To democratise a Congress brought up on dynasty is difficult because the mere presence of Rahul Gandhi is enough to encourage sycophancy

At the All India Congress Committee (AICC) session in Delhi on January 17, Rahul Gandhi, the Congress’s election campaign chief, demonstrated his capacity to speak cogently about his motivations and plans, while taking the party’s competitors head-on. But precisely 10 days later, his 80-minute long interview with Times Now virtually undid what he had achieved: he fluffed answers to questions that he should have expected — on the comparisons between the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and the anti-Muslim carnage of 2002, and on corruption that, together, incidentally, occupied roughly 40 per cent of the interview.

Mr. Gandhi’s vain efforts to stay on message — to talk about his efforts to democratise the system, and allow more voices to be heard — rather than get drawn into a conversation on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate failed. Unlike the speech he gave at the AICC session, where he was able to control the narrative, faced with questions from a skilled interviewer, he floundered.

So even as the Congress’s media managers sought to do damage control, elaborating on what Mr. Gandhi should have said, a young Congress activist — who had attended the AICC session — told The Hindu sadly, “If Rahulji had participated in more debates in Parliament, and interacted regularly with the media, he would have known how to answer questions.” The only point on which Mr. Gandhi scored over his principal political rival is that he — as party general secretary Digvijaya Singh said — stood his ground, neither expressing annoyance or walking out as Mr. Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate has done on more than one occasion.

But in making himself accessible, in demonstrating that he was open to questions, in stressing that power by itself held no attractions for him, and that the collective was more important than the individual — all democratic traits — he rendered himself vulnerable.

Winds of change

At the AICC session, he said the United Progressive Alliance government had “deepened” democracy through rights-based laws, its landmark Right to Information arming citizens to question the functioning of government. The citizen had to be empowered, he said, but not by destroying democratic institutions like Parliament. “Democracy,” he reminded his listeners, “is not rule by diktat. It is not rule by one man. It is rule through empowered elected representatives.”

He had also acknowledged — without referring to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) — that the Congress had no option but to address the demands of an aspirational citizenry: “The imperative before us, is not whether to change,” he said, stressing, “but when and how to change.”

On January 18, as Mr. Gandhi met party delegates, Statewise, many noticed a change: “What was new,” a delegate from Uttar Pradesh told The Hindu, “was that he wanted to hear what we had to say: I have met him many times but I must say his attitude was far more positive than it has ever been in the past.”

But this delegate, like many others I spoke to, said the hope was that Mr. Gandhi would be able to “sustain” the momentum generated by the AICC session, and actually implement, for instance, fairer selection methods when it came to choosing functionaries or giving party tickets, and push the generational change visible that day. “The problem is, most decisions are still taken behind closed doors, the selection committees for the elections still have, by and large, the same people. When will the doors open?” asked a delegate from Madhya Pradesh. No one can fault either the passion or the content of Mr. Gandhi’s speech at the AICC session, but the party faithful are still waiting for its future leader to translate his ideas into action.

In his first five years, i.e. till 2009, the spotlight was on Ms Gandhi who had achieved sainthood after rejecting the prime ministership in 2004. But after 2009, the focus shifted to him. He demonstrated his interest in issues — in the tribals versus development question, in the problems of land acquisition. Now, more recently, he has set in motion the revival of the party’s SC department with the objective of identifying Dalit leaders from the block to the State-level, and helping Dalits access social welfare schemes. While it would be premature to comment on this latest venture, in the case of the first two, he was unable to sustain either the momentum or leverage them for electoral gains.

If he has worked consistently on any issue, it is in trying to put systems into place, selecting poll candidates through a fairer process, and democratising the party through internal elections, starting with the Youth Congress. The going has been tough, as there is resistance to being organised; as for elections, the results have been mixed — certainly some new faces have emerged, but money power has ensured that entrenched elements have also managed to win elections. Party workers continue to complain that very few can get past a tight circle of advisers, while debunking his “scientific” method of choosing potential youth leaders through examinations.

Clearly, democratising the Congress is an uphill task, harder in a party where dynasty is still paramount. Mr. Gandhi is acutely aware of this paradox.

In 2012, when I asked him whether he was aware of the contradiction between being a member of a political dynasty and his efforts to democratise the Congress, he responded: “I agree it’s a paradox. But I have got this opportunity. I could say I don’t want it. I’m saying I want to work for this country, let me try to steer it in a positive direction.”

But more recently, at an informal interaction, he was not quite as conciliatory when posed the same question: instead, he pointed out that there were many other political dynasties flourishing in the country: from the Badals in Punjab, to the Yadavs in Uttar Pradesh to the Thackerays in Maharashtra, something he repeated in the Times Now interview.

To democratise a Congress brought up on dynasty is difficult because Rahul Gandhi’s mere presence is enough to encourage sycophancy, as is evident at every party event. But can the Congress, given its history and culture, choose anyone — for the moment at least — other than Rahul Gandhi to be the face of its future?

There may be murmurs of discontent at the top of the food chain, but at the level of the delegates who filled the Talkatora Stadium on January 17 there seemed to be unanimity that the Nehru-Gandhi family held the party together and, currently, there was no leader outside it who had the same kind of pan-India appeal. “The really successful rajas in the past,” a delegate from a Hindi heartland State said, “wielded absolute power, while creating a democratic system below. That is what Rahul Gandhi has to do.”

Checking the drift

It is not that the Congress had not anticipated the negative impact of corruption or of the changing aspirations of an emergent middle class. In December 2010, at the party’s plenary session in Burari, Ms Gandhi had set in motion the battle against corruption, resulting in a flurry of laws and the removal of discretionary powers in Congress-ruled States. In January 2013, at the chintan shivir in Jaipur, she said the Congress could not allow the “growing educated and middle-classes to be disillusioned and alienated from the political process.”

But the Congress has failed to address these changes partly because there is hardly any sustained discussion or putting together of heads in a formal forum on key issues relating to the economy, foreign policy, development, and reasons for growing social unrest. The Congress Working Committee seldom meets and the little discussion that takes place is in the informal core group that deals with emergent problems. The Congress is now a party where general secretaries and ministers themselves scramble for information, where intrigue replaced any world view as ideology a long time ago, and ginger groups are a thing of the hoary past.

As senior Congress leaders, a majority wearing the party’s traditional Gandhi topi, walked in to attend the AICC session on January 17, a collective gasp had gone up in the media stands at Talkatora stadium. It should not have been an unexpected spectacle as the starched white khadi cap is customarily worn at formal party occasions.

But with that familiar cap — embellished with the slogan “Main hoon aam aadmi” — now a common sight on the streets of Delhi with the AAP in power in the national capital, the vision of Congressmen donning the once evocative symbol of the freedom struggle sent out a new message: it was time for the country’s oldest party to reclaim the ground it had lost to its competitors.

But can an organisation currently bearing the brunt of peoples’ disenchantment with the traditional political class and the burden of a decade-old corruption-scarred government, achieve that? If the AAP has jogged the Congress out of its complacency, the question is: can Mr. Gandhi retrieve the Gandhi topi and win back the affections of the aam aadmi?

smita.g@thehindu.co.in

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