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Return of the Gandhi topi

Rahul Gandhi is shaking up Congress like never before. Workers are contacted mostly on their mobile phones. The party has a database of all its members along with address, polling station, age and photograph, report Varghese K George & Saroj Nagi. Rank and FileRahulisms

india Updated: Feb 07, 2010 01:37 IST

Workers are contacted mostly on their mobile phones. The party has a database of all its members along with address, polling station, age and photograph. As a result, mobilisation is quick.

It may sound like a fantasy in the anarchic world of India’s Grand Old Party. But if things go according to Rahul Gandhi’s plans, the old mass-based party will be streamlined and modernised. And that will shake up things more than his grandmother or father could.

During the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, a Congress leader on tour took almost a day to find the party functionaries in Kumarkhand in Bihar’s Madhepura Lok Sabha constituency. It recalled the in-party joke that there is a Congress worker in every street of the country — just that you many not find him. That way of functioning is changing. Five elected leaders are in charge of the Kumarkhand campaign today.

Rahul’s changes started with the clean-up of the party’s youth and student bodies, and continues with the introduction of internal democracy. “This is the last time Indian Youth Congress (IYC) will have a nominated president,” he said last week, announcing Rajiv Satav as the new president.

“By the end of 2010, IYC will have 13.5 lakh leaders from the panchayat to the national level who will come through internal elections,” says Ashok Tanwar, MP, who stepped down as IYC chief. The National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), the student wing, will also have elected leaders at all levels by the end of the year. By 2014, at least two million young leaders thrown up by Rahul’s reforms will come into the political system.

Rahul’s conviction that organisations should be run by systems rather than individuals could be game-changing not only for the Congress, but also for the country’s political system. “The seeds sown now will bear fruit by the next general elections,” says Hybi Eden, president of NSUI.

So what are seeds being sown and how will they be reaped?

Earn your place: Elected leaders are constantly monitored. For instance, one assignment for Gujarat Youth Congress leaders is to assess the working of the Centre’s welfare measures. “With the efforts at understanding grievances, we are sure of good results in the local elections later this year,” says Gujarat Youth Congress president Indarvijaysinh Gohil.

Those who do well are rewarded. Vijay Inder Singla, who organised the Gujarat internal elections, is now an MP from Singrur in Punjab, thanks Rahul’s intervention. “There are about nine such people in the current Lok Sabha. In the next, there will be dozens,” says an associate of the leader.

Play for the longer term: Rahul believes the party’s efforts can be multiplied by apolitical interventions. For example, he is setting up self-help groups in Bundelkhand. “Elections come and go. We are here to change the way politics is done,” he told an audience in UP.

As a result, the IYC and NSUI are investing energy in organising apolitical activities such as blood donation camps. Meghna Patel, 29, general secretary of the Gujarat Youth Congress, says, “We do not want to engage in a fight to defeat Narendra Modi… We want to expand our line of influence by diminishing his fortunes.”

Stand up for your belief: “Count me as a Bihari,” Rahul declared in Patna recently and challenged the Shiv Sena’s exclusionary politics. Again, it’s an approach alien to the Congress, which is trained more for equivocation in conflicts. That conviction, more than electoral calculations, must guide political positions is something Rahul has inherited from mother Sonia.

“In Rahul’s case, you get what you see. There is no deception,” says a Union minister. When the Congress was in a doubt about pursuing the nuclear deal with the US, Rahul’s support turned the table. The deal came through and the government survived.

Embrace the new: Rahul’s strategy is to shift focus to the parent party once those now in the IYC move up. So far, he has paced himself tactically without running into conflicts with seniors.

“The real thing will be what he does to the Congress,” says Zoya Hassan, professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The old guard is nervous about the coming wave of the young. Rahul’s focus on the youth during his visit to Kishenganj in Bihar last week ruffled many feathers. Some senior leaders who didn’t have the chance to meet Rahul or even be part of his cavalcade were grudging. “We were treated as pariah in our own party,” said Moiddur Rehman, a former minister. Undaunted, Rahul told his party in UP that there will have to be a mix of the old and the new. That potent mix could change the political landscape by the 2014 general elections.

Rank and FileRahulisms

With inputs from Prasad Nichenametla in Ahmedabad, Ashok Mishra in Patna and Umesh Raghuvanshi in Lucknow