Don’t blame Prashant Kishor for Congress' slipshod set-up
Prashant Kishor is a modest man. He knows that only one man had ever come in as a total outsider and taken over the leadership of the Congress party, one Mohandas Karamchand. Kishor would not want the world to get the impression that he thinks PK is a close enough substitute for MK, the variation in the initials entirely justifiable on account of the passage of time.
PK is quite clear, as have been the party’s observers and well-wishers for quite some time, that the Congress needs fewer Gandhis at the moment, not more of them, not excluding would-be Gandhis or alphabetical proxies. So, he has bowed out of the noble mission to salvage India’s only party that stands, at least at the level of its stated programme, for the values of the Constitution and the welfare of all Indians, rather than specific sections of them, from the wreckage its helmsmen have reduced it to.
It had been a fanciful proposition to begin with, the notion that a political party can outsource mending its organic leadership to an outside agency. It is entirely possible and possibly beneficial for a party to outsource specific parts of a publicity campaign to professional agencies, or even take external, professional help for designing a coordinated election campaign. But the notion that its vision or leadership can be outsourced is to think of a human being as an assemblage of skeleton, muscle and nervous tissue, leaving out intelligence, wisdom, ideals and passion.
Kishor is not entirely to blame for considering such a transplant of the party’s core. The Congress leadership led him on. It began with the appointment of the National Advisory Council to give governance inputs to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. That move advertised the party leadership’s disconnect with the people and their aspirations — why would they need non-government organisations, putatively in close touch with the people, to tell them what ails the people and how to cure those ailments if the party leadership could feel the pulse of the people? Further, it advertised the disconnect of the party leadership from the ordinary party workers and/or the distance between ordinary party workers and ordinary folk, mediating between whom and the state is the legitimate function of a political party.
Further, creation of a National Advisory Council advertised the party was bereft of an emancipatory imagination of its own. Such imagination calls for two ingredients: a live awareness of social life, of what people struggle with in their daily life, on the one hand, and, on the other, the combination of a passion to better people’s lives and progress towards a redemptive vision of society, the knowledge of how development challenges are being overcome in different parts of the world and the skill to formulate ideas as policies and to get those policies enacted and implemented by the government, with the support of popular mobilisation on the ground. That latter combination comes from attracting to the party people committed to the democratic cause, rather than snagging the loaves and fishes of office. When the party is a movement of change for the better, it attracts the right kind of people and acquires the needed dynamism.
The Congress lost its life-giving energy of internal renewal, with the anointment of a naïve Rajiv Gandhi as Indira Gandhi’s successor. Rajiv Gandhi reigned as prime minister, leaving the running of the government to what he thought was a clutch of reliable professionals, his school chums and close relations, rather than Congressmen who had come up through the hardscrabble of politics at the village, district and state levels. He disdained traditional Congressmen as powerbrokers on the make. His trusted lieutenants left him, as it turned out, with the Shah Bano fiasco, the Ayodhya build-up, a near attack on Pakistan and the Bofors scandal. The traditional Congressmen whom he had shunned stood aside and watched as the Opposition orchestrated a campaign that literally called Rajiv Gandhi a thief, and that pejorative resonated in every village and town.
To his credit, Rajiv Gandhi seemed to learn fast from his mistakes, and the electoral defeat of 1989, something his son seems incapable of doing. The Congress retrieved some lost ground, Rajiv made peace with his party’s leaders, almost all of whom had been groomed by his late brother, Sanjay Gandhi, except for notable exceptions like Pranab Mukherjee, Ghulam Nabi Azad, K Karunakaran and A K Antony, who had risen to leadership when Indira Gandhi ran the party. But Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991 put paid to any hope of a Gandhi reviving the party.
Narasimha Rao had retreated into semi-retirement, when he was chosen to keep the prime minister’s seat warm in 1991. He was a decent player of intra-party machinations, but could not prevent the demolition of the Babri mosque at Ayodhya or stop the ascendance of Mandal politics. Had his run as prime minister managed to extract a majority in the 1996 national elections, he would have gone down in history not just as the leader who launched the economic reforms but also as the one who prevented a culture of dynastic leadership taking root in the party. But that was not to be. Rao was reviled by Congressmen as the leader responsible for the party’s decimation in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
The Congress leadership threw out the hapless Sitaram Kesri, who had succeeded Rao as party president and brought in Sonia Gandhi as leader. She had two core convictions: India should stay secular and her son should eventually become prime minister. She was content to play the figurehead, and delegated prime ministerial authority to a non-threatening Manmohan Singh. That was a signal mistake.
