In March 2014, I contested in a primary election to select the Congress party’s candidate for the Bangalore North Lok Sabha constituency. This was one of 16 seats across the country where the then Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi had introduced a radically different method of candidate selection. Party office bearers in these constituencies were to elect whoever they saw fit. Instead of aspirants spending precious time running around Lutyens Delhi trying to impress influential High Command leaders, they now had to seek the support of the party’s local base.
The primary system is well established in the USA, where in some states registered party voters choose party candidates. Primaries opened up the American electoral process and empowered voters, and devolved decision-making from the “smoke-filled back rooms” to the party’s core supporters. By introducing this change in the Congress party, Rahul Gandhi provided another demonstration of his commitment to open up politics, as a follow up to his introduction of membership drives and elections in the Youth Congress and National Student Union of India (NSUI).
Across the country, the primary elections had mixed results, exacerbating faction feuds in some seats. But in Bangalore North, the process worked better. Party office-bearers at the grassroots, hitherto used to taking orders, found candidates reaching out to them and visiting their homes, due to their newfound voice as voters. The competing candidates presented their case at meetings of voters. It all worked beautifully until voting day, when the voter’s confidence in the secret ballot process could not trump the age-old habit of listening to the local party bosses. I lost the primary election but all of us who were rivals during the primary, campaigned actively for the party. While far from perfect, the process did empower the grassroots, motivated the workers and office bearers, and diminished the disproportionate power of the distant High Command.
Whether or not Rahul Gandhi persists with the primary experiment, the fact that he attempted the reform reveals that he is both idealistic and practical. Idealistically, he is totally committed to devolving power and empowering the grassroot workers of the party in a tangible manner. Practically, he has understood that the concentration of power in the High Command weakens the party. This is because ticket aspirants quickly learn that it is more advantageous to cultivate a godfather than to concentrate on groundwork. Thus, over time, we can expect more initiatives from him that both empower Congress workers and strengthen the party.
In June 2014, when Rajya Sabha seats opened up from Karnataka, the party chose me to take the place of retiring SM Krishna. This was an investment in the next generation plus a recognition that as an IIM professor, I could strengthen the party’s intellectual firepower in Parliament. On the day I was sworn in, Rahul Gandhi immediately entrusted me with the responsibility of research. I was to ensure that all our MPs were well briefed on every subject that came up before Parliament. We have adhered to that mandate and our work has been recognised through the creation of a revamped AICC Research Department, of which I am chairman, which works closely with the Communications and Social Media departments to strengthen the party’s message.
The campaign in Gujarat was tight, issue-based and heavily relied on facts to debunk the hyped ‘Gujarat Model’. Our department played a key role behind the scenes in both the war room and the manifesto process. This was entirely due to Rahul Gandhi’s style of leadership, where he laid out the vision, entrusted clear roles and responsibilities and gave autonomy to the team to deliver.
Working closely with Rahul Gandhi has been an enriching and intellectually engaging experience. He has a laser-like focus on the essence of the topic at hand. We have had long, detailed deep dives into a range of important issues, including the challenges of job creation and revival of the economy. The most refreshing aspect of these discussions, is that they are non-hierarchical. He is ready to challenge assumptions and viewpoints, and is willing to accept a counterview if we can convince him with data and insight.
He has a way of looking at things that is refreshing and he is able to weave together diverse threads to present a provocative analysis of problems, in contrast to the motivated misrepresentation about him on social media, amplified by a partisan media. For example, once when Shashi Tharoor and I met him, he had come back from a meeting with taxi drivers who were facing problems with Uber and Ola. The nation was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Champaran satyagraha, led by Mahatma Gandhi. He very pointedly said that the taxi drivers were facing the modern equivalent of what the indigo farmers faced from their British exploiters. That one insight enabled us to connect the challenges of the present day with our legacy as fighters for freedom and for those who are voiceless in the system.
It was a poignant and emotional moment as our long-serving President, Sonia Gandhi passed on the baton to Rahul Gandhi. At one level it signals change, but it is also continuity, as one decent, dedicated, deeply empathetic individual handed over the responsibility to another, both united in their commitment to India and to the historic mission of Congress in taking the nation forward in an inclusive manner. These are difficult days for our nation.
The youth is restless, farmers are in distress, the voices of the less privileged are systematically excluded, institutions weakened and democracy is being subverted. But I am confident that the Congress party’s new President will ensure that we will overcome, both as a party and as a nation.
Prof. M. V. Rajeev Gowda is a Rajya Sabha MP and Chairman, AICC Research Department