Rhetoric and reality

Print edition : February 22, 2013

Rahul Gandhi gives his maiden speech as Congress vice-president in Jaipur. Photo: PTI

West Bengal Youth Congress president Mausam Benazir Noor during an election campaign. Photo: PTI

Rahul Gandhi addressing an election rally with Ravneet Singh Bittu, Punjab Youth Congress president, in Mohali on May 9, 2009. Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

Rajiv Satav (left), president, and Nadeem Javed, general secretary of the All India Youth Congress, during a rally in Kolkata. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

Can Rahul Gandhi transform the Congress by making it an open system that encourages initiative and talent? His track record as Youth Congress general secretary is no cause for such optimism.

“THE Congress is the world’s largest political organisation, but there are no rules or laws here. We make a new rule every two minutes to cover up an old rule and perhaps nobody here knows what the rules are of this party.” That was how Rahul Gandhi prefaced his call for democratising the Congress’ organisational structure while making his first speech as the party’s newly appointed vice-president at the Jaipur Chintan Shivir. Elsewhere in the speech, he said that all public systems, including administration, justice, education and politics, were closed systems that kept knowledgeable people out and promoted mediocrity. “Success in these systems does not come through building, it comes by excluding. It comes not by pushing people forward, but by holding people back. Everyday initiative is killed to maintain the status quo,” he pointed out, arguing for concerted efforts to change the status quo.

This rhetoric has indeed been highlighted by many leaders of the Congress and some political observers too as the harbinger of significant structural changes in the organisation. However, there are many party workers as well as some middle-level leaders, particularly in the Youth Congress, the principal organisational arena of Rahul Gandhi until recently, who are sceptical and even cynical about the new vice-president’s “transformation plans”. “One heard similar rhetoric when he took over as general secretary in charge of the Youth Congress in 2007. We also saw the unravelling of a much-hyped democratic election process under an independent agency soon after. Rahulji’s promise was to end the role of family connections, patronage and money and bring deserving youth into politics. But four years later, what we have in the Youth Congress is by and large a repetition of the old culture. Even a casual survey of the Youth Congress leadership across the country would prove this,” said a middle-level Congress activist, who was part of the so-called democratisation exercise in the Youth Congress, to Frontline.

Indeed, a casual survey of the Youth Congress units in different parts of the country substantiates the hegemony of “family connections, patronage and money” in the leadership. The claim of the Youth Congress leadership is that the first round of elections has been completed in all the States except Sikkim. While the full list of officially elected Youth Congress leaders in the States is not readily available with the national leaders, the prominent names in many States are certainly those who have benefited from the factors of family connection, patronage and money. The family connection factor is reflected in the appointment of national Youth Congress president Rajiv Satav himself: he is the son of former Maharashtra Minister and State Women’s Commission chief Rajani Satav. In Punjab, the Youth Congress State president is the late Chief Minister Beant Singh’s grandson Ravneet Singh Bittu, who is also considered close to former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh. In Uttarakhand, Anand Singh Rawat, son of Union Minister of State for Labour and Employment Harish Rawat, is the Youth Congress president. In West Bengal, too, family connections came into play when Mausam Benazir Noor, Congress Lok Sabha member from Malda North and niece of the late Union Minister A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury, was elected as the head of the State Youth Congress. The story continues in Haryana too where Chiranjeev Rao, son of State Minister Ajay Singh Yadav, was elected State Youth Congress president.



Dynastic democracy



All these appointments have apparently followed “democratically” held elections, but many Youth Congress leaders themselves admit that factors like money and muscle power hold sway over the process in a large number of States. In fact, the so-called democratic contests in many States are actually fights between well-entrenched political families. The most striking case in point was Himachal Pradesh, where the sons of the current Chief Minister, Virbhadra Singh, and Transport Minister, Gurmukh Singh Bali, fought each other in a keenly contested election in November 2011. Virbhadra Singh’s son Vikramaditya defeated Raghubir Bali, but two months later, in January 2012, the result was set aside as the independent agency that conducted the polls—Foundation for Advanced Management of Elections (FAME)—decided that “there was no level playing field in the elections” and that Vikramaditya Singh had “violated the code of conduct of the polls”.

There have been many cases across the country where FAME has set aside results or barred activists from contesting elections on different grounds. There have also been complaints against these actions from the activists who have been at the receiving end. Some of the controversies regarding elections are causing divisions in the larger Congress organisation too. A case in point is the developments relating to the Youth Congress elections in Puducherry in 2009. Ashok Anand, an aspiring candidate, was barred from the elections on account of his being named as an accused in a criminal case.

This apparently had a significant impact on the events leading to the split of the Congress in the Union Territory in 2011. Anand joined the new regional political entity—the All India N.R . Congress—that came up after the split and became an MLA in the 2011 Assembly elections.

One of the most curious cases in these controversial elections happened in Uttar Pradesh in December 2011. As per the organisational plan devised by Rahul Gandhi, the State was divided into four units for the elections: Purvanchal, Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh Central and Uttar Pradesh West. The elections in Purvanchal and Uttar Pradesh West threw up interesting results. The Purvanchal elections saw the defeat of Abhishek Pal, the son of senior Congress leader and Lok Sabha member Jagdambika Pal, at the hands of Mohammad Maqsood Khan, an ordinary worker. In Uttar Pradesh West, a virtually unknown Congress activist, Aarti Lokesh Bhati, got elected. It soon became clear that she was essentially a proxy candidate for her husband, Lokesh Bhati, who has a widespread following among Congress activists in the region. Lokesh Bhati, who had been barred from contesting the elections, apparently wanted to prove a point to the leadership and he was able to do so by fielding his wife and getting her elected.

On record, Lokesh Bhati was barred because there were criminal cases against him. However, he said that the cases related to inter-group clashes in college. “Such cases would be there against all ground-level youth activists. In fact, the national leadership and the FAME election commission had not made it an issue in several cases, including in the case of Mumbai Youth Congress president Sadaf Aboli, who too had been booked for a college fracas. Clearly, there are double standards, because powerful people in the Uttar Pradesh Congress wanted to get their own proteges elected to these Youth Congress positions, completely overlooking the good work and reach of dedicated party workers. The victory of Aarti has sent a message to these leaders not to overlook committed workers, but their functioning continues to be in indifferent mode,” Bhati told Frontline.

Leaders of the Youth Congress, such as Satav and national general secretary Jitendra Baghel, admit that there have been some complaints but believe that the first phase was a period of transformation and that things will settle down and get better as the second round of elections get under way. While those who are in positions of power in the Youth Congress continue to espouse this sense of optimism, the larger trends from the electoral process underscore the fact that at best this is a cosmetic exercise. More importantly, there are a large number of Congress activists who believe that the so-called democratisation exercise in the Youth Congress is nothing but a sham. How successful will Rahul Gandhi be in changing this belief and the sceptical mood in the party? The success or failure of Rahul Gandhi’s own promises at the Chintan Shivir will depend, to a large extent, on the answer to this question.

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