Across the aisle by P Chidambaram: The leader and the president

The rank and file, overwhelmingly, want that Mr Rahul Gandhi should take up the office from which he resigned in July 2019.

Across the aisle by P Chidambaram: The leader and the president
Congress leaders Shashi Tharoor and Ashok Gehlot are in the running for Congress party’s president post (Photo credit: Express photo)

There is an unusual, almost obtrusive, interest in the internal party elections of the Congress party. Two years ago, nobody in India including the BJP rank and file, and certainly no member of the Congress party, cared tuppence when Mr J P Nadda was ‘elected’ President of the BJP. Nobody bothered to ask about the ‘electoral rolls’. Nobody knew who the Returning Officer was or if Mr Nadda had filed his ‘nomination’. Although the BJP was the ruling party and boasted of having the ‘largest’ membership of any political party in the world, Mr Nadda’s election was a non-event.

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The extraordinary interest shown by the BJP and the media in the Congress party’s elections is proof of two facts: one, that Congress-mukt India is a myth and a mirage; it will never happen. Second, that the Bharat Jodo Yatra has shook the BJP out of its complacency and has made the media, otherwise dismissive of the Congress, sit up and take notice.

Party & the Gandhis

The Congress will elect its next President in the month of October.  Who will it be, I cannot say.  The rank and file, overwhelmingly, want that Mr Rahul Gandhi should take up the office from which he resigned in July 2019. That is their right. However, Mr Gandhi has made it clear that he has no desire to be the Congress President again.

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The party leaders may make a valiant last effort to persuade Mr Gandhi to change his mind but, if he does not relent, they must respect the wishes of Mr Gandhi and move on.  The electoral college must elect another person as President and draw the curtain on the interim presidency.  In my view, the election of a non-Gandhi as Congress President will not mean that the party has abandoned the Gandhis or vice versa.

History lessons

The history of the Congress party has valuable lessons.  After the advent of Mahatma Gandhi on the Indian political scene, he was the acknowledged leader of the Congress party.  He was the tallest among many tall leaders. During the period 1921-1948, 14 different individuals occupied the office of Congress President and among them were giants such as CR Das, Sarojini Naidu, S Srinivasa Iyengar, MA Ansari, Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Subhas Chandra Bose, Abdul Kalam Azad and Acharya Kripalani. The rank and file of the party, and even non-members, understood the subtle but important difference: that Mahatma Gandhi was the ‘Leader of the Congress’ and the other person was the ‘President of the Congress’. One office/individual did not try to dominate the other.

A similar arrangement was in place in the years between 1948 and 1964: Jawaharlal Nehru was the acknowledged Leader of the Congress, while seven individuals occupied the chair of the President of the Congress. The period 1965-1984 was no different: Indira Gandhi was the Congress Leader while 8 individuals were Congress President.

In a large political party of a large country, the arrangement makes eminent sense. The Leader’s task is to provide leadership to the people, share a vision with them, and inspire them to vote for the party. The President’s main function is to fix the nuts and bolts of the organisation, keep it in good repair and make it a fighting-fit election machine. The two tasks are complementary. If a party finds one person to perform both tasks, that party is lucky; if it divides the duties between two individuals, that party is practical and wise.

Inspire, re-build

As I said, a leader must inspire.  Mahatma Gandhi did so with his novel political thesis of non-violence, non-cooperation, civil disobedience and, ultimately, the Quit India movement. Jawaharlal Nehru  fired  the imagination of the people with the lofty ideas of non-alignment, secularism and socialism.  Indira Gandhi urged the nation to dream big and took bold measures like bank nationalisation and housing for all. A B Vajpayee raised the sights of the nation with ambitious projects like the Golden Quadrilateral. An inspired turn of phrase (“tryst with destiny”) or an electrifying slogan (“garibi hatao”) or an expansive vision (“insaniyat, jamhuriat and kashmiriyat”) can raise the leader to lofty heights.

By contrast, a party President must be firmly grounded, guarding and nourishing the flock, and taking the hard decisions. The Congress party machinery is in serious disrepair and needs to be fixed urgently. This will require long hours on the road and longer hours with the party workers. The President must keep a close watch on the performance of every unit of the party from the booth to the Block to the District to the State. The President must coddle and chastise the workers, reward and punish the leaders, and replace the obsolete or defective parts of the party machine. That is a 24×7 job, 364 days a year (the President’s birthday excepted!). The key to a multi-party democracy and to a functional Parliament is the Congress. Absent the Congress, we may resign ourselves to a one-party State and an illusion of a democracy.

Whether the Congress will get a Leader-cum-President or a Leader and a President, will be known in the next six days. This will be a crucial week for the Congress party as well as for the country. On second thought, the unusual and obtrusive interest shown in the internal elections of the Congress party may not be entirely unjustified.

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