Two Principles the Congress Party Needs to Reinvent Itself

Rahul Gandhi can either walk away, or do the tougher job of staying to ensure the party becomes more democratic.

The Congress party’s poor performance once again in the 2019 national elections, particularly Rahul Gandhi’s defeat in his home turf of Amethi, has thrown India’s grand old party into a deeper existential crisis. Gandhi’s decision to step down from the party presidentship, the refusal by the Congress Working Committee and other leaders to accept it and the subsequent silence on the issue, has created more confusion.

While dynasties exist in all parties including the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress is viewed as a ‘family enterprise’ in which the fifth generation is controlling the party. The BJP used this argument effectively in the electoral campaign, and it worked against the party, particularly among the younger generation unfamiliar with the history and legacy of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

Hence, a central question facing the Congress today is whether it can survive without a Nehru-Gandhi family member, which the party has long believed is the glue that holds it together.

Much has written about the failure of the Congress party to put forward a coherent and effective ideology and programme before the electorate. But little attention has been paid to the urgent need for the party to reinvent itself organisationally in order to survive. This will require a transition from a purely family enterprise to a modern democratic party – with or without the Gandhi’s.

This step is long overdue. Following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the party could have created a new organisational structure that subsumed both dynasty and party, thereby reforming its organisation based on the twin principles of diffusion of power at the top and re-federalisation of authority going down to the local level. However, the party preferred to make no changes and keep a member of the dynasty at the top. Neither did Rajiv Gandhi take any step to introduce change.

During the 1990s, the Congress had two presidents who were not from the family – Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri. But in 1998, once Sonia Gandhi was willing, she was made president of the party, bringing a member of the family back into the saddle. Even at this point, installing a broad-based, collective leadership, backed by an efficient party machine going down into the states, rather than simply relying on the family name, could have helped the party face the current onslaught of Hindu majoritarianism much better.

Diffusion of power at the top

Today, the party could gradually move from a family enterprise to a democratic party if the CWC, which is the executive committee of the party, were to have both members of the family and other senior leaders in positions of authority, one of the latter being the Congress president. It would remove the High Command or the remote control which has been in the hands of a member of the family.

This arrangement would enable the party to make use of both the family name and allow diffusion of power to other leaders through a mechanism of collective leadership. It could also break the habitual sycophancy and unquestioning authority of the family over the party. It would require removal from the CWC of much of the “dead wood” – leaders who no longer command respect in the party and have proved incapable of winning elections.

Also read: Congress Needs to Return to Its Core Value of Upholding Secularism

The CWC has had different levels of power in the party at different times. Under Jawaharlal Nehru, it was a democratic body with strong leaders who often disagreed with him. After 1967, when the Congress party split between factions loyal to Indira Gandhi and the Syndicate, the power of the CWC declined. But Indira Gandhi’s triumph in 1971 led to the centralisation of power away from the states and the All India Congress Committee, and caused the High Command to become the paramount decision-making body of the party.

This needs to be reversed by changing the composition of the CWC and its relationship with organisational levels below it.

Re-federalisation of authority 

A second challenge facing the party is the re-federalisation of the Congress party, which in the immediate post-colonial period had clear lines of communication between the bottom and the top. Elections were held for the Pradesh Congress Committee and lower levels, and the party had a strong ‘machine character’ capable of winning elections.

Indira Gandhi during the Emergency destroyed this structure through centralisation and personalisation of power in the prime minister’s hands over all party and governmental organisations such as the parliamentary board, CWC and central cabinet, creating by the mid-1970s a “pyramidal decision-making structure” in the party and government.

This led to changes whose effect is visible even today.

First, the breakdown of the federal structure with the abandonment of the principle of representation; after 1972, Congress committees and party offices were filled by appointment rather than by election. In Uttar Pradesh, a key state for the Congress, after 1977 there were no elections to the party’s 8,000 cooperative societies which formed an essential link to local constituencies.

The local party organisations largely went out of existence when the Congress lost the 1977 election and did not reappear; the party “atrophied’. The Youth Congress under the leadership of Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay Gandhi became a trusted “caucus” – a militant cadre-based organisation taking over many of the functions of the regular Congress organisation with a strong base in the major cities.

Indira, by centralising all power in her hands systematically throughout the 1970s/early 1980s, removed all potential leaders within the party who could have been considered after her death. Her projection of her own sons transformed the party into a dynastic organisation controlled by a single family.

Also read: Rahul Gandhi Does Not Have the Luxury of Simply Walking Away

Rahul has attempted since the early 2000s to revive the principle of election at every level, visible in the electoral success in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, but progress has been slow as party members have become used to patronage and faction building, rather than elections.

Second, the party today has hardly any state-level leaders with independent bases of political power who can manage their states and win elections. In the immediate post-independence period, strong state chief ministers such as Kamaraj, B.C. Roy and Y.B. Chavan were the mainstay of the party. Indira’s constant intervention and change of leadership in the states led to decay of the Congress machine.

In recent decades, the party has performed well only in states where state-level leaders were allowed to emerge: Sheila Dixit in Delhi, Digvijaya Singh in MP and Amarinder Singh in Punjab. Where younger leaders have emerged, they were not encouraged during United Progressive Alliance rule as they were seen as Rahul’s competitors, and even today they have not been given leadership positions. Good examples are Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh or Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan.

The Congress clearly needs to groom and place in positions of authority a set of younger leaders in the states, who would also constitute a second line of leadership for the centre. The shift of 12 out of 18 Congress MLAs in Telangana to the Telangana Rashtra Samithi can be described as desire for power and posts, but it also points to the disconnect between the central and state level leaders.

In UP, while Priyanka Gandhi maybe a capable leader, her projection at a point of time when the BJP was attacking the Congress as a party of dynasts did not help. Projecting her as the face of the party in UP for the assembly elections, unless it also creates room for other young and capable leaders, may not bring much advantage to the party.

Third, it is at the ground level that the Congress party is in dire need of an organisational structure that can carry its message to the people and mobilise them, particularly during elections. During the national movement, it was a mass party with many factions, a ‘big tent’, but today much greater cadre-based discipline is required.

In the 1960s, the top levels of the party built a patron-client relationship with its lower levels, which has not changed; centralisation in the 1970s and ’80s witnessed dismemberment of the party at the ground level. In UP, the Congress lost its ground workers to the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party once it was out of power for over 30 years.

Also read: The Congress Needs a Bracing Civil War

The contrast with the strong electoral machine of the BJP, particularly the panna pramukhs or booth-level workers, is very obvious. Much greater autonomy and power to state and local level units under credible leaders, respected by those below them, is required. The open warfare in Rajasthan, MP and Haryana among factions following the poor performance of the party and the inability of the top leadership to prevent it, has not improved the party’s image.

In sum, fundamental organisational transformation is required if the Congress party is to survive after the successive defeats it has faced at the hands of the BJP. Rahul has the choice of walking away from the party, leaving it leaderless. Or, he could take up the hard task of changing it from a family enterprise into a modern democratic party.

It will not be easy, much painful surgery will be needed and the transition period might take time. But if these changes are not brought in, India’s GOP may not survive. It would be a great loss for the country. All vibrant democracies require a strong opposition, India particularly needs one today with the rise of authoritarianism and Hindu majoritarianism.

The Congress has in the past reinvented itself, it remains to be seen if it can do so during this perilous crisis.

Sudha Pai, a former Professor of JNU, was the Rector (Pro-Vice Chancellor) from 2011 to 2015.