As the turmoil around the farmer agitation goes up another notch, there seems to be a disconnect between the old guard and the new. And this revolves around the nature of change that the organisation needs. At the one end are consummate political players. Sibal, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Anand Sharma and a host of others. In the middle are stalwarts like Chidambaram and Tharoor. And at the other end are the more confrontationist and activist-members, led by Rahul Gandhi.
The current churn in the Indian National Congress is just one more in its saga to find its relevance in the modern political sphere. The existentialist question of ‘who I am and what do I stand for’ has different versions that don’t seem to talk to each other. There is a visible schism between the sophisticated backroom boys and girls who speak the language of politics with each other, and a younger, more muscular leadership that is very comfortable rolling up its sleeves, hitting the streets and ready to confront and agitate, speaking the language of the street. Kanhaiya Kumar joining the INC shows the party (at least one part of it) willing to hit the streets more. The killings at Lakhimpur Kheri have brought all this to a boil – as one of the Congress is courting arrest, and the other seems missing in action.
In the 18 months since its loss in the general elections, the INC leadership has sleepwalked its way in response to some of the worst turmoil that the nation has faced in the last two decades. It is almost as though the inept response by the ruling party was being met in measure with even more ineptitude. And while the political response from the party leadership ranged from tepid to lukewarm, those on the street met the challenge and gained visibility.
For about the last decade or so, there have been murmurs in the Congress about the old guard blocking the new and ambitious. The result has been the mass migration of talent and leadership from the INC to the BJP before the 2014 elections. And it seems that the lessons of the past have not been heeded.
The latest edition of the turmoil in the Congress came to the fore when Kapil Sibal, 73, sent out a salvo on the handling of the situation in Punjab. He inquired, “In our party, there is no president. So, we don’t know who is taking these decisions. We know and yet we don’t know.” The response to this was swift and surprising. Congress workers surrounded his house and hurled abuses at Sibal, and stones at his property.
Another senior leader, P Chidambaram, 76, wrung his hands and tweeted “I feel helpless when we cannot start meaningful conversations within party forums. I also feel hurt and helpless when I see pictures of Congress workers raising slogans outside the residence of a colleague and MP. The safe harbour to which one can withdraw seems to be silence.” And this public display of angst was in response to Captain Amarinder Singh, 79, being replaced as Punjab CM by Charanjit Singh Channi.
On the face of it, the issue seems rather clear – stalwarts of the party – labelled the G-23 – wanting change. And the leadership – led by the Gandhis – refusing it. However, if you look at the layer below, that truth is rather more complicated.
Part of the problem with the Congress is its legacy leadership. The old guard is literally acting as an invisible ceiling, preventing talent from rising to the top. We saw this in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, as Kamal Nath, 74, and Ashok Gehlot, 70, usurped power from the younger leaders who drove Congress victory in those states. The senior management of the Congress is acting as the immovable force that is preventing younger leadership from taking its rightful position in driving the organisation.
Blockers of change
This problem is not unique to the Congress. There is enough management research and literature that reveals that senior and upper middle management often act as blockers of change, because they are unsure of their place in the new scheme of things. Anyone who has been involved in a change management project will tell you that the market is easier to deal with than the internal tug of war.
The endless meetings aimed at finding ‘consensus’ are sapping. And ultimately, this desire for consensus and the lack of anyone in charge is what kills organisations. Contrary to popular belief, organisations cannot be democracies. They may elect their leadership in a democratic manner – via elections – but the leadership has to be empowered to make decisions.
The Congress has a legacy from the last 20 years – 10 of which was in government. It has a legacy command structure from that period. And for the Congress to hope to rebuild, that entire legacy structure – including Sonia Gandhi - must step aside and allow new talent, new leadership and new blood to take over. If it wants to survive, it must change. And to change, it must be ruthless about getting rid of deadwood. Maybe, it needs to take a leaf out of the BJP playbook and constitute a margdarshak mandal and promote the stalwarts.
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker
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