It was a party of educated professionals once, and Rahul Gandhi wants to make it so again. But his father before him had tried, and he will succeed only if he finds a new way to do it.
The Congress was once a party of educated professionals, and Rahul Gandhi wants to make it so again. Will he manage? And what might it take?
On the website of the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, it is easy to access a working paper by K Ramachandran on Indian family businesses: ‘Their Survival Beyond Three Generations’. Based on a study of the Murugappa, Dabur, Wadia, Godrej and Kirloskar groups, the paper arrives at a set of working hypotheses, the third of which states: the proverbial ‘shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations’ is a myth in growing economies. Any political journalist could have told him this. From Motilal Nehru to Rahul Gandhi, the Indian National Congress (INC) is still thriving.
The Congress Inc.
The tangled lines of authority in a family concern looking to professionalise
The comparison between a family business and the Congress party is not meant to be facetious. It is, according to historian and political scientist Ramachandra Guha, a plausible analogy: “Much the same problem faces any major business house such as the Tatas or Birlas when considering a man not from the family for the top job.”
“Consider the house of Ambanis,” points out Rashid Kidwai, biographer of Sonia Gandhi who is currently working on a book on the Congress named after its headquarters, 24 Akbar Road, “There was the same conflict between family loyalists and professionals that the Congress is witnessing today. Dhirubhai’s old associates had tremendous trouble adjusting to corporate managers.”
Indeed, as an organisation, the current Congress faces the same challenge any family-run business faces—how to bring about greater professionalisation while retaining control. The need to do so is not in doubt, spelt out as it is by the first of Ramachandran’s working hypotheses: family businesses with a higher level of professionalism practised both in business and by the family are likely to perform better and perpetuate their success over a longer time frame.
This, though, is easier said than done. Within the Congress, the idea has been in the making since Rajiv Gandhi’s ascent to power. But what was then a limited initiative to bring in a few friends with professional qualifications has now given way to a far more ambitious approach. Already, in the transition from Rajiv to Rahul, Sonia Gandhi has managed to implement an important step. She has placed a ‘professional CEO’ such as Manmohan Singh in charge of what managers call a ‘key result area’ (KRA): governance. Since 22 May 2004, Manmohan Singh has wrought professionalism across several governance functions, but his party itself has remained much the same.
Turning the Congress, whose notion of ‘self rule’ seems to have changed drastically since the days of the freedom struggle, professional is a far more difficult challenge, and it is now for Rahul Gandhi to face.
The Congress General Secretary’s plans for restructuring the Indian Youth Congress are only an initial step, a blueprint for what is to follow. The pitfalls that await him are numerous, as the process of induction of professionals in government has shown. A Mani Shankar Aiyar lies fallen by the wayside, while Shashi Tharoor’s tweet tooth troubles and Jairam Ramesh’s foot-in-mouth disease show no signs of abating. In the party’s 125th year of existence, can Rahul Gandhi’s vision of Congress Inc bridge the gap between professionals and politics that opened up after that midnight of 1947?
TRYST WORTHY MEN
If only fifty men, good and true, can be found to join as founders, the thing can be established and further development will be comparatively easy… Every nation secures precisely as good a Government as it merits. If you, the picked men, the most highly educated of the nation, cannot, scorning personal ease and selfish objects, make a resolute struggle to secure greater freedom for yourselves and your country, a more impartial administration, a larger share in the management of your own affairs, then we, your friends, are wrong and our adversaries right…
So wrote AO Hume to the graduates of the University of Calcutta in 1883 and two years later the Congress was founded. It started off as an organisation for educated Indians, but by the time Mahatma Gandhi arrived from South Africa, its membership had expanded considerably. While its leadership was to remain in the hands of men such Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose, who were educated professionals granted a lateral entry, thanks to their education and provenance, Gandhi was to convert the Congress into a party of the masses.
Notes Guha, “In the 1930s and 40s, Gandhi took the party away from the metropolis. So, many of the legislators came from a rural background, vernacular speakers mainly from the middle castes, such as Kamraj and YB Chavan.” For almost 20 years after Independence, well through Nehru’s tenure, those who had joined the party during the freedom struggle continued to play a part in Indian politics. In a country where caste and community were important factors in any electoral decision, men of such political identities and rapport were those most likely to succeed. Professionals, however, were people whose education and employment had thrown them into a far more cosmopolitan culture.
By the time of Nehru’s death, leaders such as Punjab Chief Minister Pratap Singh Kairon, a master’s in economics from Berkeley, were rare. The split in the Congress which saw Indira Gandhi striking out on her own signalled the end of the freedom fighters’ generation in a party now increasingly driven by her personality. Loyalists held sway, and sycophancy peaked.
CONGRESS IN TRANSITION
It was the death of Sanjay Gandhi that first heralded a change. His elder brother Rajiv Gandhi, a pilot, suddenly found himself drawn into politics. As an ‘outsider’ of sorts, he brought along people he could trust—cousins such as Arun Nehru and buddies like Arun Singh and Mani Shankar Aiyar. But they were not the only ones. Around that time, other highly educated people were drawn in, among them a lawyer called P Chidambaram (who contested the 1984 polls) and an IIT graduate called Jairam Ramesh (who was involved in reorganising the CSIR in 1986).
Aiyar says that Rajiv’s challenge was no different. “Twenty-four years ago,” he recalls, “at the party’s centenary session, Rajiv Gandhi raised a lot of porcupine quills by targeting what he called ‘brokers of power’ who were discrediting the party from within. He formed the Uma Shankar Dikshit Committee to democratise the organisation. However, before the recommendations were operationalised, he suffered the electoral reverse of November 1989 and was so convinced that the only way to rejuvenate the party was to adopt Dikshit’s recommendations. [But] with his death, the party shelved the Dikshit report and nothing has happened in 20 years.”
