In the wake of the thrashing received by his party in the just concluded assembly polls, Rahul Gandhi has promised to learn from the Aam Aadmi Party and to involve the youth in a manner which we “cannot imagine” at the moment. It is imperative that the Congress learns its lessons fast. One could speculate on the existence or otherwise of a ‘Modi-wave’, but an anti-congress wave certainly seems to be blowing in the country. Given its already emaciated state in Bihar and U.P., these results have indeed brought the grand old party to a moment of existential crisis. The most telling image of the confusion in the ranks was Ashok Gehlot lamenting on TV, ‘how can the results be so shocking after having done so much of the work for the people?’
Is the Congress willing to ask the right questions and swallow the bitter answers? The humbling defeat has brought forth the dangers of ad-hoc responses which reflect the top and middle level leadership’s disconnect not only with the ‘aam aadmi’ but also with ground level party workers. Congress has never been a cadre-based party, but it still has a large number of dedicated workers, who have over the years been virtually thrown out of political decision making. The best thing Rahul Gandhi can learn from the unprecedented drubbing is that a political party is structurally very different from an NGO and its culture ought to be different from that of a corporate entity. Sharad Pawar may sound uncharitable and sharp, but there is a lesson in what he says about the impact of ‘jhola-walas’. Every political leadership does and must have a set of advisors from outside the fold of regular party workers; she or he must maintain a regular dialogue with intellectuals, academicians and activists, but can any party afford being seen borrowing its political agenda and idiom from those who have no real stake whatsoever in its existence as a political formation?
How can one expect the party-worker to be energised when the top leadership is perceived to be giving more weight to the opinions of those who have earned the status of powerful advisors on the basis of their ‘phoren’ degrees or ‘activism’ and have started ‘suggesting’ policies and ‘reforming’ the party apparatus without having ever worked within it? Just imagine the plight of the worker who all her life has worked through the dirt and din of the great Indian political scene and upheld the congress ideas and policies, and now has to learn lessons in leadership from thosemyriad MBA and NGO types who have the ear of the ‘high command’ combined with an open disdain for ‘dirty’ party-politics. Even during the days of Indira Gandhi, when the entire party apparatus was turned into an individual-centric direction, the typical congress worker was not reduced to such helplessness in matters of organisation and policy. Today, the congress worker finds herself in the peculiar and unenviable position of defending an agenda drafted by those who were and are bitterly critical of most of the policies and programmes of her party.
The Congress leadership instead of settling scores in this hour of crisis must ask itself: is there any institutional method of generating frank and free feedback from below? Highly qualified advisors certainly have a role to play, but does the leader have the humility to learn from the humble party-worker as well? A major political party such as the Congress of course has to respond to challenges on a day to day basis, but can such responses be allowed to develop into a full-fledged culture of ad-hocism? What is the message sent out to the worker when on one day, top ministers are seen laying out the red carpet to a TV yoga-guru and political wannabe, and just a couple of days later the same person is dismissed as an utter hypocrite.
A lot has been said about drift in the party and policy-paralysis in the government. This drift and paralysis can be addressed only if free and frank feed-back from ground level workers is sought and valued. Leadership is all about finding the right balance between this feedback and the direction in which the leadership wants to take the party. It is also about realising that NGOs have a role to play in the society, but they must not be presumed to replace political parties and their workers. A democratic leadership can be firm and decisive – it can take tough, even un-popular decisions, only if it is willing to lend an ear to the humble and ‘uncouth’ party worker who is usually the most authentic channel to the pulse of the people.
People have not only punished the Congress for failures of governance – they have also implicitly reacted to a political culture wherein serious issues are seen being handled in a careless manner. One wonders how the party leadership got convinced about the shoddy original draft of the ‘Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence’ bill?How can communal violence be combated by replacing one stereotype (of perpetually aggressive minority) with the equally ridiculous stereotype of a perpetually guilty majority.This is precisely what the drafters of the bill did, quite unmindful of the disastrous implications for the credibility of the Congress party and its government. They also did not appear to have paid adequate attention to sensitive centre-state relations in a federal polity. Such tunnel-vision is characteristic of NGOs dedicated to some chosen cause, but can this be the approach of any responsible political party and government?
The Congress leadership must reaffirm the party’s uniqueness. Much before the term ‘inclusiveness’ got political currency, the Congress perfected the art of balancing conflicting social interests and political perceptions. In today’s fast changing social and political scenario, Congress will have to explore new horizons of this art of balancing. And the Congress worker has to be in the centre of this exploration.