September 29, 2022
Indian democracy is not at a crossroads. It has taken a decisive turn. Measuring the impact of this decision is complex. However, using some first principles like India’s Constitution and other foundational treatises like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there are clear dimensions of concern, if not alarm. Students and observers of democracy know how difficult it is to undo wrong decisions in a democracy. In fact, the longer these decisions live, the harder it gets.
The Indian National Congress’s (INC’s) presidential election is coming up at a pivotal moment – not just for the party but for Indian democracy. Like all organisations of its scale and age, the INC is imperfect. At this specific moment, it is dysfunctional when it comes to carrying out a key part of its raison d’etre – being an electorally viable, progressive national political alternative.
The INC is not an ordinary organisation. It was the backbone of India’s struggle for independence that Mahatma Gandhi turned into the largest social reformation movement in India’s history. Thus, the INC was much more than a political outfit organised to just contest elections. The INC’s pre-independence work inspired India’s greatest generation to adopt a lifestyle of service rooted in a deep commitment to social justice. Since independence, the service elements of its work have sadly faded. This has led to an increasing alienation from citizen challenges and a refuge in self-preservation for political power. Again, not an uncommon phenomenon witnessed all over the world. But for India, this is deeply concerning. Why?
To answer that question let’s go back to 1915 when Gandhi returns to India from South Africa for good. Gopalkrishna Gokhale, one of Gandhi’s mentors, advised Gandhi to use the vast, national network of the Congress party to access the masses. Of course, Gandhi transformed the Congress by bringing in people from all corners of India, all walks of life and dramatically increasing gender, linguistic, caste and religious diversity. Gandhi knew the power of logistical reach as he was a master strategist. Between 1920, the non-cooperation movement, and 1947, Gandhi transformed the Congress party. He took it from being a party of upper-class spokespeople to the leader of the greatest mass movement in human history. Above all, he engaged the state to end its growing tyranny that inevitably violated the basic tenets of what makes up human dignity. We are not too far from that today. A similar transformation of the INC is a national imperative. Other political parties and civil society friends need not fear such a transformation but cheer it. It can only enrich the political discourse. Such a revitalisation of Indian politics is long overdue.
Organisations with such a storied history don’t get many chances to transform themselves. Thus, it’s crucial to have a leadership that grasps this moment. A leadership that brings a different vision. The exercise of trying something different builds a resilience that will eventually set the right course. The INC is like an athlete whose muscles are in atrophy. They have to be exercised. It won’t win right away, but it sure can’t win without trying. And it sure won’t get back to good health through leadership that has tried its best for long but not been able to alter its declining trajectory. This decline is not only in terms of electoral success but a diminishing ideological clarity, moribund cadre and inability to capture popular imagination. The party is in a creative funk.
Enter Shashi Tharoor. His professional and literary biography doesn’t need much mention. I am not endorsing Shashi Tharoor based on his distinguished biography alone but the diversity of experiences he brings to leadership. I don’t like comparing leaders, especially of different eras, but Shashi Tharoor brings together the openness to collaboration for the greater common good and conscientious insistence like Jawahar Lal Nehru. He brings a commitment to forward movement of all people, not just his political constituents and benefactors. The INC needs such a broadminded leadership. India needs such a leadership.
Organisationally, the INC needs a new cadre. Shashi Tharoor’s All-India Professional Congress effort along with Salman Soz has been a gust of fresh air. Much more needs to be done there, but after a long time a new section of society seems to have joined the Congress. Many more sections can and will join if he becomes president. A wide range of professionals, from MBAs to lawyers to entrepreneurs, will find Tharoor to be an empathetic and forward-looking political cheerleader. Above all, Tharoor will offer India’s youth an alternative political engagement. His personal traits as being a thoughtful, articulate, diligent and welcoming leader will inspire emulation. The INC, if it were a public company, needs a stock split to change its ownership profile. A Tharoor presidency will not only disrupt the current demographic alignments, but also create a new professional dimension that will cut across current lines.
Finally, let’s take on the charge of intellectual elitism despite his three consecutive Lok Sabha wins that’s required him to build and sustain several grassroots partners within and outside the party organisation. Here, let me address my civil society friends with whom my camaraderie is deep. We need the INC to be viable. It won’t become viable until it has leadership that has moral and intellectual clarity. It won’t be viable until it is organisationally whole so its elements can work with us and provide us the necessary political support to materialise the ideas that we hold dear. And this existential transformation cannot come from “seasoned” leaders who’ve had their chances over the last many years. It is time for us too to turn the page and give this patriot an opportunity to show a new way.
I urge all eligible electors to give their support to Tharoor for the presidency of the Indian National Congress. The time to change is now.
Rohit Tripathi is a Washington-based policy advocate who has worked with both the US Congress and the Indian Parliament on a variety of issues. He is the founder of Young India, Inc, and a long-time diaspora policy advocate. Rohit has also taught globalisation as an adjunct faculty at the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business.