A 5-point blueprint for the revival of the Congress - Part 1

Sanjay Jha
National Spokesperson, Indian National Congress party

Let me bite the bullet: the May 23, 2019 general election results in India have led to an incalculable level of mental torture for the supporters of the Indian National Congress which could manage only 52 Lok Sabha seats out of 543. Most Congress supporters I meet still appear to be in a daze, as if hit by Roger Federer’s forehand on the head with a cricket ball.

The despondency is understandable, the electoral rout is indeed an unmitigated disaster for the Grand Old Party in the 134th year of its storied political journey. Rahul Gandhi’s decision to resign as Congress president has only further rocked the boat that is navigating turbulent waters infested with sharks.

The brazen anaconda-like swallowing of the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) Karnataka government by the unconscionable, opportunistic Bharatiya Janata Party is a perfect example of how the latter intends to fulfill its cherished aspiration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s highfalutin call of Congress-mukt Bharat (India without Congress).

In the BJP playbook, the ends justify the means, whether it is cash offers, political intimidation, institutional threats of criminal proceedings or a promise of ministerial positions that would augment self-aggrandizement. In its crude bottomline approach of power-at-any-cost, the BJP is creating new touchstones of political malfeasance.

However, given the massive mandate of 303 seats they received (despite their terrible performance), their hubris is human.

I think the BJP actually believes that the ‘MLA stock exchange’ that they created in Bengaluru where elected legislators were traded as purchasable commodities has public backing. They cared a damn. For them ‘Operation Kamal’, as the sleazy buyout of MLAs was christened, was a way of saying QED; we can do as we please.

But this piece is not about the BJP. It is about the Congress party and what it can and must do to reboot itself and reclaim the fast dissipating, disintegrating ideals that our Constitution’s founders once envisaged.

India is close to a dangerous precipice and this is not just vacuous fear-mongering.

If you don’t believe me go and ask the family of Tabrez Ansari, callously slaughtered by a bloodthirsty mob. And he is not the only one. India’s hate-mongers are being mainstreamed; not long ago they were also being garlanded by Harvard-educated, McKinsey-experienced lawmakers of the BJP.

The Congress party must stem the rot: after all, at stake is the future of a complex, democratic society that houses 16% of the world’s inhabitants. But to do that first it will have to reinvent itself.

The cliché goes that extraordinary times demand extraordinary solutions: frankly, it appears customized for a Congress renewal in its worst days. However, instead of cosmetic tinkering, one needs to do a major surgery, almost akin to a complete personality makeover.

The elephant in the room is the moribund AICC (All India Congress Committee) which appears largely comatose on account of its disorganisation. A new architecture is needed.

Here are five suggestions that will help bring about a structural change; strategy, tactics, game-plans, Plan B, alliances, et cetera will be a natural by-product or collateral of this exercise:

  1. Appoint 5 regional vice-presidents

The All India Congress Committee (AICC) structure right now suffers from bureaucratic cholesterol; it needs to be junked. We live in the age of Artificial Intelligence, drones, 1,000 million mobile phones, Big Data and facial recognition technology -- adhering to an old, non-performing, labyrinth-like organisational body is counterproductive.

Currently, the Congress president is over-stretched with practically every key decision being concentrated in that position. It is practically impossible to have the daily bandwidth to absorb the diverse, complex and people issues that regularly crop up in a loose, fragmented volunteer-driven political party with several competing factions.

Decentralized decision-making is imperative; the alternative is slothful responses to challenging issues that require prompt resolution. It can end up paralyzing the entire machinery and demoralizing supporters.

The span of control of the Congress president’s job needs to be limited, as the party leader needs time away from transactional party management for political strategy, electoral narrative setting, media interactions, talent-selection, fund-raising, policy construction, conflict resolution, handling alliances, parliamentary performance, overseas trips, etc.

In the current set up either speed, quality or detailing or one or more of the three will suffer. It is one of the toughest tasks in the world, trust me. Hence the need for a smart flexible nimble-footed decentralized AICC leadership structure.

The Congress president must be supported by newly appointed five vice-presidents, each fully accountable for a specific region.

Vice-president (North): Punjab, J&K, Delhi NCR, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand (8 states and 150 Lok Sabha seats).

Vice-president (West): Maharashtra, Gujarat, Goa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu (5 states, 2 UTs, and 118 Lok Sabha seats).

Vice-president (South): Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Puducherry, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Lakshadweep (5 states, 2 UTs, 130 seats).

Vice-president (East): Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal and Jharkhand (4 states and 117 Lok Sabha seats).

Vice-president (North East): Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Sikkim, Andaman and Nicobar (7 states, 1 UT and 25 Lok Sabha seats).

The Congress is up against a formidable monstrosity in the BJP that has substantial resources -- financial, people, besides the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal foot soldiers who incessantly push their divisive propaganda.

The institutional and media capture done by the BJP has made them cruise nonchalantly ahead, as they literally fix the 9 pm primetime hashtag that influences public perception. In short, the BJP is effectively micro-managing every electoral prospect right down to the booth-home level even for gram panchayat elections.

The famous BJP versus Congress fight has become extremely asymmetrical. Thus, the best option for the Congress is to do best in what it can control: itself.

The Congress has a solid talent pool, mostly under-leveraged. The recommended structure will ensure that senior leaders who are VPs will provide a strong bulwark to the Congress president in ensuring day-to-day political management with a focus on creating a viable electoral mechanism that is robust, reliable and responds with alacrity on local and regional issues.

Above all, it will monitor voter expectations and preempt competitor moves and provide regular feedback to the national leadership.

Each state will have a dedicated focused attention from the top, critical given the election cycle extending from Lok Sabha, Assembly elections to local and municipal polls.

A separate vice president for the North East is a must as there are 7 states and each has their own unique characteristic, besides demographic, linguistic and tribal dynamics and a distinct historical legacy. To merely look at the region on the basis of 25 Lok Sabha seats (equal to a modest-sized Rajasthan) will be myopic.

The current general secretary model of the AICC is obsolete. Each state must have just one head who reports in to the vice-president: a One-Person-One-State policy. For instance, the VP (North) must have 8 heads of states reporting to him, and so on.

Incidentally, noted political commentator Sagarika Ghose has suggested a similar arrangement, although the author of this article had submitted a written internal memo of this recommendation as early as May 28, 2019.