The retrospective gaze occasioned by the death of Congress leader Ahmed Patel, arguably one of the party’s most influential figures of the last two decades, has again brought into focus the role of consummate backroom operators in the working of India’s political parties.
In the past seven decades, every political party of significance has produced “liaison masters”, the star troubleshooters and trusted strategists of the top leadership. Some of them have gone on to become frontline leaders, such as Pranab Mukherjee in the Congress, and Pramod Mahajan and Arun Jaitley in the BJP. A common thread that binds these backroom operators is that they have wielded power disproportionate to their visibility in the public.
As the country’s oldest political party, the Congress set the template for mass politics as much as for shrewd backroom politics. Even in its formative years under colonial rule, its membership reflected both these streams of political activities. It had ample scope for backroom operators as a significant part of its membership constituted those who did not have mass bases, or had only limited ones.
The 72 delegates who met for the party’s inaugural session in Bombay in December 1885, for example, included 39 lawyers, a few other professionals, as well as some of India’s wealthiest men such as the Maharaja of Darbhanga.
In the 20th century, as the Congress grew from an “annual tea party”, as its critics would dub it in the initial years, to a mass anti-colonial movement, it defined the contours of institutional politics in India. In the process, career politicians of both types came to the fore – those who owed their stature to popular support and those who held clout because of their standing within the organisation. There was a third type as well, those who had both popular support and, because of it, a stature with the party.
In the post-Independence era of the Congress party’s dominance and high absorptive capacity – termed the “Congress system” by political scientist Rajni Kothari – the most powerful associates of the prime minister in the party weren’t confined to the proverbial Kitchen cabinet.
In Indira Gandhi’s era, for instance, some of her most powerful aides weren’t even politicians. They ranged from the bureaucrat PN Hashkar to the press advisor HY Sharada Prasad. Rajiv Gandhi had his “Doon Babalog” cohort.
Other national parties such as the BJP and even regional ones such as the Samajwadi Party, RJD, JDU, or AIADMK have seen backroom stalwarts flourish under the patronage of the party supremos. If Amar Singh and Satish Mishra once held outsize sway in the SP and the BSP respectively, today the role of former bureaucrat R C P Singh in the JDU is well known.
In the Congress, the role of the backroom operator may have stemmed from its top leadership’s need for control and for establishing informal channels of communication, but it has posed serious problems for the project of reimagining the party as a viable challenger to the BJP at the Centre.
First, Sonia Gandhi’s reliance on a backroom operator – once Motilal Vohra, then Ahmed Patel – enabled her to control internal party dynamics, as her obituary of Patel indicates. But, on occasion, it led her to lose sight of the bigger political landscape. Using tactical support for firefighting internal party battles or possible pockets of dissidence isn’t a substitute for the lack of a strategy to rebuild a credible grassroots cadre to wage political fights against a disciplined rival, which is fast expanding its footprint.
Stitching up strategic coalitions, as the Congress has been doing for a while now, is a reaction to a political crisis, not an act of setting the agenda, which the party’s workforce is motivated enough to take to the people. In this context, the backroom operators often blind top leadership to the dual imperative of change and continuity as they tend to be entangled in the management of immediate crisis.
Second, overdependence on leaders who are disconnected from the masses and equipped only with backroom finesse often makes a party oblivious to the danger of an imbalance developing between its focus on the immediate and its lack of imagination about the essential.
This is evident from how the Congress under Sonia and Rahul Gandhi has approached electoral politics, the ongoing political discourse, mass political engagement, or rather the lack of it.
On December 16, 2017, a visibly embarrassed Janardan Dwivedi, then the general secretary of the Congress, took the microphone on the lawns of 24 Akbar Road, the party’s headquarters in New Delhi. He asked the assembled Congress workers to stop bursting crackers as Sonia Gandhi, the longest serving president of the 132-year-old party, was unwilling to continue her speech amidst the noise.
His appeal failed. Sonia again paused her speech, saying “I cannot speak”. It was left to the new party president, Rahul, to persuade his mother to ignore the din caused by enthusiastic workers welcoming his elevation to the post.
In a way, this last formal engagement of Sonia as the head of India’s oldest political party might have reminded her of the sentimental yet functioning chaos that often defines public space and its governance in India.
Three years later, Sonia, now the ad hoc president, might want to see that day’s chaos as a sample of the complex political realities the party needs to grasp, by putting its ear closer to the ground. One way would be for the party to invest far more value and confidence in frontline leaders than its league of sleek backroom stars.