Home / Politics / Policy /  Inside Rahul Gandhi’s plan to make Congress more nimble

New Delhi: A month ago, the Congress high command received the eagerly awaited report on a pilot project it had launched in Kerala with the idea of giving the party’s state unit an unprecedented makeover.

The report concluded that the experiment to connect the grassroots to the state leadership in a transparent manner —something the party had done with its youth wing two years ago—was an unqualified success.

It had disciplined otherwise dysfunctional local units that often worked at cross purposes, successfully assessed the units and then connected the leadership to the grassroots campaigners.

In short, it had altered the status quo.

Inspired by the Kerala pilot, the party will now extend its objective to other state units—a transition that would be executed by 54 hand-picked office bearers of the All India Congress Committee (AICC), the central decision-making assembly of the party.

The subtext of the Kerala move is the gradual assertion of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s imprimatur—at odds with current practice—on the reorganization of the country’s oldest and largest political party.

Ever since the Jaipur convention in January, where he took over as vice-president, Gandhi has moved steadily to transform a largely slothful political party, trying to bring it more in sync with the new and altered reality of India.

Details of the quiet reorganization have yet to be made public—the result of the secrecy that Gandhi insists upon.

Mint’s review of the Kerala pilot project shows that the reorganization plan will be underpinned by report cards measuring specific metrics of political performance for every office-bearer in all state units.

This is something new and radical in the 128-year-old party, where success has often gone hand-in-glove with old-fashioned cronyism and one’s ability to gain proximity to the central high command.

Grassroot political skills, in large measure, have been alien concepts to the party that has ruled at the Centre for most of the nation’s independent life.

It is also a party that is under a cloud over allegations of widespread corruption, and Gandhi’s reluctance to take on the mantle of leadership—despite demands from the party—has added to an air of uncertainty.

In effect, Gandhi has launched the plan to re-convert his party into a cadre-based unit—possibly taking a leaf from its rival, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

Tricky while the challenge may be, it comes about at a time when the political narrative in the nation is undergoing a structural transformation. Two factors that will be important to political reorganization are the sharp drop in poverty levels to a record low of 22% and the decline of farming as the largest source of employment.

The thinking in the party is that a cadre-based unit will be better able—than, say, sycophants—to communicate the implications of these changes to the party think tank so as to enable a recalibration of the political message ahead of the general election due by May 2014.

Another recent indication of the roll-out of this new thinking came when Madhusudan Mistry, a party general secretary believed to be a confidant of Gandhi, undertook a listening trip of party workers soon after taking charge of the electorally crucial state of Uttar Pradesh in June.

Mistry undertook a tour of 71 districts, and patiently heard the views of scores of grassroots-level party workers.

However, Gandhi’s choice for spearheading the Kerala pilot is an ironic one—Deepak Babaria, 60-year-old secretary in AICC, is a quintessential Congressman.

But having been part of a similar project involving youth Congress members in Kerala, Babaria was able to come up to speed with the pilot. He attended some 50 meetings, including several at the block level, and worked with party members to fill out their assessment sheets, which were then processed at the headquarters in Delhi.

“The first quarterly performance assessment has been a huge success," said Sajeev Joseph, Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) general secretary in charge of performance measurement.

The old Congress ways of working have been abandoned, say party members—no longer do aged state leaders relay edicts from the high command to grassroots workers.

Instead, Gandhi along with the general secretary in charge of the state and the secretary, meet prominent state-level members every three months to assess the performance of each office-bearer.

Accordingly, each KPCC office-bearer and presidents of the district Congress committees (DCCs) will submit monthly reports based on outcomes of district-, block- and sometimes booth-level meetings of the party. These take place before the 5th of each month.

The report has a specific format, including details about the nature of the meeting, date, venue, total number of attendees, minutes of the meeting, profile of the constituency visited and any additional observations.

Based on these reports, an internal note states, the KPCC president will assess the performance of each office-bearer and DCC presidents. There will be uniform criteria to ensure that the assessments is done “genuinely and transparently".

