Disarray in the Congress: Just a Prognosis

From a strategic perspective, the legacy, knowledge and headship is the bedrock source of competitive advantage with strategic importance to a political party. However, managing these critical resources is more difficult than expected.

As pointed out by Pendleton Herring in his volume “Politics of Democracy” (1940: Rinehart & Company Inc. New York) the organization of a party is spread over three concentric rings. The centre ring represents the oligarchy in control of the party organization—what is called the High Command. There are associated with it, its workers who are primarily concerned with securing their livelihood through the party organization whether as party officials or through public office. They are called professional politicians and constitute the party machine. Surrounding this inner group, the High Command and the party machine, there is a large circle of persons bound to the party by ties of tradition and emotional loyalty. They think of the principles professed by the party. They are more concerned with its ideals and symbols than with the acts of the professional party workers and leaders. They vote for the party ideal rather than for the party record.

Outside this second ring lies that vast body of people who are not attached to any party. It is a floating population. The reason for their being unattached is either because they are aimless, thoughtless or because they have particular interests which are not included in the platform of any party. Those outside the second ring constitute the most vital field of action for a political party. They are the prize which a party must capture. To capture this prize it is not enough to enunciate principles and formulate policies. Men are not interested in principles and policies. But they are interested in accomplishing things. What is necessary for a party is to bring about concerted action.

Applying the framework from one of my old research from 2003, there are three progressively complex types of peripheries – COURSE, CONCEPT and CONDUCT – existing between the rings. (https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-7908-2662-3_13 – Unedited pre-conference submission is available at https://emnet.univie.ac.at/emnet-2003/conference-proceedings/ which is also mirrored at https://studylib.net/doc/8500978/mukul-p.-gupta ).

There are clearly two groups spearheading the Programmes of the Congress party:

1) High command – handling the development of the programme and its implementation,

2) The Party Machine – connecting with party loyalists for and behalf of the party to propagate the party programmes and achieve party goals.

The overall political process is to drawn up by high-command and is to be followed by all the groups (course); the political definition and drivers (concept); and the linkages between the high-command and the party machine and the party-loyalists that determine the outcome of the process (conduct).

Each of the three components, Course, Concept and Conduct, which make up the complete political system functionally by integrating the two participating groups don’t create a seamless system. Rather, there are peripheries that need to be overcome. These peripheries have varying levels of complexity.

Peripheries are inescapable because of the hierarchical and functional specialisation of the two groups. Additionally, since all inputs to the political system cannot be known in advance, these peripheries are dynamic and the collective capabilities of the two groups would produce the final political results based on on-going inputs from these groups that keep changing throughout the process. For example, if the high-command proposes to attack the credibility of the incumbent PM, it will have to assess the impact of such attack on the party-loyalists. The party machine will have to assess the role of this narrative and see how it fits with voters’ expectations especially in light of the competitive reactions from BJP and other political parties. The dynamic nature of the different requirements between and dependencies among the two groups brings into focus the complexity of relationships at the periphery.

To talk meaningfully about the complexity at periphery and the challenge of managing relationships across them, it is useful to identify two properties of a periphery – Variance and Reliance.

VARIANCE at the periphery arises from variation in the type of skills and backgrounds or amount of experience between individuals or groups. If there is no variance between individuals or groups then the periphery is not a consequential one.

Within the Congress party, the variance arises from variation in formal education, training, past experience and types of methods used by the high-command and the party-machinery.

The second property of a periphery is RELIANCE. Reliance is a relation that exists between individuals or groups. If there is no reliance between individuals or groups that are different then there is no consequential periphery. For example, the reliance between high-command and party-machinery comes with the recognition that loss of credibility of the incumbent PM will create the need for change of a narrative about ‘corruption in congress leadership’ because the BJP would similar to Congress and thus trigger a new set of voter expectations. This will in turn fetch reaction from the other political parties. But the party-machinery has not known any political plan where it promotes any specific narratives provided by the high-command group and doesn’t have the freedom to create any new narratives of its choice. It could therefore be a political opportunity as well as a competitive threat. Clearly, Reliance across these different positions (i.e., specialised domains) is not always simple, neutral relations, but generates consequences and sometimes conflicts. Overall, the more Variance and Reliance there is at a given periphery the more challenging and complex it is to cross.

The varying conditions from stable to more fluid impact how we describe the complexity of the relations at a periphery. When Variance and Reliance are known and the conditions surrounding them are stable, managing the periphery is straightforward. However, when new Variance and Reliance arise, managing the periphery becomes progressively more challenging.

The Course; the Concept and the Conduct, each, are managed by a different process – RELOCATE (party-loyalists needed to understand the new mode of political narrative), RENDER (so as to avoid problems of interpretation) and RENOVATE (reassign the jobs to party-loyalists so that they are in sync with the new narrative and do not carry the baggage of personal relationships).

In the early phase of launch of new political programme by the Congress party in 2016-18, the high-command wanted to place their newest narrative (‘CHOWKIDAR CHOR HAI’) into the hands of the voters. The problem, however, was that the new narrative for new voters buying into this narrative came with little support from the existing party-loyalists. The party-machinery had therefore to face unhappy new voters whose bad mouthing the congress high-command experience jeopardised future voter conversion.

Theoretically, political parties are agencies for the expression and execution of public opinion but in practice parties create, direct, influence and often control public opinion. Indeed this is the chief function of a party. For this, a party must do two things. In the first place it must establish contact with the masses. It must go out among the masses with its wares—its principles, policies, ideas and candidates. In the second place it must carry on propaganda among the masses in favour of its wares. It must animate them and enlighten them.

A party which fails to forge concerted action has no right to call itself a party.

Which of these things the Congress Party has done as an organization? The Congress Party has only the High Command. It has a feeble machine of people at cross-roads. Not having a proper machine, the high command is only a shadow. Its following is confined to that second concentric ring consisting of persons who are bound by ties of tradition. Is there any wonder if the Congress Party has fallen into disrepute? The Congress Party appears to have forgotten the most elementary fact that organization is essential for the accomplishment of any purpose and particularly in politics where the harnessing of so many divergent elements in a working unity is so great.

Who is responsible for this collapse of the Congress Party in India? However much we may regret to have to say it, it will have to be admitted that the responsibility for this catastrophe does to some extent fall on Rahul and Sonia. Rahul belonged to the Classes. He was born and bred among them. He never became a man of masses. The Congress Party has no machine and the reason why it did not forge a machine is because it did not believe in mass contact. This aversion to mass contact is the legacy of Sonia; and it is in complete reversal to the legacy of Nehru and Indira. In avoiding mass contact the party is following the tradition set by Sonia. There is another legacy of Sonia to the Congress Party and that relates to the false faith in the driving force of her political narrative. Men are mortal. So are narratives. It is wrong to hold that one narrative will take roots ‘ex proprio vigore.’ A narrative needs propagation as much as a plant needs watering. Both will otherwise wither and die. But some plants will still die even with regular watering. So will be the fate of political narratives. If the Congress high-command is content with mere formulation of a narrative it is also because of this tradition of Sonia.


First published 10.09.2020


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Mukul Gupta

*Educator, researcher, author and a friendly contrarian* Professor@MDIGurgaon

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