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Wednesday, Oct 23, 2019

‘Protectors of the tricolour’: Congress is reviving its 95-year-old arm Seva Dal

In Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh, the Seva Dal is involved in campaigning door-to-door, organising leadership camps, distributing party literature, and mobilising crowds.

lok-sabha-elections Updated: May 14, 2019 08:44 IST
Amrita Madhukalya
Amrita Madhukalya
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Seva Dal members say that this is a departure from the work in the past but adds that “it is a fight to win situation.”
Seva Dal members say that this is a departure from the work in the past but adds that “it is a fight to win situation.”(HT Photo)
         

May 23, the day results to the Lok Sabha election will be announced, will show whether the Congress’ revival plan (the party won its lowest tally of 44 seats in the last parliamentary election) has worked, but the election campaign has already seen the reinvention of a 95-year- old organisation, which started as the grand old party’s first line of defence, but which, in recent decades, had been reduced to helping organised party events.

In Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh, the Seva Dal is involved in campaigning door-to-door, organising leadership camps, distributing party literature, and mobilising crowds.

The wing’s chief organiser Lalji Desai says that this is a departure from the wing’s work in the past but adds that “this is a fight to win situation.”

The Seva Dal was founded in 1924, during the freedom movement and those chosen for it had to undergo basic physical training. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the Bharatiya Janata Party was founded a year later.

Over the decades, though, the Dal lost its relevance. Its former chief, Mahender Joshi, who helmed the organisation for at least two decades, says that over the past 20-25 years, as politics became more mainstream, and personality-led, many politicians did not want to be a part of the Dal’s old-world form of governance.

He narrates a story from the Dal’s hoary past. In the 1950s, during a national executive meeting of the Dal held in Jaipur, Jawaharlal Nehru entered the premises without his ID tag, only to be stopped by a Seva Dal worker. Nehru, who was the party president and as such, the Dal’s as well, asked if the worker knew who he was. The worker replied that it was because he knew who Nehru was, that he had stopped the party president from breaking a rule. An impressed Nehru then declared that Dal workers would henceforth be known as “tiranga ka prahari (the protectors of the tricolour).”

But that was in the past.

Last June, senior leaders of the party and over 150 Seva Dal regional coordinators met Rahul Gandhi to work out a plan to revive the organisation. In February this year, in a national executive meet of the unit, held after 35 years, Gandhi apologised to the wing for not give it its due, according to Desai.

To prepare for the Lok Sabha elections, over 200 Seva Dal leaders held leadership camps teaching the cadre how to lead a local team in campaigning. It helped that Desai had worked in people’s movements earlier. Around 30 such camps were held across UP, MP, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana.

Soon after the camps, Seva Dal workers took part of the Congress’s manifesto and translated it into Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Assamese, Gujarati and Odia for workers to distribute (along with the English and Hindi versions). This is in addition to a pack of 11 booklets, called Rashtriya Shiromani, that the unit sends to its own workers. Two of these booklets are about the RSS, and Hindu Mahasabha founder Veer Savarkar, while the others are about the Congress’s ideology, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Subhash Chandra Bose, and Bhagat Singh. Around 50,000 such sets, in three languages, have been dispatched to Seva Dal workers.

The wing’s Youth Brigade has, meanwhile, adopted a more casual dress code ( jeans and a tee shirt) and has been working across various parts of India including the Northeast, organising campaign meetings, and holding cultural activities and bike rallies.

The Dal has also set up branches in seven countries, and has its own social media teams (and handles) .

Over the next 1000 days, the Seva Dal wants to expand its presence to over half of India’s 650,000 villages. That will also give the party grassroot infrastructure.

While Seva Dal workers have always been trained in some form of physical training, for the new roles the wing has looked for people with a different set of skills. “Physical fitness is the mainstay, but what the Seva Dal is looking for in its new recruits is intelligence and wit, and an emphasis on identifying with the party’s ideology,” said Desai.

First Published: May 14, 2019 08:43 IST

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