Rahul Gandhi reposes faith in old hands for poll committees as Congress seeks to reverse fortunes in state elections

The Congress party has set up three committees to get its electoral challenge off the ground, first in three states – Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan –a couple of months from now, and then, in just under a year, for the parliamentary elections and concurrent Assembly elections in five states, including Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Telangana.

The dilatory and slothful character of India’s version of the grand old party has been ruthlessly exposed over the past four-odd years. In practically every campaign, beginning with the one for the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the Congress has been shown up by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which, under the stewardship of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, has fine-tuned the art of electioneering. It has done this by welding Modi’s charismatic appeal and relentless oratorical skill with Shah’s industry, attention to detail and skill in putting together social alliances. That, in the process, it has often subverted institutions and established convention is another matter.

In contrast, the Congress party’s approach has been lackadaisical, sometimes almost shambolic, and has exposed its organisational disarray and the severe attenuation of its authority structure and transmission lines. In this context, the move to institute the three committees – a core committee, a manifesto committee and a publicity oversight panel – appears to be a step forward. Unfortunately, the members of the committees and the context raise important questions.

Firstly, there is the issue of flab in the All India Congress Committee (AICC). Its list of general secretaries, secretaries and other office-bearers is huge. Secondly, this has to be seen in the light of statements made by party president Rahul Gandhi in London, where he said his party had lost the 2014 Lok Sabha elections because of an ‘internal fight’ between ‘the older generation and the younger generation’. His solution was the present had to be a ‘merger of the past and the future’.

Rahul Gandhi at a recent Congress Working Committee meeting. Twitter/@RahulGandhi

Rahul Gandhi at a recent Congress Working Committee meeting. Twitter/@RahulGandhi

On the face of it, this is an unexceptionable, even uncommonly candid, assessment. But the size of the AICC list, does not point at a ‘merger’ that can create a nimbler party, capable of arriving at solutions faster and more realistically. On the contrary, it suggests that Gandhi is not yet prepared to take the kind of hard decisions that he has hinted at over the past year or so.

The way the new committees have been constituted sends out a different message. The most important of these, a ‘core’ committee, is composed mostly of the ‘old guard’ – AK Antony, Ghulam Nabi Azad, P Chidambaram, Ashok Gehlot, Mallikarjun Kharge, Ahmed Patel and KC Venugopal. Only Jairam Ramesh and Randeep Surjewala can be counted as fresh faces at this decision-making level.

In other words, Gandhi has signalled that faced with key electoral challenges, he would rather have wise heads and safe hands in charge, which is not necessarily a retrograde decision. Youthfulness and energy are important qualities, but in political management they don’t trump everything else. Impetuosity is certainly not an element you’d like to have in the mix.

The manifesto committee, with 19 members, is a mix of older leaders and those possibly more in sync with Gandhi’s stated positions. Chidambaram, Bhupendra Singh Hooda, Salman Khurshid, Sam Pitroda and Kumari Selja are politically from the older generation, whilst Manpreet Badal, Sushmita Dev, Sachin Pilot, Ramesh and Shashi Tharoor represent the ‘rising’ generation. (It is important to note that it is not likely that when Gandhi talked about a generational clash, he was talking about biological age.) Most of the other members are fringe players, who seem to have been given the chance to step up to the plate.

The third committee, comprising 13 members, has been set up to manage publicity and media affairs. This one, too, is a mix: Bhakta Charan Das, Manish Tiwari, Pramod Tiwari and Anand Sharma being balanced out by Ramesh, Divya Spandana (till recently head of the party’s digital media cell), Jaiveer Shergill, veteran journalist Kumar Ketkar, now a Rajya Sabha member, and Praveen Chakravarty, the head of the party’s data analytics department.

The inescapable conclusion is that in undertaking this exercise, Gandhi has tipped the scales in favour of the older generation. But what matters, in the short run at least, is not age or generation. Gandhi knows that since 2014, when his party was buried in an electoral avalanche, its successes have been few. He must start turning the tide now – that is, he must win at least two of the states going to the polls this year, preferably all three, if his party wants to pose a credible challenge to the BJP in next year’s Lok Sabha elections. If the older generation is in a better position to deliver, it should be in control.

At the same time, Gandhi has to look to the future. And that is not just a matter of biological age either. Systems have to be streamlined and organisational elections have to be held at every level to begin the process of allowing voices from below to make themselves heard. To hold organisational elections that are substantive, the Congress party has to initiate a mass-contact programme and a credible enrolment drive.

Alongside, and this is crucial, Gandhi must stamp some kind of authority on the party: the best way to do this would be to act swiftly to stamp out factionalism in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. That can be done only if, in turn, Gandhi defines the hierarchy unambiguously and disentangles the transmission lines. The battles in these states are not unwinnable.

Rahul Gandhi showed clarity in his speeches and meetings in Hamburg and London. He has remained on the front foot, lucidly reiterating his comparison between the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and the Muslim Brotherhood, while delivering some well-directed jabs at the prime minister and the government his party runs, particularly with regard to the former’s reluctance to face media scrutiny and the latter’s unremitting war on institutions.

Gandhi must not lose clarity and focus when he is back in the country in the thick of the contest. It’s one thing to be impressively lucid abroad, speaking to largely non-partisan audiences that are open to being convinced. It’s a completely different matter to face hostile or indifferent constituencies at home with the smell of cordite in the air, while also trying to manage the contradictions that are inescapably intrinsic to a party as large as the Indian National Congress.

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Updated Date: Aug 27, 2018 20:01:14 IST

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