Manmohan Singh presided over a period of transformative growth of the Indian economy. India struck a nuclear deal with the US, for which Singh staked his government’s parliamentary majority, liberating India from a technology-denial regime imposed after previous nuclear tests. This was essential for India to build the strategic capacity to retain geopolitical autonomy in a world of growing Chinese power. The UPA presided over the world’s biggest telecom revolution, raising rural tele-density from fewer than 2% in 2004 to well over 50% in 2014. Singh allowed this to be labelled a scam and ridiculed.
The UPA enacted the Forest Rights Act, which reversed the criminalisation of the very existence of tribal populations on forest land that the British had wrought by declaring all non-private forests as state property, on which the tribes essentially trespassed. It enacted the Right to Information Act, and gave legislative force to the Right to Education enacted by the Vajpayee government.
It energetically built and widened national highways and brought in public-private-partnership in infrastructure, raising infrastructure investment as a proportion of GDP to levels not attained before or later. It legislated into being the rural employment guarantee scheme, which Modi later mocked as a monument to state failure, but has been implementing energetically to alleviate rural distress in his years of economic fatigue. From 2008 to 2014, rural real wages went up year after year, as workers flocked to towns, to earn, in real estate development and highway construction, wages that were superior to what they had back home, their departure creating a relative shortage of labour in the countryside, lifting rural wages, as well. Poverty fell sharply.
The UPA forced banks to open branches in remote areas with no-frills accounts. It roped in technocrat Nandan Nilekani to develop the unique identity scheme, Aadhaar, to give any resident a document of identity that could be verified anywhere in the country, using biometrics rather than patronising authentication by a gazetted officer. The National Payments Corporation of India was set up in 2008, started working in 2009, to create a framework for digital payments. The India Stack of application programming interfaces that was developed as a corollary to the development of Aadhaar materialized the Unified Payment Interface or UPI, that underlies PayTM, GooglePay and PhonePe.
The National Rural Health Mission instituted state-funded health insurance for the poor. The UPA started paying women to give birth at hospitals, rather than at home. The rural road- building project Vajpayee had kicked off and took life under the UPA had created a network of motorable roads around India, which people could use to reach a hospital in an emergency. Infant and maternal mortality rates fell sharply.
A rural electrification mission was launched. A national mission for skill development took off; a million people were trained and placed in jobs under the auspices of the National Skill Development Corporation.
These are sterling achievements for any government. But no Congressman cared or celebrated these feats. The prime minister, who had delegated authority rather than authority derived directly from the people, saw these as administrative gains, rather than as political achievements, in which the leadership could feel legitimate pride and for which it could take credit. When a blade of grass grew in Gujarat when he was chief minister, Modi took credit, got it authenticated by willing academics who wrote books with tables and songs of praise.
Instead, the UPA government allowed its achievements to be dismissed and derided as scams. Not that the government did not have its share of grand corruption. But political mismanagement ensured that the corruption was what remained in the popular imagination, while the success was either ignored or treated as happenstance.
A consultant like Prashant Kishor would have been handy when it came to branding schemes. The traditional Congress imagination stops at giving a scheme the name of a Gandhi, the original, or the latter-day iterations. The UPA called its health scheme NRHM, while Modi called it Ayushman Bharat. The UPA called its project to connect 250,000 villages by optical fibre the National Optical Fiber Network or NOFN. Compare that chunk of clunk with Modi’s rebranding of the same thing as Bharat Net. UPA’s no-frills account was a useful tool of a sarkari scheme of financial inclusion; Modi’s renamed scheme, Jandhan, is an aid to aspirational empowerment. The list goes on.
What the UPA missed was political leadership and ownership of the government and the party. Sonia Gandhi was a consensus-making figurehead, praying for her son to mature and take over. Manmohan Singh was never a leader and never exercised leadership, except when he insisted on the party backing him when he refused to knuckle under the Left’s and the BJP’s moronic opposition to the nuclear deal.
The Congress has been essentially without an organic leader since Indira Gandhi’s demise. Rahul Gandhi has many qualities, chief among which is to serve as a walking illustration of the meaning of epigone. He has been proving his incapacity to fill the leadership void since his first anointment as party president. If the party refuses to be convinced, 10 years and multiple electoral losses later, much to the delight of the BJP and its troll army, why blame anyone outside the party, especially a modest public relations manager like Prashant Kishor?
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