In barely a fortnight, the fate of the 15th Lok Sabha would be known, by means of a forgettable national election. In fact, the desultory turnout—variously attributed to middle-class apathy, summer heatwaves, the Indian Premier League, election fatigue—suggests Indians are exhausted by what is increasingly becoming an election charade, just as the fake sets in a film studio that get dismantled after the shoot is done.
You have a unique role to play in defining India’s political destiny over the coming decades. This has come to you significantly by virtue of your birth into the Nehru-Gandhi family. To be fair, you didn’t ask for this, and it’s very possible that you would have preferred a more private life, one that demanded less of you and other members of your family. However, we all play the cards we are dealt.
There is an inevitability to your eventual ascension to the leadership of the Congress party. Thousands of ambitious party folk want you to become the leader, to feed their own careers. They idolize you so as to make you their puppet. It must be claustrophobic to be surrounded by sycophants, scraping and bowing at every glance you throw in their direction and “yes-sir”ing every word you utter.
Last Sunday, Barkha Dutt’s show on NDTV We The People was about the rise of Mayawati. An accusation was made about her authoritarian style, and how she isn’t building the Bahujan Samaj Party. A staunch defender of hers said, “The same can be said of the Congress party—does any senior Congress leader have any final say in critical party matters?” Dutt replied, “Yes, fair point”, others nodded, and the discussion moved on. The Congress’ “high command” structure has become so deeply entrenched that it’s not even worth a debate—the country has simply accepted it.
A political party cannot be an Animal Farm-style institution, where some individuals are more equal than others. In your heart you must know that unless this fundamental character of the Congress changes, nothing can really change.
While there are many peripheral issues that you can take up, there is one daring option: To publicly renounce aspirations to the office of prime minister, permanently. It seems ridiculous for the scion of the most famous political family in India to make this seemingly unnecessary “sacrifice”. But it has the potential to trigger a gigantic wave of change. Think about it. India is a civilization to which the idea of tyag—sacrifice—is very central. This singular act of yours can release the shackles in people’s minds, set free their aspirations and ignite a belief that the possibilities of India are built on a foundation of equity. By living Gandhi’s words—“my life is my message”—you can show people by example that public service—important nation-building work, at that—is not necessarily about occupying the most powerful seat at the head table.
I am not suggesting you renounce political life and take vanvaas. In fact, the moral authority you will gain by making your way into the hearts of millions of Indians will give you more space to undertake the changes that can truly transform India’s politics and democracy.
This year’s election shows political parties as opaque, eccentric institutions run largely by power brokers sitting in back rooms and greased by black money. The ugly ritual of post-election compromises and barters will be upon us in a few days. Having an election every five years may show the world that the machinery of our democracy is in reasonable working order, but we are losing our soul.
Cleaning this cesspool has to start with restructuring our political parties. If you renounced prime ministerial aspirations, you would have all the political capital to revamp the Congress. Make it a rule-based institution, with inner party democracy for key decisions such as choice of candidates. Establish thematic working groups for critical national issues. Set the highest bar for financial transparency in the party by publishing the audited financial statements. Require all candidates to publish their tax statements, going beyond the meagre requirements of the election law.
Give the youth a real voice in party leadership: In any Congress-led government at national or state levels, let at least one cabinet position be held by a person who is genuinely young—less than 30. Let this person be someone who has come up from the grass roots, not a direct recruit who is a scion of a political family—no offence to Sachin Pilot, Milind Deora and others, but the message to the youth must be that anyone can make it, not just those who have access and connections.
It requires guts to publicly withdraw your name from contention for the prime minister’s post—after all, it’s almost yours for the taking, either today or in the not-too-distant future. Nobody will blame you for seeking the crown, but everyone will respect you for renouncing it. And this will be your greatest contribution to India’s possibilities.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org