Toxic revival: an open letter

A fictitious letter to Rahul Gandhi on his appointment as vice-president of the Congress party
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First Published: Sun, Jan 27 2013. 09 56 PM IST
Rahul Gandhi’s ascendancy to the presidency of the party—at another Chintan Shivir—is a mere few years away. Photo: Ajay Aggarwal/HT
Rahul Gandhi’s ascendancy to the presidency of the party—at another Chintan Shivir—is a mere few years away. Photo: Ajay Aggarwal/HT
Dear Rahul,
Congratulations on your appointment as vice-president of the Congress party. You do the family proud. Your great-great-grandfather Motilal Nehru first became Congress president in 1919 at the Amritsar conference, five years before Mahatma Gandhi. Your great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru served as party president several times—in 1929-30, 1936-37 and then again in 1951-54. Your grandmother, father and mother have served as presidents of the party. Your mother is the longest-serving Congress president, having held the position from 1998 until now. Your ascendancy to the presidency of the party—at another Chintan Shivir—is a mere few years away.
Let me begin with a confession. I am no fan of dynastic politics. Hereditary transfer of political power is toxic to a republic. It weakens meritocracy in politics and over time ensures cultural sycophancy and organizational decay.
Sometimes, though, a shot of toxicity is required to get the patient out of the intensive care unit (ICU). You are the anointed scion. You can play that role. It is in that spirit that I lay out a plan for you to follow.
Return democracy to party functioning: The Indian National Congress (INC) was a model of democratic functioning for seven decades after it was founded. Till Jawaharlal Nehru in 1928-29, no party president had held their position for two consecutive years. Though initially elitist, the party became egalitarian as Mahatma Gandhi’s influence grew after World War I. Under Gandhiji, the Congress reduced membership fees, expanded its base, created state units, replaced status with service as the basis for leadership candidacy, and removed caste distinctions in the hierarchy of the party. Leadership and all party posts were filled by fair and robust elections. After the death of Gandhiji and Sardar Patel, the Congress party became more and more dependent on your family, and alas, less and less democratic. I know you are possessed of this fact and had begun to tackle this problem as general secretary in charge of the Youth Congress and National Students’ Union of India in 2007. You will have to relentlessly go after this goal. The High Command appointment Raj will have to end. Who better than you to reverse the rot?
Resolve that you will not be Prime Minister for more than two terms: You can choose the right political moment to make this public (a small reminder that you are not PM yet). Yet the surest signal for merit to be attracted and to rise up within the party is that you set your own term limit and withdraw from the day-to-day political fray. The alternative that you don’t accept full political power and accountability is not a real choice. The party is so suffused with sycophancy that they will keep waiting for you to do so. So take the power, but resolve to return it to the party when it is filled with people of merit.
Grab both sides of the political aisle: Like Bill Clinton did in the US and Tony Blair did in the UK, you have the opportunity to capture both sides of the political centre. The principal parties in opposition in India have either no political ideology or are lurching towards the religious right, leaving a wide political gap in the middle. There will be poetic justice for you to switch from your grandmother Indira Gandhi’s slogan of Garibi Hatao (remove poverty) to your own Amiri Barao (create prosperity). Garibi Hatao is a limiting slogan keeping the youth and the poor of the country trapped in a web of subsidy and low expectations. Amiri Barao, in contrast, recasts the government as an enabler and leaves the execution to the people. It infuses hope and inspires a-sky-is-the-limit idea. Amiri Barao combined with modern safety nets like a national pension system will take you far. For a young, energetic India that idea has greater resonance.
Keep the economics simple: For Amiri Barao to work, you will, of course, need an economic plan. The hallmark of a great leader is to keep things simple and surround yourself with people who are brighter and more capable than you are. Your economic focus should, therefore, be only twofold. One, focus on jobs. India adds 8-10 million young people to the workforce each year. Formal sector employment grows at a crawl. Shamefully, 92% of the workforce is still in the informal sector. Employment is Job One for India. Two, eliminate the revenue deficit: This might appear to be a trivial goal. But it will force a change in mindset away from fuel, fertilizer and other costly subsidies. Subsidies cause structural inflation in the economy and inflation is the invisible sword that slays the poor. Reducing inflation is the surest way to democratize prosperity. For the rest, leave it to the experts.
Do this and you will have redeemed the Nehru-Gandhi family name. What’s more, you would have done the right thing by the country.
Jai Hind.
PS: Great causes and little men go ill together, said Jawaharlal Nehru.
Narayan Ramachandran is an investor and entrepreneur based in Bangalore. He writes on the interaction between society, government and markets. Comments are welcome at
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First Published: Sun, Jan 27 2013. 09 56 PM IST