Tharoor Line | Party polls to benefit Congress

Shashi Tharoor while paying tribute to former PM Rajiv Gandhi during his election campaign for the party's presidential election in Chennai, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022. Photo: PTI/R Senthil Kumar

Since my last column, my life has been consumed by race for the presidency of the Indian National Congress party. Though the party election is an internal exercise, it also represents an opportunity to ignite widespread public interest in the Congress and to galvanise its party workers. When, following the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Rahul Gandhi offered his resignation as the party’s president to take accountability for our stinging defeat, I was one of many who tried to talk him out of it. At the end of the day, he stuck to his decision and we must respect that.

The longer the Congress waits to get its act together, the greater the risk of its erosion, as we have seen in recent years. The party elections have changed the narrative — together with the Bharat Jodo Yatra they have brought unprecedented public interest in the party -- and a leader elected by the party workers will have a great advantage in addressing organisational challenges, as well as the process of rebuilding that is required to internally strengthen our rank and file. Such a President would have extra legitimacy in reaching out to the public for support. I am proud to say my nomination papers received signatures of support from ordinary party workers from Kashmir to Kerala, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand to Tamil Nadu, Punjab to Nagaland.

The immediate priority that must be addressed, whosoever is elected, is to develop and implement a roadmap that will allow the party to find a way to appeal beyond the 19% of the electorate that voted for the party in both 2014 and 2019. The party has to appeal to those who did not vote for it in those two elections and drifted away to the BJP, most of whom did so for reasons other than Hindutva. This would require a leader who, while anchored in the history of the party, looks beyond the past to speak to the aspirations of young India — one who firmly believes the party can set the country on the route to a better society, one that is ready to take on the opportunities offered by the world of the 21st century. The challenge, therefore, for the Congress is twofold: We need to both articulate a positive and aspirational vision for the nation as well as work to fix the organisational and structural deficiencies that have impeded our recent efforts.

To my mind the answer lies in a combination of effective leadership and organisational reform. This is why I have put forward a manifesto that re-imagines the organisational culture in the party in order to decentralise authority and truly empower the grassroots office-bearers of the party. Delegating powers to State leaders and empowering grassroots workers will not only free the new leader from the onerous burdens of over-administration but also help create the strong State leadership that in past eras strengthened the Congress’s national appeal.

I believe that a fresh leader, who has not been jaded by being entrenched within the current system for too long, could do both — energise a party that certainly needs it, and at the same time, appeal to more voters than the Congress managed to during the last few elections. A democratic contest will bring vibrancy at all levels by prompting a healthy and constructive discussion on reforms.

Shashi Tharoor with Rahul Gandhi during Bharat Jodo Yatra. Photo: Shashi Tharoor/Facebook

Therefore, I have taken the decision to contest for three principal reasons. For one, I share the view of the Congress President and of Shri Rahul Gandhi that a democratic contest will only strengthen the party. I am also contesting because I have several ideas to reform and re-energise our party after our recent electoral setbacks, end the “High Command” culture and empower the grassroots, increase consultative mechanisms and give our ordinary workers or “karyakartas” more respect and access to the leadership at all levels.

Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge pays homage to Mahatma Gandhi on the occasion of his birth anniversary, at Rajghat in New Delhi, Sunday. Photo: PTI/Atul Yadav

Prior to my entering the fray I have been assured by the Congress President as well as former President Rahul Gandhi that they welcome a free and fair election, will stay neutral and will not back any “official candidate”. I appreciate that I am widely seen as the underdog in this race, and that many people believe the establishment will come together to defend their own interests in the status quo. To those who are urging me to withdraw in the interests of “consensus”, I believe that having a healthy and constructive exchange of ideas for reform and for the future of the party will ultimately both strengthen the Congress and intensify the interest we command in the national consciousness. Sometimes one must have the courage of one’s convictions to do the right thing, regardless of the likely outcome. I have always felt that if one believes strongly enough in something, one must be prepared to stick one’s neck out for it. It is an approach that has guided me in both my personal and political life. But whoever wins, the party should be the ultimate beneficiary.

Surprise in the sky

The campaign trail can be exhausting, as one seeks to visit a dozen cities in a little over two weeks and reach as many of the nearly 10,000 delegates by phone as possible. But sometimes there can be an unexpected bonus that lifts the spirits, as when, on my flight from Hyderabad to Thiruvananthapuram on Monday, the pilot, Captain Inderpreet Singh, announced a “special welcome to Dr Shashi Tharoor who is on board” and the passengers broke out into applause. I spent most of the rest of the flight obliging fellow travellers with selfies, though some young students, even in this era of ubiquitous cameras, came seeking autographs. This ability of politics to touch the hearts of such a wide variety of people is what makes the effort all worthwhile in the end.

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