India's grand old party losing the plot under Rahul Gandhi

Low Command: Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia Gandhi.
Low Command: Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia Gandhi.

The Congress party's morale is at its lowest ebb, defeat after defeat

By P. R Ramesh (Poll Position)

Published: Tue 6 Sep 2016, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Tue 6 Sep 2016, 2:00 AM

At a recent meeting held at his Tughlaq Road residence in New Delhi, Rahul Gandhi was meant to discuss with Congress legislators a way forward in states where the party was steadily losing ground. At the appointed time, however, he was not home. He arrived an hour late. Once the meeting began, several of those in attendance found their party vice-president distracted and indifferent to the suggestions being made. The man expected to succeed Sonia Gandhi as the party's top leader sat through the discussions for barely a quarter of an hour, apparently unmoved by what other leaders had to say. Then, as abruptly as he'd arrived, he got up and left the room without having spoken a single word. It was a whole hour after his exit that the gathering was informed, by an office assistant, that he had left the premises for another meeting.
That is the way of the new Jajmani system.
In his book India's Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in North India, Christophe Jaffrelot says that the Jajmani system defined the Congress party's inner dynamics in the pre-Independence era. Mahatma Gandhi, unarguably its supreme leader then, used the system to argue for minimal social change and conflict among the cadre so that a unified fight could be put up against British rule.
The Jajmani system of the period, as Jaffrelot sees it, was one in which menials and artisans were paid small sums by the rest of society to perform pre-assigned duties that served the existing social order and civic set up. The etymology of the term 'Jajman' is revealing. It is derived from the Sanskrit 'yagyaman', which refers to a patron of a 'yagya', a religious ritual conducted by a Brahmin who is awarded a 'dakshina' or gift for invoking divine blessings. In modern society, the Jajman came to symbolise a feudal lord who would keep priests on his payroll and subjugate the masses. The British leveraged the attitudes of subordination bred by that system to control the colony through loyal zamindars and merchants. The colonial-era Congress adopted it to establish and enforce authority over party members.
In the party's early days, Congressmen came from the educated class-lawyers, teachers, journalists and zamindars. They followed leaders such as Dadabhai Naoroji, S.N. Banerjee and Pherozeshah Mehta. The top-down exercise of power was an accepted norm, and each region had its stalwarts. The United Provinces, for example, had Motilal Nehru, Madan Mohan Malaviya and Purushottam Das Tandon; the Andhra region had Sitaramaiah; Gujarat had Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel; and Punjab had Lala Lajpat Rai. Command, rather than consensus, was the rule.
On Gandhi's return from South Africa, he was the supreme arbiter. Some party leaders were keen on social change. In 1929, 'Socialist' Nehru argued in favour of a system that empowered owner-peasants. In 1930, he spoke for the boycott of taxes paid by farmers in the United Provinces, and three years later, came out with Whither India, a pamphlet in which he regretted that the Congress had yet to question the social status quo. Politically, Nehru wanted Independence from British rule, and economically and socially, an end to all class privileges and vested interests. But by 1936, Nehru had retracted the radical overtones of his views, as made clear by his acquiescence in the passing of the Tenancy Act that was widely seen as a victory of landlords over poor landless farmers.
The Jajmani system survived the first generation of Congress leaders. After Gandhi, Nehru was the natural inheritor of this authority. The only person who could challenge his authority was Patel, which he did in Jaipur Session in 1948. It was when Indira Gandhi became Congress president that the powers of the 'High Command' began to be exercised with even sterner authority. In 1969, she split the party in response to a rebellion against her, and she turned even more authoritarian after crushing her rivals in the electoral fray. Again, she could control the organisation because she was the party's principal vote catcher. So absolute was the power she arrogated to herself that her arbitrary actions would go unquestioned.
The near-feudal powers vested in the Congress High Command, synonymous by now with the family, were also on display when Sonia Gandhi wrested control of the party after seven years of Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri's leadership. She was accepted by most Congressmen as the natural heir of the Nehru-Gandhi legacy.
At a talk held the GB Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad about three years ago, Rahul Gandhi had famously spoken of poverty as "just a state of mind"-"It does not mean scarcity of food, money or material things. If one possesses self confidence, then one can overcome poverty." While that may have worked well at a spiritual congregation, it drew intense flak at the political level, with some BJP leaders even charging Rahul with trying to make 'economics irrelevant'.
That was just one instance of the vice-president being out of touch with the realities of politics. After the party's 2014 flop show and virtual wipe-out in the mid-2016 clutch of state elections- from Kerala and Tamil Nadu to West Bengal and Assam-the very term 'High Command', which once inspired hushed tones within party circles, was being dismissed in some quarters as the 'low command'.
Instead of constructive moves to chalk out a coherent blueprint for the party's rejuvenation, Rahul Gandhi's most telling contributions of late have been his facetious potshots at Prime Minister Narendra Modi. First, it was his 'Fair and Lovely' jibe in Parliament on the Government's unkept promises on black money. This Monsoon Session of Parliament saw him mouthing the clichéd 'Arhar Modi' taunt to drive home the Government's inability to control the spiralling prices of essentials such as pulses. Worse, on key issues the Congress under Rahul appears to have completely lost the plot, and at a time that good leadership could have made the party a real difference. "He's like a man who has a death wish, chopping the branch on which he is perched," rues one party leader.
These are all signs of the failing authority of the Congress High Command. Is the Jajmani system unravelling? Still, what remains of the party seems happy to be led to nowhere by an ineffective jajman.
The author is the Managing Editor of The Open magazine

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