Where there's a Will
I spent almost two weeks last month traveling across 70 of Chhattisgarh’s 90 assembly constituencies, mostly meeting the state’s youth. In all, I ended up addressing 109 public meetings, both big and small. My agenda- if one can call it that- was to motivate those in the age group of 18 to 35 to join the Indian Youth Congress (IYC), the Congress party’s youth outfit. (The photograph here is of a press report of my visit to Pathalgaon in remote Jashpur district, courtesy Vibhash Thakur) To do so, I had to, at the very least, answer a most obvious question:
Why should any young person (1) pay Rs. 15 (and in case of women and SC/STs with a caste certificate duly attested by an executive magistrate, Rs. 5); (2) fill out a rather detailed computer-readable form; (3) provide legible photocopies of a variety of documents as proof of age and address; and (4) affix a color photograph, all to become member of an organization of youngsters whose parent party has remained out of power in the state for the past six years, and will, in all probability, continue to do so for the next four years at least?
Even if the Will is present, the Way to Membership isn’t exactly easy: most of the state’s youth, living as they do in rural habitats, have no compelling need for such documentation nor do they have access to photocopiers and photo-studios. For instance, a tribal in Orchha, the entry-point to Abujhmar, which as its name suggests is possibly the only territory in India yet to be surveyed, doesn’t really need a caste certificate signed & sealed by a magistrate in Jagdalpur, a township at a distance of almost 200 kms by road, of which at least 70 kms is heavily-mined by insurgent-Maoists, when his village is 100% tribal. Yet, for some peculiar reason, which escapes all Common Sense, no less than 49 youngsters from Orchha did in fact complete all the aforementioned formalities to become members.
A Silent Revolution
The Congress party, as I see it, is in the throes of a carefully-executed Revolution: 125 year old Top-Down hierarchies are being systematically dismantled to pave the path for a new sort of democracy, where members get to choose for themselves- as opposed to have someone else select for them- who their next generation of leaders are going to be.
As revealed by Prof. Tan Chung in his study of the composition of the Politburo in post-Revolutionary China (1949)- many erstwhile Imperial (Chin’g) Mandarins suddenly found themselves sitting in the highest echelons of the People’s Republic as comrades of the peasant-proletariat!- it’s quite possible, indeed even probable, that we might well end up with the same faces- or genetically younger versions of old, familiar faces- but make no bones, the Rules of the Game have changed, both irrevocably and irreversibly. Leadership can no longer be based on personal proximity to power-centers- the Patron-client network elucidated by Prof. Judith Brown in her seminal study of the Mahatma’s rebuilding of the Congress during the latter phases of the National Movement (1919-47)- but solely and exclusively on the criteria of public support. To paraphrase the neo-realist Kenneth Waltz, this is ‘a systemic change’.
The modus operandi of this Revolution- proclaimed as “Youth Transforming” on the website and membership forms- is remarkably simple. I can only say: why didn’t anyone think of it before? Its stages are threefold: first, members are recruited; secondly, they elect their leaders, at the panchayat, ward, assembly, Lok Sabha and state levels; thirdly, the elected leaders (now called EOBs, or elected office bearers) are trained in the science of political leadership before the process can start all over again. To be honest, this three-phased Model didn’t just emerge by itself: it is a result of very patient Trial & Error. Mistakes were made, lessons were- & are still being- learnt.
Trial & Error
Punjab was the pilot project. Then came Gujarat. Both states were a great success in terms of mammoth numbers of members enrolled. Yet, two problems surfaced: one, membership was mostly confined to urban centers & a majority of the villages, especially those in remote areas, were left out entirely; and two, voter turnout remained dismally low (16% in Gujarat). Clearly, the Model, as it existed then, wasn’t reaching out to the rural youth. The cause, it was discovered, lay in the way elections were structured: most members were required to travel vast distances to cast their votes in no more than two polling centers per assembly constituency, in order to directly elect their assembly committees. Now, the process has been changed and the problems overcome.
Not only would there be more polling centers in every assembly constituency (at least, 10, I hope) but members would no longer be voting directly for assembly (Vidhan Sabha) committees; they would instead vote to elect their respective ward/ panchayat committees, who would in turn vote for assembly committees. This new arrangement makes it incumbent upon assembly candidates to get their electors- i.e., the panchayat and ward committees- elected, which means that they not only have to persuade a maximum number of people to become members, but that they have to do so in a majority of wards and panchayats of the constituency.
As far as the documentation & the photographs are concerned, that, I imagine, is something we’ve learnt from Tamil Nadu, where more than 14,00,000 members were enrolled: a stricter criteria was necessary to ensure that genuine persons become members. It is, for all facts and purposes, a necessary evil: the cumbersome process ensures that only those really committed to the Youth Congress- its leadership & the ideas (as opposed to any definitive ideology) it represents- join.
Now, coming back to the central Question- why should anyone join the IYC- I believe the best answer can be provided by posing the counter-question: why shouldn’t one? Even so, let me give just three reasons:
(1) First, to be a member of the IYC is to become an intrinsic part of the world’s largest youth network with members- and elected office-bearers (EOBs)- in each and every part, from ‘Kashmir to Kanyakumari & Gujarat to Guwahati’, of what is indeed the world’s largest, most vibrant democracy. This in turn means that members are not alone; they are part of the most powerful, influential youth organization of the nation encompassing members from every region, religion and race; their voice, once united, becomes the voice of India;
(2) Now, for the first time in its history since the early 1970s (when Mr. Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi was elected President), the IYC has become truly & fully democratic: this means that members get to decide who should lead them, unlike in say the BJP’s youth wing, Yuva Morcha (YM), where leadership is more often than not imposed from above. This means that from day one, they are incorporated into its decision-making process;
(3) Last but not the least, members get to establish a direct rapport with the IYC leadership, headed by Rahul Gandhi; in essence, they become part of his team. There’s no denying the fact that Mr. Gandhi represents a link between the nation’s past and its future: while being firmly grounded in tradition, he, more than anyone else, would determine the shape of things to come. It means a lot, then, that members would, through the IYC network, get to share their feelings, their hopes and aspirations & also their concerns and problems, with ‘RG’, the one person who is really, sincerely trying to understand us, the Youth, and in so doing, uniting us in one common bond like never before.
