A survival guide for Congress

By Noor Sheriff for TwoCircles.net,

The Indian National Congress has a history of 129 years. Nonetheless considering its avatars after Independence it has undergone two major transformations. The first one was when Mrs. Indira Gandhi converted it into a dynastic and a family party in the late 60s and 70s. The second one was when Mrs. Sonia Gandhi reluctantly took over in 1998. The party now had second and third generation dynasties at every level and the Indian polity are filled with small dynastic parties masquerading as regional forces.

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The spectacular collapse of Congress in the general elections is after a series of failures in key electoral battles. Only a loyal Congressman would have been shocked at the defeat. The Orissa government exemplifies the incompetency of the way things are in the Congress party. That the party has been unable to take on a regional party which has been ruling for the last 15 years is a text book case of the inability of the party. There are seven key areas that the congress has to reinvent itself to be relevant in the future.

For the People and by the People: The last ten years have seen Congress treating every issue of public interest as piece on the chess board. Any issue concerning the people, and involving people of other parties is treated as a bargaining chip for deal making. Some examples are corruption cases involving SP, BSP and BJP leaders. The sooner the Congress realizes that good of the people is the only goal of public life, the better it is for the party. The fight for public good is not just with vested interests outside but within as well. Ex: Adarsh Scam, Amanath Bank Scam, Wakf Land Scam, etc. Mere rhetoric will not clean the country of any ills.

Politics and Governance is a full time job: There aren’t many Congressmen who are aware that the former PM Mr. Manmohan Singh had not taken a single days’ leave (except for his heart operation a few years ago) in the last 10 years. However, the same cannot be said of Mr. Rahul Gandhi. The last few elections have shown that he makes dramatic entries before the polls and then goes into hibernation. The nature of politics today is about connecting with the people constantly. The most telling moment about Rahul Gandhi’s lack of current affairs knowledge was seen in his interview with Arnab Goswami. On repeated prodding that Mr. Modi had been absolved of all charges by the Supreme Court, all Rahul Gandhi could manage was that he was held guilty by the people. He did not seem to be aware of the intricacies involved in the case dealing with his biggest political adversary and existence of an amicus –curai report. Mr. Rahul Gandhi also has to improve his oratory skills and learn to inspire people like Mr. Modi does in his speeches.

One big idea: Mr. Modi has constantly stated that he’ll improve the Center- State relations and give a free hand to the provinces. However, Congress has not come up with any idea countering his claim. In fact the party has allowed the provinces decide the feasibility of implementing FDI in retail. This step has not been formulated as a policy and explained to the people. The idea of power being concentrated in just a few hands in the Union Government does not enthuse the people anymore. The concept of Mohalla Sabhas and Gram Sabhas espoused by Mahatama Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and now Arvind Kejriwal needs to be looked at seriously by the party. The people need to be entrusted with their own day to day governance. Unfortunately Congress has not shown any inclination for the same so far.

Getting the Volunteers: Any public cause and activity needs volunteers. Congress mostly gets its volunteer through a system of patronage. This in turn leads to entrenched interests refusing to allow honest people make their entry. The party should shun these kinds of volunteers, open the system, take up causes of public good and make the effected people the participants in the process. AAP carried out a membership drive with the target of reaching 1 crore members. Though the final numbers were not realized, reports suggested them to have touched 97 lacs. Congress too should open its doors; make the general public its regular Karyakarta. The Central leadership should keep a track of every activity at the Mohalla level through independent sources. This will help the party leadership identify prospective leaders.

Reclaiming the Internet: The internet has been lost to a small communal section of India. Abuses, bigoted thoughts, name calling are the new order of online India. The Congress specifically needs to develop a support base with the online crowd. In fact any derogatory name calling and baseless charges against the leadership should be dealt strictly. This will instill fear in the faceless bigots who have taken large heartedness of the party for its weakness. However, the internet should be primarily be used to spread the various public activities going on around the country. This will help connect the dots of actual ground work and online activities.

Seva dal: The recent membership of AAP and RSS has shown that there is a substantial section of the population keen on bringing about social change. Seva Dal is an idea whose time has come. In fact the not so charismatic former Congress President Mr. Sitaram Kesri had way back in 1998 exhorted Seva Dal to match the RSS in nation building. Unfortunately the situation today is that not many Congress men themselves are aware of its existence. Seva dal can be rejuvenated by having fresh graduates and undergraduates interested in nation building being made a part of it. This will also fit in the overall picture of Rahul Gandhi who wants to convert Congress into a cadre based party.

State Leadership: One often suggested remedy after every election loss of Congress is to have strong leaders at the Province level. The remedy is only partially correct. It is often overlooked that unlike Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi has mostly allowed her chief ministers to complete their full term. Ex: SM Krishna, YRS Reddy, Ashok Gehlot (twice), Shiela Dixit (Thrice), Tarun Gogoi (Twice), etc. Congress should concentrate on developing leaders at the Mohalla level, district level and then the State level. The elections to these posts should be publicised and only honest hardworking Congressmen should make the cut. Unfortunately the idea of top down approach like the primaries may not work if there is no democracy at the Mohalla level. Congress should establish democracy at every level right up to the CWC. It is now not surprising that Mr. Modi first got the mandate from the ordinary BJP Karyakarta and then based on that mandate got the thumps up from the people of India.


The road ahead is a tough one for Congress. Less than one in every five person has voted for it in the last general election. One of the biggest mistakes that the leadership could make is to think that things will sort them out by themselves. In fact analysing BJP’s defeat in 2009 shows that the party thought that it’ll be the default beneficiary of all the misdoings of the Congress. One of the biggest threats that the Congress faces is that the space vacated by it may start getting filled by bit players like AAP and other regional parties. A classic example of thinking it is the default option of the people is the seat of Moradabad. Congress which held the seat has been reduced to the fifth place with less than 20,000 votes. It shows the performance of the previous MP (Mohd Azaruddin) as well the lack of promise seen by the people in the current candidate, Begum Noor Banu.

The fight with Modi led BJP has to be on three planes. The first plane is at the national level for any acts of omission and commission by the Government of the day. The second plane will be at the Constituency level which should be taken on by the local Congress leaders. An aspect of BJP’s electoral politics which is often overlooked is that a large number of elected members don’t get re nomination if the performance is not up to the mark. So a Hema Malini or a Paresh Rawal is not assured of fighting the election in 2019 if the party is not assured of victory. Congress has to be in a position to have its local leaders ready for such scenarios. The third plane is at the door of every Indian by Congress’s regular worker. The party has to shed its fears and start its door to door campaign in every election. The TV advertising blitzkrieg cannot replace the traditional “charchas” that one can have at the voter’s doorstep. Spending five minutes and discussing about the achievements with a voter will be much more fruitful compared to a 30 second ad blindly praising a government scheme.

The moot point though, is the Congress leadership capable to reclaim its space. Mrs. Sonia Gandhi has shown that she is the strongest when she is the underdog. Mr. Rahul Gandhi too has not shied away from trying out new steps like Primaries and talking about women empowerment knowing fully well it’ll not lead to immediate electoral gains. So one can be fairly optimistic that the Congress will rise like the phoenix.

(Noor Sheriff is an independent writer and activist based in Bangalore. He can be reached at [email protected].)