The Indian National Congress is organising a three-day “Chintan Shivir” or deliberation camp this weekend in hot and dusty Udaipur. Previous such camps were held in 2013, 2003 and 1998. Some 400 top leaders will attend.
The rarity of these sessions reminds one of what Mahatma Gandhi thought of the Indian National Congress in 1905: “The Congress would meet three days every year and then go to sleep.” These days the Indian National Congress meets once a decade and then goes back to sleep.
A “plenary” session of the All India Congress Committee was last held in 2018. The top decision-making body of the party, the Congress Working Committee, has all its members nominated by party president Sonia Gandhi. The CWC meets whenever Sonia Gandhi and her children need a stamp of approval on their arbitrary decisions.
Yet this Chintan Shivir in Udaipur is a do or die moment for the party. Will the 3-day conference merely be another pre-scripted occasion to show sycophantic approval of the Gandhi family or will it result in some substantive changes in the way the party is run? We shall know by Sunday evening.
Given that they are calling it “Nav Sankalp Chintan Shivir”, the aim is certainly to give a sense of a new resolve going ahead. No such resolve is possible without some hard changes to the party’s structure.
What could those hard decisions be? Here are three suggestions.
End the tyranny of the unelected
First, the Congress should have a rule that one has to be a directly elected legislator to be a member of the Congress Working Committee. Sonia Gandhi may still feel free to choose her favourites and “loyalists”, but they have to be elected as Lok Sabha MP or an MLA from any Vidhan Sabha. If a sitting MP or MLA who is a member of the CWC loses an election, they automatically also lose their CWC membership.
Currently the CWC has 21 regular members of which only two are sitting MPs: Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. If we include the special and permanent invitees, there are 56 members, of which a total of 11 are sitting Lok Sabha MPs or an MLA in one of the states.
If you look at the list on the INC website, it is notable how many members have “Ex-MP” written next to their names. If the issue is respect and honour, a special ceremonial committee may be made to accommodate the unelected seniors.
What problem will this solve? For one, the party will be run by those who know how to win elections. Even in this era of BJP dominance, those who can win their Lok Sabha or Vidhan Sabha seats on a Congress ticket are the best people to run the party. When they do so, they will be able to tell the top leadership how to win elections, how to handle majoritarian narratives, what caste strategy to adopt, and so on. These are people who have demonstrated not in the past but in the present how to persuade voters in favour of the Congress party.
The Congress has only 55 Lok Sabha MPs, and most of them are from just two states, Punjab and Kerala.
This change should also be replicated at the state levels. It will ensure that Congress leaders work very hard to win their own seats, if that is the only way to be taken seriously in the party.
Just one Rajya Sabha term
The Congress party is run currently by Rajya Sabha aspirants. It is state MLAs who elect Rajya Sabha MPs. Therefore, someone else has to work hard to win people’s votes for these seniors in Delhi to get a Rajya Sabha seat.
Consider the irony that the party’s General Secretary (Organisation) hails from Kerala but is a Rajya Sabha MP from Rajasthan. Can someone who can’t win his own election really strengthen a party organisation to go out and win votes?
That brings us to our second suggestion. The party should have another rule: nobody, not even former prime minister Manmohan Singh, should be given a second Rajya Sabha term. No matter who you are, one term is all you get. After that, feel free to win a Lok Sabha seat.
This will make sure the parasites leave Delhi and go to the states to win votes from the masses. They could, alternatively, choose retirement, which may not be a bad idea for many of them.
Fire those who fail
Our third and last suggestion is regarding the colonial-style general secretaries in-charge of states. Behaving like the British residents in princely states, these general secretaries are so powerful that they often run state elections autonomously. After every election defeat, local Congress leaders privately gossip about how the general secretary sold tickets for hard cash.
The most incredible aspect of these Nawabs is that they don’t lose their posts after overseeing a defeat. They usually don’t even offer their resignations!
The Congress should make a national election management cell and make all these general secretaries members of the body. They don’t have to be elected MPs or MLAs. But they should be subject to a simple rule: if they lose the election they are overseeing, they lose the post of general secretary. An instant demotion in rank. If they lose but show marked improvement in the state, they could stay. If they win the state, they get promoted to the membership of the Congress Working Committee.
Human beings respond to incentives and disincentives. The arbitrary manner in which Sonia Gandhi and her children run the party makes sure that “loyalists” and sycophants do not face any scrutiny or accountability. If the ground rules for accountability are announced and applied without discrimination, these leaders will stop hanging around Lutyens’ Delhi and spend more time persuading voters.