Confession: Surefire formulae to revive the Congress! The party spoilt for choice

The best of journalists can’t resist giving ‘good advice’. But as a minor journalist, I have bitten off more than I can chew and believe that discretion is the better part of valour

Representative Image
Representative Image

Uttam Sengupta

I have lost count of the well-intentioned commentaries during the past week on how to revive the Congress. I initially joked with colleagues that journalists and academics will never cease advising politicians on how to conduct politics. But as the number of such commentaries increased, advising the Congress on how to pull itself up from its bootstraps, I seriously began to wonder.

Some of them passionately advised the Congress to re-invent the ‘idea of India’ (different ideas to suit different times?). Others said sagely that dumping dynasts was the way forward. Ironically, many of them also reacted angrily at reports that Rahul Gandhi no longer wanted to continue as party president. A few suggested that RG (not other Congress leaders) should undertake a Padayatra a la Mahatma Gandhi across India to understand Indians. These were the people, I realised, who had little or nothing to say on INC’s manifesto, put together by talking to a large number of people.

A few commentaries suggested bluntly that Congress leaders should learn a few tricks from Narendra Modi and Amit Shah to win elections. A friend, with whom I ventured to discuss this particular comment, gravely said that western sensibilities of the Nehru-Gandhi family were indeed an obstacle.

He went on to explain, “Look, Indian politicians thrive on lies and false promises. They live on their cunning, say one thing in public and quite another at home. They also do not think twice before abusing rivals, they do not attach any particular importance to honouring their word…it is all about serving the self. If Congress leaders, particularly Rahul Gandhi, cannot imbibe such political values, what hope in heaven or hell do they have?”

I had to admit that the closest Rahul Gandhi came to abusing rivals was when he coined the slogan #ChowkidarChorHai. The slogan, some commentators claimed, was in poor taste, improper and too personal and hence cost the Congress the election. But how come far more serious abuses by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah fetched the BJP votes then and were acceptable to the electorate, I argued. The friend gave me a pitying look and reminded me that Indian sensibilities made us like slapstick, loudmouths and abuses which packed punch. #ChowkidarChorHai was so tame and school boyish, he admonished.

I do not envy politicians. Dealing with people is the most thankless task I can think of. You need pots of gold (that is why 90% of our MPs are well off and Crorepatis), a very thick skin and an ability to gnash your teeth and plot the worst even as you greet rivals with a beatific smile.

My limited experience is confined to my early ventures into building a citizens’ forum, working with a Free Legal Aid Clinic (FLAC) and a film club. Even after three decades and more, I break into a cold sweat recalling those endless meetings with fellow citizens on Sundays. All the 50 odd people who would gather had opinions on everything. Very strong opinions.

And they were not content to just voice them in long-winded speeches. But very often they would come to blows. Imagine 20 people like Narendra Modi, 20 Ravi Shankar Prasads and possibly 10 Arnab Goswamis in one small auditorium for six hours—and you can imagine my recurring nightmare.

Some meetings scheduled to last for four hours stretched to ten. And our shoestring budget of a few hundred Rupees would end three times higher, giving all of us an ulcer because of the endless cups of tea and samosas and aloo chops that we consumed. That’s all that we could afford.

Executing a dharna by citizens or organizing a more elaborate ‘seminar’ would raise questions of funding. How to pay for the public address system, the durries and the chairs and tea would become far more important issues than the issue agitating the citizens. Collecting donations was a pain you know where.

Even well-to-do and friendly businessmen, too willing to buy you a drink, would balk at parting with a tenner. I particularly remember an agonising hour I spent with one of them. He smoked, offered me coffee, spoke on the phone, barked instructions, told his wife about a dinner they absolutely had to attend before telling me that he was sorry but he did not agree with the ‘method’ of agitating the issue. So, no, he could not on principle part with a tenner.

Registration of the film club posed a different problem. The friendly Babu at the secretariat affably offered me a 50% discount since I was a journalist but demanded a thousand Rupees for registering the society. What if I don’t pay, I asked darkly. The smile never left his face as he declared, “well, the file in that case would disappear and it will be a long, very long time before it will be traced”. When I went back and reported the dilemma to the members, there were outraged cries. No way, they wouldn’t pay a bribe!

My attempts to help people with legal aid turned out to be even more problematic. I remember pouring over files, taking notes, talking to the litigant and preparing a chronology, case laws etc. in one particular case. It took me the better part of the day. When the official lawyer came in the evening, we spent two more hours going through everything. By the time we finished, it was past 8 pm and exhausted, we asked the litigant, a lady, to leave. She replied that the last bus for her destination had left at 5 pm and she had no place to stay and no money to pay for a hotel.

That more or less put an end to my activism. And it was then that the realisation dawned that it was better to ‘advise’ others than to get involved.

I am not surprised, therefore, at the number of good Samaritans out on a limb, advising Congress on their own, gratis, with no IOUs like Prashant Kishor might demand.

But I have a sneaking feeling that like other political parties, Congress would know how to revive itself and begin by ignoring the advices being showered on it.

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