This Article is From Aug 26, 2014

Blog: Grassroots leaders, not dynasts, make up Rahul Gandhi's Youth Congress

(The columnist is a Youth Congress Office Bearer, former Microsoft Executive & Mckinsey Scholar from MIT Sloan School)

I come from a long line of politicians, three generations of union ministers to be exact. It has been both a privilege and a burden in many ways.

Growing up in a family where dinner table conversations were about national policy and the idea of India, I couldn't help but feel a strong desire to contribute to my nation. However, I was keenly aware of how my legacy would put me in the cross hairs of everyone seeking to discount my achievements as the product of privilege and nothing more. So while my desire to serve grew from a spark to a raging fire, I ignored it to instead build a career as an independent professional in the United States.

Ten years into my life as an engineer and manager, I finally bit the bullet, moving my family back to India to pursue the political path in my quest to change India.  Three years hence, I am today a Youth Congress office bearer.

Rahul Gandhi, I imagine, grew up with a cross to bear much larger than mine. However, he did not hesitate to brush his fears aside and drink from the fire hose, spending a considerable amount of time travelling the country, meeting people from all walks of life and deeply analyzing problems before arriving at their root causes.

One such problem and arguably the most important one for the party and the nation today is the closed nature of political parties, run, some would say, as a conglomerate of small to medium family businesses. In a system of representative politics where it is impossible to remove all forms of discretion, the quality of the elected representative and his or her incentives are key determinants of good governance.  It is, therefore, necessary to introduce competition in a meritocratic framework to find the best candidate to govern.

The main levers to pull in the quest to become a candidate are access to labour, social, economic and political capital.  Political capital is built with one's electorate over a period of time, while social capital is built with connections and networks with the center of power in Delhi. Access to labour to build one's organization is influenced by both social and political capital. A meritocratic system would aim to reduce and ultimately remove social capital as a lever while providing all with a platform to build their own political capital over a period of time.

Politically speaking, the rise of regional parties and their growing vote share in every national election, points to a deeper problem that the Delhi-centric national parties seem unable to tackle. National parties have been dominated by Delhi-based intellectuals who have focused on the creation of far reaching legislation. Regional parties, on the other hand, have grown on the back of our next-door neighbours. They have focused on the strengthening of their grassroots political organizations and the daily delivery of centrally sponsored schemes.

Leveraging their organization and its proximity with the electorate, they have succeeded in not only obfuscating the contributions of the central government but also in magnifying their own role in the delivery of governance.

Rahul Gandhi knows that if the Congress party has to continue to lead the central government, it cannot survive on the basis of tentative and fragile alliances that have a finite timeline. It has to extend itself and deliver what in corporate speak may be termed as "globally local" governance. The Congress party can only do this by standing on the shoulders of its own cadre of grassroots leaders, born in the panchayat and raised in the legislative assembly.

He began his quest to infuse meritocracy and find grassroots leaders in the Congress with its youth wings. He openly declared that he was a symptom of the problem he had set out to solve and immediately began to create what would become the largest democratic exercise undertaken by a political party. The media has criticized the Indian Youth Congress election system for its failure to prevent the descendants of politicians from controlling the posts of youth state president and vice president of the party. This criticism is unfounded, as they fail to see the numerous general secretaries, secretaries, parliament and assembly office bearers that form the bulk of the Youth Congress.

Most of these leaders have no social capital, inherited political capital or financial capital. Having experienced an election where they had to hit the ground running, strike alliances with people they couldn't trust, work around or work through their lack of financial or political capital, they are as battle ready as they come.  I can tell you that I have met and worked with several leaders of this system that I humbly admit I learn from every single day. They represent the real success of the Youth Congress election system as they have managed to succeed without any access to social capital.

The transformation of the Youth Congress is the first in a series of steps Rahul Gandhi has taken to devolve power and distribute decision-making, a path diametrically opposite to the one taken by the BJP, who are seeking to concentrate all decision-making power in a single person. While Narendra Modi shouts from every rooftop in the country in his attempt to convince us that he is the most responsible and capable holder of ultimate power, Rahul Gandhi has taken another step to devolve his power by instituting primaries in several Lok Sabha constituencies, allowing people to pick their own Congress candidate. It is now for us to decide whether we believe in the myth of the benevolent dictator, or in our own power to change our destiny.

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