After Rajiv’s death until his widow Sonia’s assumption of power as party president in 1997, the Congress was in political decline. It was hardly a time any professional would have aspired to politics. There was but one exception: Manmohan Singh. His role as Finance Minister was thrust upon him, but he stuck with the party in the years after its defeat in 1996. It was only when Sonia Gandhi stepped aside and let Manmohan Singh be sworn in as Prime Minister that things started changing within the Government. In establishing his authority over his first term, he had to wage a battle with the old guard. In his second term Cabinet, Shivraj Patil and Arjun Singh have been replaced by Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal. Add to this the recent ascent of Jairam Ramesh and Shashi Tharoor, and the extent of the party’s transformation is clear.
In any family-run business, succession struggles pose a big risk to sustaining success. The Nehru-Gandhis have been remarkably adept at avoiding friction within the family. At any one time, only one person from a generation has had an assigned role within the party. Sanjay and Rajiv never jostled for political space. Ditto, Priyanka and Rahul. The latter, it is sparklingly clear, is the party’s future leader. And in Manmohan Singh, the party has a professional who will hold fort till it is time for Rahul Gandhi to assume the role himself.
That gives Rahul time to complete the task his father initiated 20 years earlier. The refreshment of the Congress is a twofold task. The first of these involves a restructuring so that the party is managed in a professional manner, with far clearer goal orientation, no matter how crazy KRAs sound in politics, and the second involves bringing in outside talent that provides technical expertise the party itself lacks.
This year, the Indian Youth Congress will start a programme to attract more professionals, after a structural rejig. “In the coming month,” says Ashok Tanwar, IYC president and first-time Lok Sabha MP, “we will be done with organisational elections in Bihar, Chandigarh, Mumbai and Chhattisgarh. Sometime after these elections, we will start a simultaneous programme to involve professionals with the IYC.” Under-35s have been swarming to the IYC over the last two years. The young Gandhi believes that a large membership base will naturally translate into vast membership for the Congress. Yet, the crucial task is the hunt for talent. Finding people, that is, for whom joining politics is a genuine career sacrifice for a larger cause.
Efforts are being made. “We are going to create special cells for professionals,” says Tanwar, “For example, we will soon have a lawyers’ cell and a doctors’ cell. They will provide services that they are experts in. They feel more comfortable like that. The objective is to use their expertise for both the organisation and the masses.”
As the experience of professionals in government has shown, their sudden induction can cause its own difficulties. Mani Shankar Aiyar puts this in his inimitable fashion: “Kapil Sibal has gone from being a somewhat obscure minister of state for science and technology to being a high-profile Cabinet Minister for HRD. Jairam has leapt from being a Rajya Sabha backbencher to a Cabinet Minister with the highest profile among first-term cabinet ministers. Tharoor’s is undoubtedly the loudest tweet among the MoSs. I don’t think they are complaining and I don’t know why you are.”
Tharoor, despite his years as a bureaucrat, does not seem to have grasped the simple fact that even when you have a valid point of view, there is a proper forum to air it. If every minister chose to express his personal views on every government issue, there would be chaos. Jairam Ramesh seems to suffer from a similar allergy for discretion in public.
Mani Shankar Aiyar himself is a case in point. “I don’t think you can take my personal example as the paradigm of what happens to professionals who come into politics,” he tells Open. “It is true that at present I am completely marginalised in both the party and the Government, and no one seems to have any patience to listen to me or any use for me. But I suspect this is more because I have always been a maverick.”
The brashness of such men is resented by many of their colleagues, and it is easy to forget the benefits they bring to governance. As Rashid Kidwai says, “This pull and tug goes back to the Rajiv era. Those in the party seem to think professionals are an evil necessity. The most obvious example is of the open hostility between Arjun Singh and Sam Pitroda. But without Pitroda, the telecom boom in the country may have taken quite a while longer.”
Murmurs of dissent within the IYC have already started, even though the process is nowhere near complete. “The Youth Congress actually makes access to Rahul Gandhi difficult. A lot of money is spent on the Youth Congress’s conventions just because Rahul Gandhi attends them. Secretaries and above make air trips to all these places to oversee the arrangements, but the local chaps—who are really talented—have little access to him,” says a telecom engineer who joined the IYC but soon moved away. “Youth are coming ahead to join the IYC because of Rahul Gandhi’s charisma, but if the IYC is not able to handle them, they will get disenchanted. The youth card won’t work again and again,” he warns.
The dissatisfaction has to do with a fact Guha alludes to: “Much like in the 30s and 40s, when it was clear that the Congress would rule India after Independence, the party today is attracting people who are careerist, and I don’t mean that in a cynical way.” Such people often need to see quick returns on their investment (if not sacrifice), but not everyone can expect to have an election ticket or important party post waiting for him/her.
A recent newspaper report cited the case of ‘the CEO of a Mumbai-based company who quit his job and approached Rahul’s office expressing his desire to help out in the infrastructure sector’. According to the report, ‘Rahul heard him for a while and asked him to meet his aide Kanishka Singh. After discussions with him, Singh told him he would keep in touch with him. The former IITian, a Muslim from Jharkhand, wanted a ticket to contest the Assembly elections and ended up disappointed.’ And this is only the Youth Congress. As Rahul Gandhi must have already realised by now, the move from Indian National Congress to Congress Inc will take time. But even he does not have an eternity to spare.