“The message of the Congress—what is this message now that we have achieved independence? In the old days we gave first place rightly to political freedom, but freedom for us was something more than that. It meant unity and the raising of our backward brothers and sisters and social and economic advance for the masses of our people.

It meant an ending of communal and other separating barriers and a policy of peace in the world. That is the message of the Congress."

—Jawaharlal Nehru’s foreword to the Handbook for Congressmen.

This work was put together in the mid-1950s and I have been going through it this week to figure out something puzzling.

The handbook briefs Congress workers on India’s heritage, the freedom struggle, the Congress’ economic policies and on the party’s opponents. But what defines a Congressman and what was he expected to do to achieve these goals Nehru listed? On this the book is silent. Journalists talk of “Congress party workers" and “cadre" so who are these people and what is their activity after leaving home in the morning?

I know what a karyakarta of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is and what he does, because of his link to the mother organization.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is a volunteer body that promotes Hindutva. Its foot soldiers meet in the morning to learn physical fitness and martial arts, which they occasionally deploy against other Indians. They often go to live in villages, and help them become self-sufficient: L.K. Advani writes of doing this in Rajasthan in his autobiography. They quit their jobs to run ekal-vidyalayas (single-teacher schools) in tribal areas and bring the heathen to Puranic Hinduism. They do not really care if they become rich or famous. This needs sacrifice and commitment.

Try looking for what the Congress worker is supposed to do and you cannot. I have tried. The Seva Dal website, Congresssevadal.org, lists no activity and has not been updated since 2010. I telephoned the Indian Youth Congress (they have a helpdesk number) to find out what they did. They said they hold elections. I met their office bearers to get a briefing and it became clear that what the Youth Congress exists to do is to build a democratic Youth Congress through internal elections. This month in fact 360,000 Youth Congress members in Karnataka are voting to elect committees to manage booths, assemblies and parliamentary constituencies for future elections. To what other end are these elections? None.

See their website, IYC.in, to know what I mean. There is no activity. There is no goal.

Writing in The Indian Express this week, Mani Shankar Aiyar wrote of Rahul Gandhi: “Asked what he was doing all these years, the answer is that he was experimenting with innovation in his remit—the youth and student wings of the Congress—instead of dabbling in the parent party or government."

And now all of this innovating and experimenting Rahul Gandhi did in the Youth Congress is poised to be injected into the Congress proper. Aiyar explained the problem in the party.

“We were to have a democratically elected party organisation, rising through election from the very grassroots of the party to the heights, with candidates for the Lok Sabha being declared six months in advance and assembly candidates at least three months in advance. This was to be accompanied by a whole panoply of other reforms that would realise the vision of Rajiv Gandhi’s centenary speech. Yet, every one of the recommendations endorsed in opposition has been kept on the back-burner through 10 years in power."

Newspapers have reported Rahul Gandhi scolding Congress office bearers for not showing up at his internal meetings. They have Digvijaya Singh warning office bearers for not filling up their Excel sheets. But I sympathize with them.

The work of politicians is to “serve the people". This is done through securing school admissions, getting gas connections and solving civic and police matters. This insistence on roll-calls and Excel sheets will puzzle them. They have not been told or trained to do anything meaningful.

The BJP, unlike the Congress, has a cadre in the proper sense of the word, which is to say a group of karyakartas trained to do proper work. The Congress has, whether in Rahul Gandhi’s shiny, new and improved Youth Congress or in the parent body, a bunch of people who want to become district president, corporator, MLA and minister.

The Youth Congress’ only activity is a series of elections to decide who among them gets a crack at it.

Looked at this way, the Congress is a mercenary party. It has no agenda for its workers. I’m not even sure it has any workers. Only a bunch of people who want power. They may well want to make a difference, like that RSS worker in the village, but only through office. How do you rejuvenate this Congress? I don’t think it’s possible.

When Gujaratis were getting slaughtered and segregated, the Gandhis should have come and fasted to death in the middle of Ahmedabad till Gujaratis behaved themselves. That is the Indian way of doing politics. That used to be the message of the Congress.

Today it is the holding of endless internal elections.

Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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