A friend who has spent the better part of his life in the Congress, dismissed the meeting held by the party to discuss the reasons for its worst ever electoral defeat. "Half of those who destroyed this party are members of the Congress Working Committee (CWC). How can they sit on judgement on themselves?" he asked. There would be no punishment for the guilty he said, referring to the beaming faces at the CWC meeting, as if it were just another photo opportunity.
He claimed that there were four types of Congressmen close to the party president Sonia Gandhi - "middlemen or pimps, sycophants, tattle-tales and conspirators." They had prospered by using these skills to get close to the party president and then used that proximity to destroy rivals and grass-root leaders. He said, "We have become a party of bonded labourers. No one can muster the courage to be honest. Those who want to somehow survive in politics do not want to say anything critical of those who have destroyed the party."
Perhaps what this lifelong Congress party loyalist feels is typical of others within the party, seething with impotent anger.
The Congress has for long been the property of a family. The family operates through retainers with no mass base - one only has to see the number of Rajya Sabha members in the coterie of Sonia Gandhi. Others are expected to garner mass support and contest elections, to go out in the field, farm public opinion and bring back the harvested mandate for them to enjoy.
The family's leadership has also changed over time. There is an increasing sense of entitlement that comes from belonging to a long-standing political dynasty. The Gandhi siblings never fail to refer to "the legacy" and "sacrifice" of their father and grandmother. There is also the arrogance of power. These qualities do not make for effective mass political leadership.
Indira Gandhi used to meet people daily. She received feedback from senior leaders and grass-root workers alike. In addition, when in power, she also had access to intelligence reports. The inputs she received from one set of people could be cross-checked with what she learnt from the others. The current day inheritors of her legacy, in contrast, meet people only infrequently. Access to them is denied by their political as well as other gatekeepers.
Sitting at home for 360 days in a year under Special Protection Group or SPG cover and waving at commandeered crowds for five days in a year or hugging the poor during elections does not amount to a meaningful interaction with the people. Other Congress leaders have followed suit and stopped reaching out to the people. At best, "outreach" is limited to silver-tongued lawyers who are sent off to rant on television channels. Old-style sustained communication with the people, even through the media - a la V N Gadgil or a Madhavsinh Solanki - has been forgotten in the last 10 years. The net result is that the party does not know what people think or how they view the party.
Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul Gandhi, do not seem to have any clarity about why they have put together their respective teams. One relies on people who are afraid of contesting elections and are living off the party, parasitically. The other chooses MBAs, accountants, software experts and city slickers who can converse in English, as his advisors. Neither coterie is a substitute for people connected with the masses. They indulge in palace intrigues while keeping their masters happy. At least now, they should be told to prove themselves by winning a panchayat election to begin with.
As for trusting party leaders, the first family of the Congress does not seem to trust anyone at all. It is afraid to devolve power to leaders with a mass base lest they threaten its own existence. This was why Manmohan Singh, who was no threat to the family, was appointed prime minister twice - first when Sonia Gandhi herself could not take on the job; and later, when her son was not ready to step into it either.
Yet, contrary to common belief, the party cannot survive at this moment without the family. There is no single leader who can take over since mass leaders have been systematically destroyed over time. It is almost as if the Congress is a party of the dead - the few Congressmen who still have some breath left in them are either too timid or have demonstrated neither dynamism nor any strategic vision. So it is unrealistic to assume that Congressmen at this juncture would be able to junk the family.
So what corrective measures can the party still take? To begin with, it needs to shake off the current CWC. The new leadership of the party has to come from small towns and villages, and not from the clubbing crowd or the plush drawing rooms of Delhi. For this, the party needs to go back to the rural areas and rebuild its organisation with people with commitment to its ideals. The party leadership itself needs to put in place multiple channels of feedback, instead of relying on the usual freeloaders.
Politics requires full-time commitment - and the least of the lessons that the Congress leadership can learn from Narendra Modi is that one must sacrifice personal life for the public good. That would apply not only to grass-roots workers but also to the party's national leadership. It will not do for young Rahul Gandhi to gallivant off to London the moment campaigning ended on May 12 and miss the outgoing prime minister's farewell dinner for his personal pursuits. People notice these things and are bound to presume that someone who is unsettled in his personal life may not be stable in public life either. If the Congress can strengthen its organisation, encourage a leadership connected with the masses, objective conditions would present themselves sooner or later for it to re-emerge. But it will have to be a new party with a new political culture.
The writer is a journalist based in Delhi