It's good to lose
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As a Congressman, I greatly welcome Sunday's electoral reverses. I also look forward to our probably occupying the opposition benches after the mid-2014 Lok Sabha elections.
The reason for this paradox is that for at least the last quarter of a century, my party has been in desperate need of a root and branch restructuring. Rahul Gandhi has promised a transformation of both the organisation and leadership of the party. He has spoken, at the moment of electoral defeat, of a "paradigm shift" from "traditional" approaches. He has proposed that the voice of the people be "embedded" in the structure and programme of the party. He has gone so far as to suggest that the 120-year-old Congress has much to learn from the 12-month-old Aam Aadmi Party. All this is in line with the agenda he set himself when he was elected vice president of the party at Jaipur, just under a year ago.
The Congress machinery and platform was transformed from a drawing room party of the late-19th-century emerging professional elite into a mass movement by, first, Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak and then definitively by Gandhiji, after he took the helm in the wake of Jallianwala Bagh. At Independence, after the initial hiccup of Purushottam Das Tandon's presidency (1950-51), Jawaharlal Nehru converted the mass movement into an efficient nation-making and election machine, which had as its purpose not only the wooing and winning of votes but also the forging of a national consensus on democracy and democratic institutions. This rendered India the only one of the roughly 150 countries that came to some form of liberation or the other after 1947 to have successfully translated independence for the nation into freedom for the people.
That machine collapsed in the 1967 elections, when, for the first time, one could travel from Lahore to Jessore through India without once stepping on Congress territory. The lesson learned was the overthrowing of the old guard (the "Syndicate") and the forging of the radical platform that made Indira Gandhi the darling of the poor. But it also led to the Emergency and what most in March 1977 took to be the permanent political exile of the Congress. Thirty months later, the very electorate that had so definitively given the party a drubbing turned to it in grateful relief, but not before what remained of the old guard had been sent packing.
Rajiv Gandhi then saw that a party machine forged initially for securing the single goal of freedom and then transformed into history's most successful machine for national democratic consolidation, centred on a clear idea of India, had, notwithstanding his stunning electoral victory of December 1984, deteriorated into what he described at the Congress centenary session of December 28, 1985, as "self-perpetuating cliques", "brokers of power and influence, who dispense patronage to convert a mass movement into a feudal oligarchy", "enmeshing the living body of the Congress in their net of avarice". For close on three decades since, the Congress has been hampered in delivering on its promise by the Congress itself. Uma Shankar Dikshit was commissioned to write a report on revamping, recasting, reordering and democratising the Congress organisation. Yet, the mere fact of the party being in office (and seemingly set to remain there indefinitely) effectively hampered any attempt on Rajiv Gandhi's part to co-opt his senior colleagues into undertaking the required transmogrification of the Congress. It was only his resounding defeat in November 1989 that resulted in the Dikshit report becoming the principal instrument of a thorough reorganisation of the party. Hence, his convening an extended meeting of the Congress Working Committee in April 1990 to accept the Dikshit report and then a plenary of the Congress in July the same year to endorse the CWC's decision.
But just a fortnight later in August 1990, Mandal clashed with kamandal and the prospect of power came within the grasp of the Congress. The reorganisation of the party was put on the back-burner. The Congress won but lost Rajiv. The Dikshit report was consigned to oblivion. Happily, the electoral reverses of 1999 gave the Congress one more opportunity to refashion itself. That was manifested in the A.K. Antony introspection report, a virtual Encyclopaedia Congressica that the rearguard in the party leadership succeeded in keeping under wraps. It has never been released in its entirety. But a summary was eventually made available to the CWC and every single organisational change, essentially based on the Dikshit recommendations, was accepted. We were to have a democratically elected party organisation, rising through election from the very grassroots of the party to the heights, with candidates for the Lok Sabha being declared six months in advance and assembly candidates at least three months in advance. This was to be accompanied by a whole panoply of other reforms that would realise the vision of Rajiv Gandhi's centenary speech. Yet, every one of the recommendations endorsed in opposition has been kept on the back-burner through 10 years in power.
We now have at the helm a young man who speaks in the tongue of his father. Asked what he was doing all these years, the answer is that he was experimenting with innovation in his remit — the youth and student wings of the Congress — instead of dabbling in the parent party or government. Jaipur was the moment when he took over the organisational reins of the main party but, alas, with key state assembly and Lok Sabha elections in the offing, root and branch reform was outside the realm of practical politics. But not off the drawing board.
Essentially, Rahul's view is that the Congress, as presently constituted, might have served the national and political purposes of the 20th century but is hopelessly out of sync with the 21st. Thanks to his father, the country now has 32 lakh elected representatives in the panchayats and nagarpalikas, of whom some 14 lakh are women, with guaranteed SC/ST reservation in proportion to their share of the population in every panchayat area at each of the three levels. A substantial proportion of these persons, who have secured the approval of their respective local electorates, are young — one official estimate is that perhaps 70 per cent of those elected are under 35. At least a third of this vast army of political activists are Congressmen and women. Switching from bogus lists of primary members drawn up by coteries of power-brokers in their self-interest to founding the party cadres in the strength of these grassroots elected representatives of Congress persuasion, and guaranteeing an effective voice for these multitudes in electing the higher echelons of the party, as well as drafting its plans and programmes for action at every level, from the habitation to the nation, will take the party back in the 21st century to where it resided in the hearts of the people through all of the first half of the 20th century and much of the latter half after Independence.
But such a purge of power brokers and the induction of a party leadership elected by the broad membership of the Congress will take time. The distraction of running a government will impede the long-term restoration of the party. A break from governance would be a welcome break that could be used to refit the party as the nation's natural party of governance in the 21st century. The current and prospective electoral reverses for the Congress are thus Rahul's golden opportunity.
The writer is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha