Congress members clamoring for change must follow the ‘original’ Gandhi. 

[by Bhanu Dhamija]

The Congress party needs an overhaul. Its vote share in the general elections has been declining for years, and so is the number of states the party rules. It lacks just about everything required of India’s main opposition party: majority appeal, charismatic leadership, popular policies, catchy slogans, active organization and motivated workers. Recently, 23 senior Congress leaders demanded sweeping reforms from the party high command. They want decentralization, internal elections, and collective decision-making. It’s time for the party to go back to the principles laid out by its tallest leader, Mahatma Gandhi.

Congress in Mahatma Gandhi ‘Last Will and Testament’

Exactly one day before his assassination, Gandhi had completed a new draft constitution for the party, later published as “His Last Will and Testament.” His secretary Pyarelal wrote that Gandhi had felt exhausted on January 29, 1948, and asked for his help in flushing out the draft. Pyarelal took the revised draft to him the next morning, and just hours before he was killed, Gandhi “went through the additions and alterations point by point with his characteristic thoroughness.”

“The Congress in its present shape and form, i.e., as a propaganda vehicle and parliamentary machine, has outlived its use,” Gandhi wrote. “The party must be kept out of unhealthy competition with political parties and communal bodies” if India was to progress toward its democratic goals.

He wanted the Congress party to scrap its existing organization and “flower” into a “Lok Sevak Sangh.” The party’s new organization would be structured around village panchayats. Every panchayat would form a unit, and two units would become a working party under a leader elected from among themselves. One hundred panchayats would elect a higher level leader, and two hundred panchayats one even higher, until the whole country united under a chief who could lead the entire party.

Congress Needs RSS-type Grass root Work

INC’s last truly popular leader, Rajiv Gandhi would have approved of such a panchayat-based reorganization. It was his leadership that finally brought panchayats real powers through constitutional amendments. The 73rd and 74th Amendments, passed in 1992, introduced self governance to India’s panchayats and municipal bodies. If the INC restructures as the Mahatma envisioned, the party can reclaim a strong competitive advantage in the villages over all other parties.

Even the name that Gandhi suggested, ‘Lok Sevak Sangh’ (LSS) has strategic benefits. He probably had the name “Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh” (RSS) in mind and wanted to establish a contrast. As the BJP’s main organizational backbone, the RSS is more powerful today than it was in Gandhi’s time.

The Mahatma saw the value of their grassroots indoctrination and public service organization and wanted Congress to have the same strengths. Whether he was juxtaposing the words “swayamsevak” (volunteer) with “loksevak” (public servant) is anybody’s guess.

Mahatma Gandhi Left a Blueprint: Why Not Adopt It?

But Gandhi was absolutely clear on how the new Congress and its party members would serve the nation. His draft was specific. Every Congress worker must have “abjured untouchability” and “be a believer in the ideal of inter-communal unity, equal respect and regard for all religions.”

The draft constitution required each Congress worker to be in personal contact with every villager, enroll and train other workers, and organize the villages to make them self-supporting through agriculture and handicrafts.

Gandhi’s ‘Last Will and Testament’ for his beloved Congress party would certainly require a bold reorganization. But other than his requirements that Congress workers be teetotalers and wear khadi, it’s not at all farfetched.

In fact, reforming Congress along the lines of the Mahatma’s advice would immediately give Congress the banner of diversity and pluralism that this party, now seen as for minorities only, so urgently needs.

Congress Members Clamoring for Change Must Follow the ‘Original’ Gandhi

Many Congress leaders are suggesting similar changes today. They want the party to hold internal elections, reform the organization, and provide better social services. Last February, Jairam Ramesh said the party has to “ruthlessly reinvent” itself and “local level leaders have to be encouraged and nurtured.”

In March, Shashi Tharoor offered this advice: “The Congress should go for an open election… the organization has to revive itself and engage in politics as social service between elections.”

And Salman Soz and Sanjay Jha wrote that “it is time to do a bold makeover as mere synthetic tinkering will prove counterproductive.”

India desperately needs a strong opposition, and only Congress can fill that bill. But its leaders today are people with small vision and little courage. Perhaps Gandhi’s original vision can light a spark in the rank and file, and return to India its Grand Old Congress Party.


[The author is Founder and CEO of the Divya Himachal group and author of ‘Why India Needs the Presidential System’. He can be reached @BhanuDhamija]

A version of this article was first published on The Quint on 24 August 2020.