Much has already been said about the crisis facing the Congress party. A lot rings true, and something has to be done, urgently. The prescriptions proffered so far range from holding various authorities at different levels accountable, professionalising the party's election machinery/strategy and effecting an organisational revamp. However pertinent some of these may be, they largely address the symbolic. They are not structural solutions to the problems the Congress faces. The question facing the party is not just what needs to be done, but also how and why.
In exploring this, it is crucial that we understand the nature of politics today. Keeping aside personal ideologies and preferences, it is painfully evident that politics has been reduced to a profession and is no longer a spiritual calling. Today it is seen principally as a means for upward mobility and power by most parties. Engagement of political agents with people is largely instrumental, through the party machinery and solely for electoral purposes. To express strength, parties spend exorbitant sums to ensure favourable coverage in the media, to "rent" crowds for rallies, and "influence" voters. Such sums can come only through illegal or extra-legal means (either through sponsorship made for various concessions/commissions or by diverting funds meant for government programmes that aid the people).
[The party] would have to attempt a socio-psychological and moral transformation of the human condition itself, like attempted by the Buddha and Gandhi.
The oil that advances vast party machineries invariably comes at the cost of the environment, vulnerable communities and the aam junta. Corporations who "donate" to parties expect to be allowed to take shortcuts that undermine processes and regulations, as well as the rights of people. Most problematically, this dilutes the very raison d'être of politics—the people. Consequently, corporations and profit become the ends of politics as well as development. Everything then becomes secondary to this larger goal, from policy formulation to implementation.
Mahatma Gandhi firmly believed that there was an irrefragable moral link between the order in the soul and the order in society. That is why he equated moksha with service of mankind. Drawing from the Gita, he insisted that it was every person's dharmic duty to dedicate their lives to social and constructive work, but to do so selflessly and without any desire.
There is therefore an ethical responsibility (a duty even) for political agents to support every person to enhance their capabilities, realise their aspirations, and alleviate their suffering. In fact, rather than the capture of political organisations and power (which while important, is just a means to an end), it is the primary duty of a political party to create the conditions that guarantee socio-economic and political swaraj for all.
There are at least three reasons for a political party to do so. Firstly, while obstructive programmes of civil disobedience (dharnas, tactical legislative obstruction etc) are relevant because they temporarily enthrall both the public and media, they cannot organically move people to associate with a party or leader. The effect of such "spectacle politics" is temporary, and will last only till the next big spectacle. People respond best to sincerity, and when they see a positive and sustained effort to improve their lives.
Essentially creating a movement within the party, the workers of this dharma sena will have to be rigorously trained so they're driven by idealism rather than self-interest...
Secondly, in institutionalising a space where its agents can directly engage in a constructive dialogue on issues, a party is also involving (and empowering) ordinary citizens to be intimately involved in shaping their own lives. This act of "civic participation" makes the intimidating institutions of the Weberian state seem much more manageable and partisan politics is consigned to the fringes.
Finally, social work also make the party (or to be specific, its agents) central to community building. The trust that the community vests in the party for enhancing their material welfare is crucial for a party to socialise a community to its ideological beliefs, something that only elements with regressive beliefs have been engaged in so far.
The party therefore needs to radically reinvent the objectives and methodology of at least some of its activities. It would have to attempt a socio-psychological and moral transformation of the human condition itself, like attempted by the Buddha and Gandhi. It would mean trying to reconfigure, through personal example, sacrifice and concerted effort, the very terms of engagement of people with each other.
To reinvigorate its relationship with the people, it is this author's contention that the Congress party should consider attempting (independently of the election machinery) the following:
- Methodically and consistently reaching out to individual households so as to cement an organic relationship with the people.
- Forging societal unity (by constructively fashioning Hindu‐Muslim as well as upper and lower caste unity. This can be done through consistently joint socio-cultural activities and in times of crises, like before a riot, actually standing together with all concerned communities to calm tempers).
- Promoting equitable and ecologically sustainable living for all (by physically working in the villages to construct facilities for sanitation, housing, electricity etc.).
- By helping people access public services and facilities, and navigate the foreboding institutions of the State.
- Guaranteeing health of all (by setting up community kitchens for cheap/ free food, by institutionalising cheap clinics, ambulance/mobile healthcare services, blood banks, cheap medicines etc).
- Eliminating discriminations (gender, caste or religious) by trying to effect attitudinal transformations through systematic socialisation to constitutional and secular norms.
- Enhancing education and skill development for all (by complementing formal schooling through innovative pedagogic methods, by being intimately involved in a child's co-curricular progress, giving free textbooks, institutionalising tuition classes, mobile libraries etc).
- Empowering women, and marginalised households to set up small enterprises (by extending zero interest loans, helping them acquire the technical know-how as well as with the marketing of their products/produce etc).
The trust and goodwill that such moral programmes of social welfare would undoubtedly generate would create substantive political capital.
Doing this work patiently would create a mass movement which, apart from actually helping people in tangible terms, would also be able to safeguard the idea of India. It would also fire the souls of political workers and spur them to greater heights because they would be able to experience the meaningful impact of their efforts.
However, for this is to be successful, political agents would have to be steadfastly committed to lok-niti (people centred politics) rather than raj-niti (power politics). Essentially creating a movement within the party, the workers of this dharma sena will have to be rigorously trained so they're driven by idealism rather than self-interest, will have to live a life of sacrifice and will have to learn to experience the moral link between the self and anything they do. Actualising this will take years, and will require generous support.
Doing this will allow the Congress to re-establish the personal relationship it once enjoyed with the people. It won't have to resort to the usual Machiavellian machinations that have come to define politics today. The trust and goodwill that such moral programmes of social welfare would undoubtedly generate would create substantive political capital. This would allow the party to further deepen the socio-economic transformation that India's founding fathers and mothers attempted in India's civilisational fabric.