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Letter from Rahul Gandhi

Party President in Search of a Party

Suhas Palshikar (suhaspalshikar@gmail.com) is a political commentator, and former teacher of politics and public administration at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune.

,

My Dear Members of the Congress party,

Since I became the president of this coveted, but contemporarily much maligned and mauled party, I have been wanting to talk to you and share my many dilemmas. With some improvement, the performance in the Gujarat elections and the latest wins in the Rajasthan by-elections, the hope of reviving the party remains. Hence this letter. You see, writing letters is a kind of family trait. My great grandfather had a penchant for writing letters. I am imitating him in the hope that I shall be able to emulate him in thought, ideas and deeds. I am confounded with the over-articulate adversary who pours out his heart regularly on the All India Radio (AIR). I cannot complain about this because I do recall the extravagant use of AIR that my grandmother made when she was in office. So, I am taking recourse to this outdated art of letter-writing. I wrote one on the occasion of the Republic Day this year. I have found out from my travels in Gujarat that it is easier to talk to ordinary men and women than to talk to my own party members. For one, party members are mostly invisible these days and if I do find them, they are hardly in the habit of listening to anything serious in nature. They also find it hard to take me seriously because they look upon me more as a figurehead than as a leader.

I suppose I should begin with myself because the one criticism of mine that represents the criticism of the Congress party, is about parachuting into positions of power through family connections—the shorthand for this being “dynastic” politics. I must admit that my somewhat frivolous response to this issue at the University of Berkeley in the United States was avoidable. I am aware that not just myself, but many of our office-bearers and bigwigs in many states come from “political families.” We need to admit that besides blocking many hard-working party workers from higher offices, the arrogance and self-assurance generated by family connection gives a bad name to the party. But with so many of my trusted lieutenants coming from politically entrenched ­families, how can I advise you in this manner? So, my first dilemma: Do I get rid of those with a family background in politics? If I did that, would you support me or desert me like the followers of Y S Jaganmohan Reddy did in Andhra Pradesh?

I am sure many of you would remember my initial enthusiasm for intra-party democracy and organisational elections. Many of you earnestly worked to sabotage that. I can of course take shelter behind the argument that most parties in India lack true internal democracy and we are no exception in the same way that I argued about the family factor. That takes me to the second dilemma. I might be a successful president if I were to let the party’s strongmen steamroll their way and manage to win elections in a few places; but how do I win elections and also make the party internally democratic? Can I at least suggest that in every platform of the party, we should encourage free debates and that this should begin with a frank appraisal of the party president? Far too many people have called you sycophants. It is now up to us to prove this description wrong. Would you have the courage to tell your local bosses and me where we are going wrong? Would I have the courage to have among the top leaders those who may keep pointing out my follies? And mind you, I need not tell you that fisticuffs at the Congress Bhavan do not qualify as free and frank debates!

While we are on this issue of internal democracy, I must also admit that such a thing is possible only when, in the first place, an organisation exists on the gro­und. How many times have I heard that Congress offices are alive only when some party dignitary is visiting and other­wise wear a deserted look! This is not surprising given the near complete disconnect most party workers have with the common citizen. Of course, when seeking an office, everyone has a very impressive portfolio, but such portfolios can be easily produced through the wisdom of the public relations agencies mushrooming in every town. I cannot blame you much on this score since all our politics is now driven by media blitz and advertising rather than actual hard work. You might have even seen reports of how a public relations company helped me in my image makeover. But as party president, it is my duty to caution you that politics is much more than mere image making. It involves the real issues of people locally and nationally; so we must represent the people. This thing called representation is dicey, though. It is far too easy to represent the Patels by assuring them of reservations (did not our government do the same for Marathas in Maharashtra knowing that it would be constitutionally untenable?); it is also easy—Hardik, Alpesh and Digvijay Singh ji have already shown this—to empathise with the scandalised Rajputs over a film (while also upholding the right to freedom of expression).

