On March 14 2008,Narendra Modi and Digvijaya Singh appeared together on a panel at the India Today Conclave in New Delhi. It was such a rare event,as top leaders of the two parties have seldom sparred with each other directly in public. It was also very civil and quite stirring. Both know their lines and politics. Neither is known to take any prisoners.
For once,however,Digvijaya,certainly the more experienced and bilingual of the two,was stumped. Modi asked him,how did he justify dynastic rule in his party. Digvijaya recovered quickly,though. This,he said,was common enough in democracies around the world. For evidence,he said,look at America and the Clintons. This is precisely when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were locked in a close battle for the Democratic partys presidential nomination. Digvijayas short point was,if nobody is complaining about the Clintons in America,why should we keep complaining about the Gandhis in India.
This was a bit much even for a backbencher like me that day. So I grabbed a microphone and asked Digvijaya,When was the last time someone challenged a member of the Gandhi family for leadership of the Congress and lived to tell the tale? I added that we neednt be judgemental because other parties in India were dynastic too. But lets not indulge in hypocrisy and trivialise another countrys political system because chances are that Hillary will lose.
That exchange can be accessed on the internet (goo.gl/Uj7KHv). It came back to me now,thinking about what had gone so wrong with the Congress that a party which had already celebrated victory for 2014 in 2009 is now looking at its lowest mark ever next May,maybe even in two figures. That something is seriously wrong with the party is also publicly acknowledged by Rahul Gandhi. Hours after the rout in the latest state elections,he said he was going to change the Congress party in ways you cannot even imagine.
Now,you and I probably cannot imagine what we are told we cannot,or which is only in someone elses mind. But we are at liberty to imagine what can work and what may not. Rahuls essential thought is that there is no internal or grassroots democracy in the Congress,or in all of Indian politics. That is why it is neither meritocratic nor genuinely representative.
Nobody would argue with that,so lets not go there. But if a rapidly declining,even self-destructive,political party wishes to rebrand,reposition and rejuvenate,will it be done through a 10-year project to democratise it from bottom up? By that time,the BJP would have taken away your mantle of being Indias largest political party and the Aam Aadmi Party would have stolen your Muslim vote-banks pretty much the way it took away Delhis urban poor.
Rahul has been on this project for nearly a decade already. That,indeed,was the supposed reason why he did not take any formal responsibility in the UPA. He had to rebuild the party. If the result is the secular decline (apologies if that description is cruel) of the party meanwhile,he needs to admit that his method is not working. And in 2013,if he is right in saying that we cant even imagine how he is going to change his party hereon,it is not the most prudent way to bring about political change. Because if we outside observers have no idea whats on his mind,and nor do his partymen,is that the state of mind you want your troops to be in when they are already feeling defeated and demoralised?
That is why we go back to that five-year-old exchange with Divijaya Singh. His leader now says their party has an internal democratic deficit. But you change it not by bringing real democracy at the bottom,but by beginning at the top. In short,you may have diagnosed the disease correctly. But the cure lies in changing yourselves (the family) first. The rest will follow. Instead of taking years,therefore,holding student body and Youth Congress and then taluka/panchayat level elections to discover deserving new leaders,begin,if you have the courage,by holding real elections for the party president and vice president. Encourage people to challenge you. You will win for sure,and if your defeated challengers still continue to grow in your party,rather than be skinned alive by your Rajya Sabha-ist,how dare you question Rahulji sycophants,it will also win you their respect,not just fear and awe that is more feudal than democratic. Then hold genuine elections to the CWC and for general secretaries. All this can be done within a month,even before the general election is announced. In any case,it is a truism that talent is discovered bottom-up but leadership has to travel top-down.
Not doing so will be politically suicidal and morally lazy. My teacher in strategic studies,Professor Stephen P. Cohen,has always taught us there is no such thing as a good army or a bad army. There are only good generals and bad generals. And good generals do not blame their armies after losing a battle. They put their hands up,take responsibility,introspect.
Thats why,for the Congress to have any hope at all,change has to begin at the very top. Congress insiders tell you Rahul always likes to say that only a thousand people decide the names of all MLAs and MPs in India,so what kind of a democracy is this? Increasingly now,many have begun to mock this: we know two of them (Sonia and Rahul). Who are the remaining 998?
In these state elections,we saw Rahul course correct a bit from the old povertarianism. But only a bit. More important than the absence of internal democracy is the datedness of the Congress product,its fundamental value proposition. Why is its old,ossified and most loyal vote-bank of the poor,Dalits and minorities now so breached? Because all its promises to them are negative. If you are a Muslim,we will protect you from riots,or give you relief if you are a riot victim. But what will you do for me if I am an ordinary,secure Muslim dreaming of a better life for myself and my children? Do I have to become a riot victim to deserve your healing touch? Or if I am a poor Rajasthani,do I need to fall sick to deserve your great freebies? What if my family and I stay in robust health anyway? What will you do to improve my opportunities,to help me compete on a larger stage? And similarly,the poor everywhere: alright,you give me MGNREGA and free food and I wont starve. But what will you do for me thereon? And finally,if I am a poor tribal,you may come to help if I am displaced unfairly. But what if I am not? I just live in extreme,degrading and hopeless poverty and want a better life? Sixty-five years after Independence,am I permitted to dream,aspire for more than two square meals,essential medicines at lousy sarkari hospitals if I fall sick and maybe physical safety? You ask any poor Indian these questions,and she will say she deserves better. That is why she is dumping her trusted old Congress. If you are aspirational,Modi sounds more,and pleasantly,persuasive. If you are povertarian,the AAP is most certainly more sincerely convincing.
So who exactly are you? And what do you stand for? Congress leaders are not answering these questions. Having waited for a decade,its voters are now moving on. Not talking to the media is not a nice thing (from our selfish,self-important point of view),but it is a public figures choice. Maybe journalists are really vermin and must be avoided,and the Congress leaders are not unique in thinking so. Many successful regional leaders now,J. Jayalalithaa,Mamata Banerjee,Naveen Patnaik and even Modi,do not engage with the media in the conventional old,relaxed manner. But each one has found their own way of communicating with their voters. What is Rahuls? What does one tell a group of college students in sub-rural Rajasthan when they ask,why does Rahul never speak in Parliament? And when,similarly,a hall full of IIT students applauds when one of them asks their guest speaker,what does Rahul Gandhi have to show on his CV besides his DNA? And then you make their confusion total by describing democratic power as poison which,I repeat,is a feudal construct,not a liberal one. Yes,Rahul needs to fix his party in ways we probably cannot imagine. But he has to begin by sharing with his own,once-loyal but now fast deserting,voters what is it that he is imagining. He has to establish a conversation with them before he starts whipping his partymen behind closed doors. And he has to convince young Indians he is willing to put his hand up and take some risks and responsibility.