Could the Mahatma’s Trusteeship Idea Solve Rahul Gandhi’s Dilemma?

Rahul Gandhi’s destiny may be to stay, swallow the hurt, sacrifice, and reform.

Since May 23, the media has brought us a daily dose of the Congress’ angst and dilemma. The party’s gloom deepened after Rahul Gandhi decided to step down as president at the Congress Working Committee meet on May 25, and has remained steadfast with the idea.

Before and after the monumental defeat of the party, many from across the spectrum of ideological opinion have either said that Rahul Gandhi, a fifth-generation dynast, should not lead the party, or have been harsher, by cursing death to the Congress.

There is a certain recklessness in both the suggestions. Of all people, we had to be reminded of this eloquently by Lalu Prasad Yadav – who said that Rahul Gandhi stepping down at this juncture would take away the cohesive force for not just the Congress, but all opposition parties fighting the Sangh Parivar.

Interestingly, he pointed out that even if Rahul stepped down, the Modi-Shah duo would not be generous and look away from the party. They would continue to jab it with a knife of new logic, which would propagate that the party is now a puppet of the Nehru-Gandhi family, or is remote-controlled by them.

The ruling duo need an enemy at all times, and what better option than to reimagine, or reinvent a familiar foe – no matter how debilitated. Their brand of leadership and success is always defined by contrast. It is never an independent realm.

Also read: Rahul Gandhi’s Insistence to Step Down as Congress President Leaves UPA Leaders Anxious

Lalu’s native intelligence may be correct to the extent that it has diagnosed the problem well, and identified the prognosis. But, it can be construed as advocating a certain status quo. It is without an urgent plan. It is without a solution to several nagging questions from a new generation of voters.

Not all of these questions are driven by ideological ferocity, but have begun to exist in the collective catchment of what has, over the last seven to eight years, become common sense. The capture of the mainstream media by the saffron forces has effectively manufactured this common sense, and by the time the Congress woke up to it, it was left without a place to stand.

So, what could be plausible areas of seeking a solution for a condition that looks nearly irretrievable?

Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of trusteeship

Perhaps Rahul Gandhi could explore Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of trusteeship.

Gandhi spoke of trusteeship not with an intent to abolish private ownership of property, but to offer a moral corrective to the rich. He argued that wealth should be held by individuals only for larger public good; that the wealthy should see themselves as only trustees and custodians of the wealth that they have accumulated. He said:

“Supposing I have come by a fair amount of wealth – either by way of legacy, or by means of trade and industry – I must know that all that wealth does not belong to me.” 

Gandhi spoke of trusteeship in the specific context of communism, an idea that had come to grip the world then. He understood the violent implications of class war, therefore wanted to reform Indian capitalists and zamindars, and inspire a more egalitarian order:

“As for the present owners of wealth, they will have to make their choice between class war and voluntarily converting themselves into trustees of their wealth”.

He was bitterly attacked for this idea, he was seen as saving the wealthy, but he was steadfast:

“I adhere to the doctrine of trusteeship in spite of the ridicule that has been poured upon it… [It] is no make-shift, certainly no camouflage.”

Gandhi’s idea of trusteeship may not have found the circulation and acceptance that he aspired for it, but it has certainly inspired new age billionaires like Narayana Murthy of Infosys, though it is said that J.R.D. Tata was an early convert to the idea.

Trusteeship has a far greater moral complexity; is entwined in Gandhi’s social and political philosophy, and cannot be confused with philanthropy. Anyway, there is a growing recognition of trusteeship as a concept of collective management, and wealth distribution, among an enlightened minority of the corporate world.

Also read: Rahul Gandhi Determined to Quit as Congress President, Asks Party to Find Replacement: Reports

Trusteeship may appear like an exclusive socio-economic idea, but it is not merely that as Gandhi’s co-worker and editor of Harijan, Kishorelal Mashruwala (who along with Narahari Parikh and M.L. Dantawala drafted the original trusteeship formula), said:

“Indeed the theory of trusteeship applies not only to tangible and transferable property, but also of places of power and position, and to intangible and non-transferable property such as muscular energy of a labourer and the talents of a Helen Keller.”

It is here that Rahul Gandhi can draw inspiration from. He can become the chief trustee or principal custodian of the values of the Congress party, and create a party structure that allows for genuine distribution of power and recognition of talent.

He would not be exiting the party, but at the same time would dispel the perception that the leadership at the top is closed for everyone else in the party.

Congress president Rahul, Gandhi with senior party leaders Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and others at the Congress Working Committee meeting in New Delhi on May 25, 2019. Credit: PTI/Kamal Kishore

The dynastic charge is also adequately addressed through this. For all those cynics who may exist beyond this, the answer would be simple: As a free man he has chosen to promote the ideals of the Congress, and it was not his choice to be born into the family.

The dynamics that the adoption of the trusteeship idea would create within, and outside the party, would effectively take care of most criticism, and is sure to open up a highway of goodwill. Because, as Gandhi said:

“A trustee has no heir but the public.”

The broad contours of this project are presented here with the express purpose of generating debate and discussion. Needless to say, the details of it can emerge only after it passes through many sieves of reasonable intervention. 

If Rahul Gandhi has to become the principal custodian of the Congress’ values, then he would have to make an explicit statement that declares that he’ll never accept executive power – much like Gandhi embraced the idea.

This will mean, Rahul Gandhi, with a reconstituted body of elders, that is the CWC, would have to pick a diverse group of, say, 20 Congress leaders (an arbitrary number for sake of argument), from different states of India, with a proven record of leadership and public purposefulness – and declare that one of them would be picked as prime minister after the elections. 

Watch | Shashi Tharoor on Rahul Gandhi, Modi’s Win and Congress’s Future

There are 20 rich possibilities that the Congress would showcase to different aspirational corners of India. This talent pool is not a static group, there can be additions and deletions as the situation demands. To use corporate parlance, they are like 20 CEOs of a large group’s subsidiary companies, and their survival depends on their performance and allegiance to Congress values.

Since this is not a closed group, since the top job of the prime minister is not closed, it allows for sufficient openness, and democracy, inside the party. Chaos and confusion may prevail for a while, but like in a free market space, competition and strength of character will settle matters quickly. The guiding principles and process to pick these twenty will have to be meticulous and elaborate.

From the kind of public person that Rahul Gandhi has become over the years, from the campaign he ran, the spiritual contrast of ‘love’ he endeavoured to build, to counter overt religiosity and hate on the other side; his natural restraint and accommodation may naturally endear him to this extension of Bapu’s idea.

In January 2013, at the Jaipur AICC session, making his maiden speech as the party’s vice-president, he had said:

“Last night each one of you congratulated me. But, my mother came to my room and cried… because she understands that power is poison.”

This self-awareness will carry him through the process. After the family has held the reins of the party for decades, stepping down as president may not be a moral option, especially when it is in a peculiar state of untidiness. Leaving it in this precarious state may lead to its complete collapse and disintegration, and that is precisely what the Sangh parivar wants – an ideologically flat India.

Sadly, Rahul Gandhi’s destiny may be to stay, swallow the hurt, sacrifice, and reform.

Sugata Srinivasaraju is a senior journalist and author.