Sometimes I think this is what representation is all about. But then I am reminded of my great grandfather who “represented” the public and yet was never afraid of taking stands that were not popular. I am also reminded of the Mahatma who did not flinch from arguing for positions that he believed in. He had no problems in reconciling his inner voice and the adverse popular sentiment. So, again, a dilemma: Does representation mean succumbing to mass sentiment and pre­judice or does it mean driving the people to reason because you represent them? I am ­relatively inexperienced in these matters but would hope that our party beco­mes representative without compromising with public prejudice and unreason.

Learning from the BJP

These are of course long-term issues and if we perform well in the coming parliamentary elections, we shall be in a better position to think through these matters. So, let me draw your attention to the urgent need for electoral survival. We have to move fast and move smartly in the coming months. I think here, we must follow our arch-rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Not in its media blitz, not in its politics of fear and suspicion, but in the way that it handles grass-roots electoral management. That is where local workers like you become far more critical. A systematic preparation for the election is our most urgent task. I mentioned the party organisation precisely for this reason. I mentioned your personal disconnect with people for the same reason. The Congress won elections during Panditji’s times, not merely because he was a popular figure. That aspect is correct, yes, but equally because the party had a network of local workers who would fetch votes for the party and its candidate. You hear from my critics that I do not have the charisma of my great grandfather nor do I have the gift of the gab that his present-day arch-rival has. That is why the burden on you is all the more. But this presents a dilemma too: it is my duty as party president to overhaul and rejuvenate the organisation. It is also my responsibility to ensure we win elections. This is proving to be an “egg-and-chicken” dilemma. Unless I focus on building the party, it cannot win elections but we do not have the leisure of postponing electoral victory till we build the party.

That takes me to the last and most nagging issue. Some nasty critics keep asking me why people should vote for the Congress. I thought I should share that query with you, because sometimes I also become nervous thinking about whether we have anything different to offer. I am told that our record as a ­ruling party in most states has been lacklustre in the recent past. So, when we lost Maharashtra, Haryana, Assam, Himachal, and so on, I am unable to find fault with the voter because they probably deserted us due to our bad performance. I am realising this over and over that correct political platitudes about diversity and secularism cannot be an alternative to governmental performance. But assuming that we manage to post a decent performance, the question still remains: is that the only thing we have to offer? I have consistently criticised the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). I even have a court case against me because of this. But I am afraid that many of you have no clear idea about what is wrong with the RSS. How can a party fight ideologically if it is not clear about its own ideology and about what we stand for?

Three social-political flashpoints confront us today. First is about growth and distribution. While globalisation is rec­ei­ving a backlash all over the world, how do we balance our economic policies between global corporate pressures and the urgency to design policies that would ensure fair distribution? The second is about caste inequalities. We ignored the tide of social justice and today, ironically, we are swept by the tailwind consisting of mere caste identities. The third is about the nature of our nationhood. In the name of secularism, we slipped into competitive communalism, my father’s contribution in this regard being quite substantial. How do we transcend this ideological impasse?

My mother ensured that the party would remain in the reckoning. This she did mainly by means of three tactics. First, she refrained from interfering in local power structures of the party and allowed local notables to control the party (I have much less respect for these local bosses). Two, she engaged in some very skilful alliance making politics (I do not enjoy the confidence of many United Progressive Alliance partners). Three, she converted her greatest handicap into an opportunity when she declared that she did not want to be Prime Minister (where can I find my MMS?). But what she did was merely a holding operation. She made sure that the party would not disintegrate nor face electoral extinction.

My Urgent Task

I am afraid my task is far too tough. I would need to do too many things in too short a time. My most urgent task would be to convince you, members of the party, why the Congress is important. That conviction can come only from positioning the party on the pedestal of ideological clarity. I know that terms like socialism and secularism have become too hazy. Even the term social justice has become a platitude. What we need to do is to resurrect and redefine ideas and ideologies that would ring with authenticity and would have the promise of being translated into policies. It is with regard to this task that I genuinely feel inexperienced and helpless. So, this is yet another dilemma before me. I am now the president of the party. Do I remain a symbol of the family that I come from; remain a figurehead, an occasional arbiter in factional fights; or do I really traverse a new path of my own? In that journey, would you join me or merely chant slogans cheering Rahul ji?

Yours,

Rahul G

 

 

Updated On : 14th Feb, 2018

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