP and Haryana among factions following the poor performance of the party and the inability of the top leadership to prevent it, has not improved the party’s image.
In sum, fundamental organisational transformation is required if the Congress party is to survive after the successive defeats it has faced at the hands of the BJP. Rahul has the choice of walking away from the party, leaving it leaderless. Or, he could take up the hard task of changing it from a family enterprise into a modern democratic party.
It will not be easy, much painful surgery will be needed and the transition period might take time. But if these changes are not brought in, India’s GOP may not survive. It would be a great loss for the country. All vibrant democracies require a strong opposition, India particularly needs one today with the rise of authoritarianism and Hindu majoritarianism.
The Congress has in the past reinvented itself, it remains to be seen if it can do so during this perilous crisis.
Sudha Pai, a former Professor of JNU, was the Rector (Pro-Vice Chancellor) from 2011 to 2015.
Mamata’s ‘Jai Hind Vahini’ Swings Into Action, but Can It Take on BJP?
The Jai Hind Vahini was initiated by Banerjee to create a coordinated movement inspired by Bengali pride to challenge the RSS at the grassroots.
Kolkata: It is 10:50 am and a small crowd has gathered on a Wednesday morning inside Harish Park, located on Harish Mukherjee Road in Bhowanipore, South Kolkata. Plastic chairs in rows have been arranged on a footpath situated right after one enters the park. A makeshift stage has been setup at the end of the footpath.
The young boys playing football on the other side of the park are not bothered by the first public function organised by the youth outfit Jai Hind Vahini, founded by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee last week to counter what the Trinamool describes as the ‘atrocities of the BJP’.
The president and the convenor of the Jai Hind Vahini are Kartik Banerjee and Ganesh Banerjee respectively, both Mamata’s brothers. Its chairman is a minister in the West Bengal government, Bratya Basu. It was formed along with Banga Janani Vahini, a women-only outfit to be led by Trinamool MP from Barasat Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar.
How does it plan to counter the inroads that the BJP has made in the state? The idea behind the Jai Hind Vahini is to create a coordinated movement inspired by Bengali pride to challenge the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh at the grassroots. Mamata Banerjee, while ordering her party members to create Jai Hind Vahinis across the state last week in Naihati, said, “Members of these forces will be given uniforms and identity cards. And they will be steeped in the culture of Bangla. They will follow the ideals of Netaji.” She had also added that they all would ‘work in coordination’ and give a ‘proper reply to the activities of the RSS’.
What speaks a thousand words is the banner that has been put up on the makeshift stage. On the right is a photo of Mamata Banerjee with her hands folded. On the left is a smiling Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.
And in between them lie smaller photographs of famous Bengali personalities such as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Swami Vivekananda, Khudiram Bose, Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam.
The only non-Bengalis in the midst are B.R. Ambedkar, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Bhagat Singh. Neither is there a symbol of Trinamool in the banner nor the photograph of Kolkata South MP Mala Roy, who is also a speaker at the event.
Countering the BJP’s politics
There has been a concerted effort by Mamata Banerjee to highlight that the politics of the BJP is against the ethos of what Bengali culture has always stood for. Especially after the statue of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was vandalised amid clashes between Trinamool and BJP supporters which took place during Amit Shah’s roadshow in North Kolkata before the final phase of Lok Sabha elections on May 19.
The BJP made massive inroads in the state of West Bengal by winning 18 of the 42 seats and getting more than 40% of the vote share. However, all the nine constituencies which went to poll following the destruction of the statue of Vidyasagar voted Trinamool, ensuring that they get four more seats than the BJP in West Bengal.
Trinamool’s success in winning the final nine constituencies may or may not have been due to the politicisation of the destruction of Vidyasagar’s statue. However, Mamata Banerjee is continuing with the same strategy of pitting Bengali culture with that of the politics of the BJP.
A few days ago, the profile picture on her official Facebook and Twitter handle were both changed. The new profile consists of photos of both Bengali and non-Bengali Indian respected personalities imprinted on the tricolour, with ‘Joy Hind’ and ‘Joy Bangla’ written at the top and bottom in Bengali respectively. This change happened a few days after she was taunted with chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ by some men in Bhatpara when she was on her to way to Naihati in North 24 Parganas district to attend a public meeting. She got out of her vehicle to confront the ones raising the slogans. The video went viral.
The first meeting
Middle-aged and young workers of Jai Hind Vahini can be seen wearing yellow kurtas and caps which read the name of the newly formed outfit. But why is everyone dressed in yellow? Kartik Banerjee told me after the event, “This is the choice of Rabindranath’s colour in Shantiniketan. Boys and girls students there wear it. We have thought of that colour only.”
The meeting is about to begin and there are some prominent Trinamool politicians on stage now. Former Kolkata Municipal Corporation chairperson Sachidananda Banerjee, current Kolkata South MP Mala Roy, Kartik Banerjee, Ganesh Banerjee and Swapan Banerjee, another brother of Mamata Banerjee.
Around 200 people are present as the 15-odd minute event begins at around 11 pm.
Since the occasion is World Environment Day, all leaders on stage extol the virtues of planting trees, make customary greetings on Eid and speak on the formation of the Jai Hind Vahini.
Explaining why the Jai Hind Vahini has been formed, Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay, minister-in-charge of the Department of Power and Non-Conventional Energy in the West Bengal government, says on stage, “Wherever there will be an attempt to divide, we will make people understand that India is not that country.”
Mala Roy, the current Lok Sabha MP from South Kolkata, gives a short speech as well. She says,”You all know that Jai Hind Vahini has been formed recently to fight. For the people of Bengal, for their fight and their rights. So that humans get back their rights. Their democratic rights.”
However, the dissatisfaction and anger against the widespread 2018 panchayat election violence which allegedly were carried out by many Trinamool workers is believed to have helped the BJP make inroads into the state. The BJP has also been highly belittling of how Mamata Banerjee has responded to slogans of ‘ Jai Shri Ram’ being chanted in her presence.
However, Mamata Banerjee has categorically denied that the BJP is a victim of political violence in West Bengal. She cancelled her decision to attend the oath taking ceremony of Narendra Modi at the last moment after claims by the BJP that scores of BJP workers have been casualties of political violence in West Bengal. On Thursday, she met the family members of Nirmal Kundu, the Trinamool leader from Nimta, North 24 Parganas district who was shot dead on June 5. After meeting them, she said, “They are themselves taking part in murder and telling one-sided media in Delhi that these many of our people have been killed. All lies. I don’t believe in the politics of blood. Not a single person of theirs has been killed in Bengal.”
And Kartik Banerjee is critical of the way the chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ are being used by the BJP and its supporters. He tells me, “See, when someone is saying Jai Shri Ram on stage, then we have nothing to say. A person is going and they are saying, ‘Aye. Jai Shri Ram’… seeing a person and making them angry. Jai Shri Ram is being used differently. That needs to be seen.”
Despite the reservations that Trinamool has of Ram being introduced in West Bengal’s political battlefield and its view that the party’s politics is antithetical to Bengali culture, 40.3% of the electorate in the state did vote for the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Will Jai Hind Vahini will be able to help in reversing the massive gains made by the BJP in the state? Or is it just a balloon waiting to burst during the West Bengal assembly elections expected to be held in 2021?
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