A Chhattisgarhi Marvel
Small wonder then that more than 3,90,000 youth, from almost every panchayat and ward of a predominantly rural-tribal state like Chhattisgarh, have chosen to become members of the IYC. As a proportion of the population, this is the highest membership done so far anywhere; and in real terms, we’ve the largest number of members from any non-Congress ruled state of the nation. (The same is true of the NSUI membership, where more than 79,000 students from Chhattisgarh enrolled last year compared to 50,000 in Delhi and 90,000 in neighboring Madhya Pradesh, both of which have three times the student-population.) Four further aspects make this figure even more commendable:
(1) The PYC membership drive took place at the exact same time when PRI (Panchayati Raj Institutions) elections were being conducted: this meant that most if not all of the party’s grassroots workers were busy either contesting or campaigning for their district, block and village panchayat elections, and could spare little, or no, time in enrolling YC members. That work, I am happy to report, was done entirely by the youth, most of whom have joined the organization for the first time;
(2) With the lone exceptions of Mr. P Chidambram, Union Home Minister (who had come on official business), and Mr. Arun Yadav, MoS in the Union Government, not one senior party leader visited the state during the entire course of the month-long membership drive. Needless to say, we had all hoped that RG would come, but for some reason or the other, he couldn’t make it. (In Mumbai, for instance, where no less than 26 party leaders campaigned, the membership was about 1,50,000.);
(3) Not only that, unlike Jharkhand and Rajasthan, the membership drive in Chhattisgarh was not extended by even a day; &
(4) Chhattisgarh, I believe, has had among the highest rejection rates of membership forms: I personally know of at least 100,000 forms that could not be accepted because they were, for instance, not accompanied by photographs or photocopies of required documentary proofs, given the backwardness and remoteness of several of its areas.
It is interesting to note that the State Congress Committee (PCC), which is the Congress party’s main body in the state, enrolled less than 1,50,000 members statewide even though (a) the PCC membership campaign went on for almost a year & was extended for a further two months; and (b) the PCC membership fee was just Rs. 3 per member, which is 1/5th of PYC’s Rs. 15. In other words, the PCC was able to enroll barely 40% of the total number of members enrolled by the PYC despite its membership fee being only 20% of PYC’s and the duration of its membership drive being 14 times longer! I do not of course mean to denigrate the parent body in any way, but merely site these figures as proof of the tremendous enthusiasm that the youth of Chhattisgarh have towards Rahul ji, who has, over the course of his visits to various parts of the state, developed a very special place in the people’s hearts & minds. Also- and I can’t help pointing out this obvious fact- this is indicative of the faith, or lack thereof, that people have in the election process of the aforementioned two organizations.
Mahatma meets Machiavelli
I would also like to clarify one point of criticism that has been raised against the election process. It has been argued by many that only those with money, resources and clout can come up through this system. That is not entirely correct. The amount of resources etc. required to win at the panchayat or ward levels is much lesser than that needed to win a post on the assembly, Lok Sabha or state committees. The possibility of 'genuine' (as opposed to 'moneyed') persons occupying these grassroots level positions therefore cannot be ruled out entirely: to further ensure that everyone, including those who are not economically or socially privileged, get into the system, 3 out of 5 positions have been reserved at the panchayat levels for women (both general and reserved), SCs, STs, OBCs and Minorities. Likewise, the number of reserved posts at the assembly level is 10 out of 20; and 5 out of 10 in the Lok Sabha and State committees. Cumulatively, these carefully reserved posts would account for more than 60% of all positions, making it inevitable that persons from these depressed communities have a potent voice in the new structure.
Money, resources and clout- if at all- would be a factor (of many, including most crucially, Network & Image) for top posts in the assembly, Lok Sabha and state committees. In this context, I would like to point out that the IYC is only organization of the Congress party to have done away with district and block units; they have been replaced with panchayat, ward, assembly, Lok Sabha and state committees. These new units correspond exactly to the units of the Indian electoral system: these are the exact same places for which general elections are held. And it would be naive, not to mention mighty foolish, for anyone to imagine that money, resources and clout do not play any role in these elections. (In the recently concluded PRI elections, candidates spent lakhs on sarpanch elections!) Given this reality, let me not mince words: the Congress party, like every other party, is in the business of contesting- and more importantly, winning- elections whenever and wherever they are held. (To put it in a less Machiavellian fashion, we are in the business of winning people's trust.)
The IYC election process, which is not very different from the general election process, therefore helps to identify the most winnable persons- and for whatever it's worth, I do not for one moment believe that there is any need to be apologetic about this fact of political life. If anything, it is the ruling BJP government of Chhattisgarh that is alarmed: the phrase they now use to refer to the Youth Congress is "laikaa pakraiyya", which translates from the local dialect as "youth catcher"!
In the end, as a Congressperson, I can only hope- and pray- that the Revolution that is transforming the party’s two youth organizations vis-à-vis the NSUI and IYC doesn’t stop here: it is my earnest wish that it would encompass the whole of the Congress.