More grounded political communication is as important as logistics of cadre mobilisation.
With Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra featuring in the Congress’s 138th foundation day event in Delhi, the organisational health of the party is back in focus even as the party tries to revive its stature in the national political landscape.
In some ways, the evolution of the party in the last 138 years has mirrored phases of how its network of workers crafted it. The 72 delegates who met for the party’s inaugural session in Bombay in December 1885 included 39 lawyers, a few other professionals, as well as some of India’s wealthiest men such as the Maharaja of Darbhanga. However, 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 competitive politics of post-Independence India, this continued to serve the party in the initial decades before it weakened by the end of the last century.
It was, however, only after the party’s prolonged disappearance from power at the centre since 2014 and loss of power in a number of states that the decline in its organisational prowess became too glaring to miss.
If the party hopes to leverage the ongoing Bharat Jodo Yatra for electoral gains in the run-up months to the 2024 big Lok Sabha battle, it should be asking how the mass contact programme is drawing in more ground workers and enthusing them to find common purpose. Is it helping it nudge its cadre out of inertia and shaking off the party’s organisational slumber? This is far more significant in the long run than prominent public figures or floating civil society activists hogging the limelight in social media posts.
A good measure of the party’s chance of rebuilding its logistics on the ground would depend on how the walk rejuvenates the cadre and infuses a new sense of belief in its workers about a realistic return to winning methods at poll booths.
The organisational challenges before the party, however, don’t stop at revitalising the rank and file at the bottom but also ensuring discipline in the higher echelons. This is important in the face of recent episodes such as the one involving a leader with regional clout in Rajasthan defying the national leadership without the high command in a position to inflict serious costs. This isn’t exactly the message the party would like to send to its workers; the ability of the party’s apex decision-making bodies to make their directions honoured, by the workers and party leaders alike, matters. If left unattended for long, the resultant factionalism not only undermines organisation but also incurs electoral costs. The factional mess the party found itself in Punjab and the loss of power in the state polls early this year are hardly too distant to forget.
The party’s mass outreach should also work on looking at the cross-section of voters and large swathes of civil society beyond abstract formulations of the love-hate binary. A significant section of the electorate, including the party’s present and potential workers, might get indifferent to, if not alienated, to the party getting on a self-righteous high horse. The messaging needs to be more specific and imbued with concrete targeting of an issue or an array of issues – the hand-wringing litany or polemical moralising could be self-limiting, even turn-offs, for a wider set of electorate.
Additionally, amid the ascendancy of regional players, the yatra is also the Congress’s effort at reasserting its primacy as the national alternative to the BJP. It doesn’t want to cede this space to parallel ambitions of regional forces. Even if a string of heavy poll defeats and inroads by regional parties into its turf spawned its own set of anxieties, the party knows that a long spell of being written off has to be arrested by concerted efforts at street visibility. The yatra fits into that response.
However, the party will have to consider the yatra’s effects on alliance formation to have a realistic shot at power at the centre. A number of its existing and potential allies might see the march in a different light. Unlike support from the DMK in Tamil Nadu and NCP in Maharashtra, regional forces like SP, BSP and RLD in UP have decided to stay away from the walk. It isn’t clear how the JDU and RJD, the party’s allies in the governing coalition in Bihar, would respond to the march. The state unit of the Congress as well as Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar are launching separate marches on January 5.
So the navigation of alliances will also need delicate footwork if the Bharat Jodo Yatra has to steam ahead towards electoral destinations.
At a time when the idea of the public sphere is being constantly updated in competitive politics, Rahul Gandhi’s mass contact outreach has to be alert to the logistics of ordinary worker mobilisation as well as more grounded political communication for a wider electorate. At the same time, in reasserting its primacy as national alternative to the current regime at the centre, the party can’t afford to alienate its regional rivals and allies to a degree that they can’t fit into a possible power arrangement of the future.
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