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Congress is blind to its future challenges.

THE FOUNDATION day speeches of the Congress party's president, and its prime minister at the inauguration of its 125th anniversary celebrations attempted to do little more than squeeze the history of the party into a Nehru- Gandhi strait- jacket. Neither addressed the serious challenges before the party or charted a blueprint for the renewal of India as a vibrant democratic republic. With Sonia Gandhi so firmly at the helm, it may seem strange to argue that the Congress is heading for a programmatic and leadership crisis.

But can the party sustain the middle class island, admittedly growing all the time, as the end of politics, while a desolate periphery remains poor, deprived and angry? The residents of the periphery have to be taken along not only as a huge market but as fellow citizens. All major changes and societal transformation originate amongst those on the margins of society and not from those who are its main beneficiaries and by definition status quoists. History is replete with examples of how unaware the status quoists remain till the very end when they are suddenly overwhelmed by transformational politics.


The biggest constituency of the poor in this country is expected to be of the internally displaced people.

Either they will have to be provided democratic leadership or they will find their own leaders -- we have seen this in Singur and Nandigram recently, in Kalingnagar and Rayagada in Orissa and in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh earlier and are witnessing it in Jhargram currently. The absence of the Congress from these mass movements will cost it dearly.

If India remains a democracy-- that is a big " if" given the rise of extremist Maoist movement in more than 200 districts of the country-- then its future political leadership must represent the restive tribals, the oppressed Dalits, the displaced people and the landless poor of the country who are being forced to go outside the democratic system of grievance redressal. India's future political leadership must have proper representation of those who will argue for redistributive justice, land reforms and protecting the vulnerable segments of the country's population.

The Congress is clearly not readying itself for such a leadership transformation.

Be it Jharkhand, Chattisgarh or Orissa, the Congress does not have a single tribal or Dalit leader of any consequence in its ranks. Ajit Jogi's tribal status is questioned in Chattisgarh and he stands discredited because of his and his son's shenanigans. Subodhkant Sahay even with the best of intentions cannot be projected as a tribal leader in Jharkhand-- as the recent elections in the state demonstrated. The legitimacy of the Congress is so low in Orissa that even in a three- cornered contest, it was the incumbent Navin Patnaik and not the Congress which romped home in the last assembly elections.

The short point is that take any tribal state, including Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura, Assam, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chattisgarh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh or Kerala, there is no strong leader in the Congress who can voice the sense of exclusion and alienation that the tribals feel today. Its marginal presence in some of these states and even in governments in some of the Northeastern states means little as its leaders there are among the predators-- contractors, real estate sharks and commission agents.

Tribals who form 8 per cent of the Indian population represent 40 per cent of all people displaced by big projects. Dalits form another 20 per cent of the affected and the Other Backward Classes ( OBCs) another 20 per cent. But the largest party in the country has no one who can speak for them.

Even in government where the party ought to send its best leaders it has farmed out governance to people who are in a patron- client relationship with either Sonia Gandhi or her acolytes. They do not contest elections and therefore bring no new issues into the programmatic agenda of the party. They are seen increasingly as managers for western interests in India rather than as politicians who are in touch with the people of this country.

These non- accountable leaders have not been directed by the party's views when they have formulated policy over the last five years on the civilian nuclear deal with the United States, national security issues or more recently, on climate change.

The Congress party which used to pride itself on its ideological clarity has no view on these issues as an organisation. The party itself is bereft of modern ideas and sensibilities.

There may be Kapil Sibal and a Jairam Ramesh-- and thank God for them-- who dare to think out of the box, but their ideas are individual initiatives and not the result of deliberations and discussions within the party. The party's role if any has been a negative one, fielding its spokesmen to kill or blunt such initiatives, instead of putting in processes whereby the party can make collective use of the talent it has at its command.


The party's showcase programmes such as the Right to Information Act ( RTI), the rural employment guarantee programme and guaranteeing the right to education, did not originate at 24, Akbar Road. They all came from civil society activists. Even on Article 377 it was not the party which had an enlightened approach to gay rights but the Delhi High Court.

If the party truly believed in transparency in decision making, one would expect to see it reflected in its internal functioning. It may come as a surprise to many but Congress party general secretaries do not get a salary. They get a transport allowance of about Rs. 9,000 per month. One would like to know how and from which sources of income they run their households. It is not at all clear how the party itself raises its funds. How does anyone know then, for example and only as a hypothetical

example, that a hefty contribution did not lead to someone getting the petroleum portfolio or that the power ministry was not given to someone who could raise party funds or that a possible blackmail did not result in someone else being entrusted with the telecom portfolio in the Cabinet? Chaos The party which claims it laid the foundations of a modern nationstate in India has no agenda for its own transformation in the years to come. India is ready for a second republic. It needs to transform its federalism either by renegotiating it or incrementally through a due process. However, as was evident in the case of Telangana, for the Congress party, a due process is no more than a way of sweeping inconvenient issues under the carpet because it has no forward looking agenda.

One day it called for a Second States Reorganisation Commission, the next it talked of a consensus approach, then it set up the Pranab Mukherjee Committee to look into the demand for smaller states followed by the Sashidhar Reddy Committee on Telangana. Eventually neither report was made public or discussed in party fora and the party did absolutely nothing.

Manmohan Singh went so far as to bracket regionalism with terrorism among the challenges faced by the country! His faux pas shows that the party has no political appreciation of regional demands. No regional leaders are allowed to grow by the party and if they do, their wings are clipped lest they become potential threats to the planned dynastic succession.

Nor is there any training, acculturalisation or apprenticeship programme for young professional entrants-- witness the difficulties of a Shashi Tharoor.

Meanwhile, Rahul baba prefers to remain in the shallow end and is nowhere near emerging as a national leader. Yet his presence at the helm prevents the emergence of a natural leadership in the party.

Can such a party lead us into the coming decade? The largely accidental election victories of 2004 ( antiincumbency) and 2009 ( by default and, therefore, surprising) seem to have blinded the party to the formidable challenges it faces.

Chaos may have led to success in the past, but that is no path to future success.

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Publication:Mail Today (New Delhi, India)
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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