Signalling his intent, Gandhi has already begun the process of quarterly review meetings for every state, with the chief minister or Congress legislative party leader, the PCC president, the relevant AICC general secretary and secretaries for assessing the performance of the concerned state unit.

“This ensures a meeting of all state leaders with Gandhi once in three months, which in turn enhance the accessibility of leaders to him," said KPCC’s Joseph.

The assessment score sheet will rate the office-bearers as high performers, performers— above average, below average, and non-performers. In the first quarterly assessment of KPCC, there are eight high performers and 14 non-performers out of 82 office-bearers.

“He has already indicated this will lead to elections in every unit (instead of the current practice of selections) to pick leaders following a merit-based system," Joseph added.

Both Joseph and Babaria concede that Gandhi’s plan was initially received with considerable scepticism, especially by the old guard. However, the perception changed after the initial results of the pilot were made known, Babaria added.

A Lok Sabha MP from Kerala and a Union minister, otherwise a critic of Gandhi’s strategy to revamp the party, said, “Whatever it is, his efforts are no doubt strengthening the organization. It is making each leader accountable."

“Monthly meetings and political discussions are happening in almost all the block Congress Committees. KPCC obs (office- bearers) are attending the BCC and below level (booth level) programmes and meetings," the first assessment report of Kerala unit said. “Through the reporting system KPCC can identify the weak BCC units and can make special arrangements for improving political activities in such units."

As a result of the fresh changes in the organizational system, the state unit has been able to push through a sixfold increase in the appointment of booth-level agents to 24,000—once seen as a daunting task.

After being anointed as vice-president of the party in Jaipur, Gandhi chose a new team that included 25 fresh faces—selected through a process of several elimination rounds of candidates drawn from the pool proposed by senior leaders.

He is now in the process of reviving the frontal organizations and cells of AICC.

The idea is to overhaul the party in a bottom-up manner—and few actually believe it will succeed. To be certain, this is not the first time that Gandhi has attempted such an overhaul—as head of the youth wing he enforced similar changes in organizational metrics.

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It is a philosophy that Gandhi believes should be the core of the new organization that he envisages—one which will be able to cater to the emerging India that is riding on a historic demographic shift towards a younger population; and a society that is building complex relationships among stakeholders, which do not necessarily draw upon traditional equations defined around caste and religion.

According to an Indian Youth Congress (IYC) leader, Gandhi meets a number of candidates from different states before finalizing an appointment. For example, he personally interviewed at least 25 women leaders before picking Shobha Oza, who has been active in Madhya Pradesh Congress for more than two decades, as the national president of the Mahila Congress, and Bindu Krishna, president of the women’s wing of the Kerala party unit, as the vice-president.

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“His is a long-term vision. It may not yield or show great results immediately. But eventually it will strengthen the Congress party," said another general secretary who did not want to be identified because “Rahulji does not like us to talk about what we do".

“The approach is simple. What we want to do is to make the leaders sincere, committed and transparent. Central leadership is committed to see that it is happening," said Babaria.

In the new set-up, each general secretary will oversee two or more secretaries, who in turn will be in charge of the party in one state. Gandhi believes that restricting responsibility of a secretary to one state instead of the established practice of one person overseeing a clutch of states will make the leaders more accountable.

“Rahulji wants everything in writing...there is no decision based on verbal communication," said the same general secretary cited above who has almost four decades’ experience in the organizational politics of the Congress.

All the data collected by observers, block-, district- and state-level leaders and central office-bearers is stored and used to generate information to improve efficiency and effectiveness of decision-making.

Pehchaan, a Web-based social networking portal, used earlier by IYC and the National Students Union of India to create user profiles and status updates on their assignments, may now be deployed for senior leaders too.

N. Bhaskara Rao, a political expert who has been closely observing the Congress for almost four decades, says what Gandhi is doing is the only way to revamp the party.

“It will pay off in the long run. He is trying to set right the system. In the process, he is setting up an example for other parties also. He is systemizing the politics of India," Rao said.

This is the first in a two-part series.

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