Reform within Congress will only work if Rahul Gandhi corrects mistakes made within the party in the past
Rahul Gandhi made organisational reform within Congress a priority, without specifying what exactly that was supposed to mean.
The Indian National Congress’s 84th plenary was remarkable mostly because, in a sense, it formalised Rahul Gandhi as the president of the party. Some of the initiatives, too, are significant, taken at face value. Let's begin by summing up what he wants to do with the party organisation.
First off, he wants to induct younger people into the top echelons of the party, especially it would appear, the important committees: the Congress Working Committee (CWC), Parliamentary Board and so on. But this is to be done in a manner that will also allow the ‘old guard’ or ‘veterans’ to have a space. They will, it appears implicitly, gradually evolve into advisers, guiding the younger leaders: The generational wall is to be demolished.
Secondly, workers will be accorded better treatment. Rahul Gandhi started out by trying to make this a worker-centric plenary by inviting party cadres to attend, but this attempt did not take off because advisories were issued to state units far too late for them to drum up the workers; in any case, it could be well surmised, that many of those in charge in the states wouldn’t like the idea enough to put their shoulders to the wheel.
Thirdly, the idea that the CWC should be elected, sometimes mooted by Gandhi to bring in members in touch with the ‘masses’, was shouted down. The All-India Congress Committee (AICC) passed a resolution that the party president should nominate the apex body of the party, its executive committee, as it were. Additionally, the party president made organisational reform a priority, without specifying what exactly that was supposed to mean.
Delving briefly into the organisational history of the party post-independence could provide some clues about what exactly all this adds up to. The Congress formed a government at the ‘centre’ and in seven out of 11 provinces under the Government of India Act, 1935, in September 1946 and especially after independence was declared a year or so later. These governments elected on a small franchise continued to govern until proper elections were held under constitutional provisions and assumed office in 1952.
The assumption of office began the process of transforming the Congress from a mass movement struggling for independence from colonial rule into a party and — as became apparent in the course of the years — into ‘the’ ruling party, which won nearly all elections for the central governments and all states, except one defeat in Kerala in 1957, when a CPM-led front won; but that government was dismissed in 1959, which is altogether another story.
From 1946 and well into the 1950s, as even a cursory perusal of the AICC papers will show, there was an obsessive concern within the leadership, especially the ‘high command’, about the degeneration of the party. Among other things, it was felt that the organisation was losing contact with the people because leaders at several levels were more interested in entering parliament or the legislatures rather than involving themselves in work with the people; that a moral degeneration was creeping in, and, generally speaking, the organisation was falling apart.
At the heart of the Congress' concerns was a sharp cleavage between what used to be called the ‘ministerialist’ wing of the party and the organisational wing, which, not unreasonably, felt that it had been sidelined and had been given practically no power to monitor or control the ministries and its activities – policy-making and implementation, in the main.
A wide range of debates stemmed from this concern, inter alia: How could structures be changed? What powers would be assigned to which body? Should the party remain a broad church or convert itself into a more monolithic organisation with a clearly defined ideological position? Should organised groups like the Congress Socialist Party (CSP) be allowed to function? Eventually, and by the way, organised groups were banned and many ‘socialist Congress’ workers, including Acharya Narendra Deva and Jayaprakash Narayan, quit to form a socialist party. This did not, however, lessen the bemoaning of the Congress’ organisational contretemps.
All this while, intra-party elections were being held. A few villages elected a mandal Congress committee (or towns and cities their own committees); these committees in turn elected representatives to district Congress committees (DCCs); and these, eventually elected members to form the provincial Congress committees (PCCs). The PCCs elected delegates to the AICC, the plenaries of which were attended by the delegates and PCC members and others, such as special invitees. The CWC was never a fully elected body. The party president nominated the majority, while a minority of members were elected.
Though intra-party elections were held regularly, they can hardly be called ‘free and fair’. From the 1930s onwards, senior party leaders, especially the members of the high command, bemoaned the irregularities that vitiated the elections, as complaints poured in at the party headquarters in Allahabad. The main complaint was what was called ‘bogus membership’, which meant, especially at the DCC and PCC levels, that leaders would enrol hundreds of essentially dummy members to win elections to the committees. Frequent changes to the party constitution and efforts at policing irregularities by the central election committee and provincial election committees failed. Nevertheless, elections were held.
The received wisdom transmitted by academics and contemporary observers (including journalists) is that these elections were suspended by Indira Gandhi in her drive to concentrate power in her own hands and that of her coterie. That is at best a partial truth. Elections actually became rare and then stopped completely, after the Congress split in 1969 – both in the Indira Gandhi Congress, [Congress (R)], and the ‘syndicate’ Congress, [Congress (O)], because of the disarray in both campaigns – for a while, it was not entirely clear who had gone which way in the states, making it difficult to conduct elections. Nominated ad hoc PCCs and DCCs became the norm. With Indira Gandhi’s increasing ascendancy, elections were dispensed with altogether.
If we read this as the historical context, we must also mention that the Congress became irrelevant in the northern Indian heartland (and elsewhere) because it was unable or unwilling to create a constituency amongst the middle castes, today’s OBCs, which had become economically powerful well before the 1960s but had in that decade started desiring and demanding a political space, within the Congress or outside. That was one of the main reasons for the Congress losing power in nine states in 1967, after the fourth general elections.
So, what could Rahul Gandhi’s nebulous idea of organisational reform really mean? What is it that he has to do to not just reform but rejuvenate the party organisation? The only idea that really makes sense are treating the workers better and connecting with them.
What the new president has to do is to initiate a genuine programme of what was called in old Congress phraseology ‘mass contact’. It won’t be easy because elector communities are now fragmented and ‘claimed’ by other parties. In Uttar Pradesh, to take the largest state to break the Samajwadi Party’s hegemony of the Yadavs and other OBCs, or the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Dalit constituency, is a big ask. But if the Bharatiya Janata Party managed to mobilise non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits, there seems no reason why the Congress can’t do the same under a resurgent, young president.
But to do it, there are two desiderata: More than a semblance of an organisational structure has to be put in place, countrywide. It won’t be easy and it won’t happen in a hurry. To do this Rahul Gandhi has to do what his father tried, but failed to do: Re-institute intra-party elections so that prospective members feel that they have a real chance of getting into the local committees and influencing local politics and policies, and subsequently climbing the ladder to make it to the DCCs and PCCs. Prospective members have to be given ownership – a concrete stake in the growth of the party.
Empowering the younger generation is not a silver bullet. Many of them may turn out to be just as lethargic, corrupt and inept as those of the older generation. The new party president needs to empower the energetic, the imaginative and the politically astute. It would help if they were relatively honest as well, whatever their age. Alongside, the system of allocating tickets has to change: It has to become bottom-up, as it genuinely used to be till the 1960s.
Demolishing the tenuous grasp of the ‘old guard’ over a party in decline would be just one step forward, if at least some of the abler senior leaders remain in the ‘high command’, because, as in most walks of life, experience counts for something.
This process must begin now and accelerate if the Congress wins the year-end state elections in north India, which would be a much-needed multi-vitamin dose. But even if Rahul Gandhi has the best intentions, you are advised not to hold your breath.
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