Heard about the All India Professionals Congress?
Veenu Sandhu reports.
The poll manifesto of the Indian National Congress, released, which promises wealth and welfare while also challenging the Bharatiya Janata Party and its policies, had an unusual set of people working behind the scenes.
Among them were professors, lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, retired bureaucrats, data scientists, writers, ex-bankers -- all assisting the Congress's manifesto committee and research department to put the document together.
These weren't politicians.
And many of them harbour no political ambitions.
But they all pay taxes and want to have a say in the way the country is run, and in the way policies are framed and implemented.
So, in mid-2017, when the Congress launched the All India Professionals Congress, or AIPC, a new department that would have tax-paying professionals as fellows, many of them joined in.
To be an AIPC fellow, a person should be a tax-paying citizen of India above the age of 18, have a professional qualification, a voter ID card and a personal bank account.
In some ways, the initiative recalls the early days of the Aam Aadmi Party that drew professionals from all walks to politics in 2012.
The AIPC today has close to 8,000 members across India, aged 20 to 70-plus.
Each member is attached to a unit chapter, which has one or two constituencies assigned to it and has 25 to 100 members each.
Above it is the state unit, which reports to the national body that is divided into four zones or regions: North, South, East, West.
The three-tier AIPC has Thiruvananthapuram Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor as chairman.
The number of members is small yet, but the talent pool has been adding capacity to different departments of the Congress.
And while they play a critical role in communication, content creation and social media management, this isn't all they do.
Chhattisgarh is a case in point.
Ahead of the 2018 assembly election in the state, AIPC members travelled with the state manifesto committee across districts, holding 40 to 50 meetings every day with different groups -- sanitation workers, forest dwellers, farmers, transporters, shopkeepers.
"Over several months, along with the state Congress unit and the manifesto committee, AIPC members held consultations with over 1,000 groups on various issues concerning them," says Szarita Laitphlang, regional coordinator of the East Zone.
"Our data analysis and accurate, unbiased feedback helped the main campaign committee process the information and put out positive and targeted messages," she adds.
The Congress swept Chhattisgarh in the election.
Of the five AIPC regional coordinators, two are women -- Laitphlang and Geeta Reddy (South Zone).
And of the three office-bearers in every unit chapter, one is a woman -- making the AIPC the first Congress department to have a compulsory 33 per cent reservation for women.
Where there is no suitable woman candidate, the post is left vacant.
Every chapter is supposed to meet at least once a month.
There is, however, no compulsion on how much time and effort a member puts in.
"We are not slave drivers," laughs Salman Anees Soz, regional coordinator, North Zone.
"Besides, these are professional people. Some are able to give more time, others aren't."
Some like to engage in outreach programmes, such as holding talks with students in schools and colleges, or organising events, which also serve as platforms to spread awareness about the AIPC.
For large-scale events -- such as the AIPC national interactive, 'Is India being Redefined?', that was held at the Siri Fort Auditorium in Delhi in December 2018 and for which 2,500 people turned up -- the state unit gets involved.
"We ensure that most programmes and chapter meetings happen on the weekend," says Suneer Salam, a 33-year-old Ernakulam-based banker turned entrepreneur and an AIPC fellow.
"These meetings happen in a hotel or a club and not at the party office. We are not a normal party setup and we don't want people to feel otherwise," says Salam.
"Also, the professionals might not feel comfortable with party workers around."
Salam says for many professionals AIPC is also a great networking opportunity that offers both exposure and a platform to inform policy-makers about issues close to their heart, including those concerning their professions.
Tharoor describes AIPC as "a kind of Rotary Club within the Congress party, where like-minded professionals can meet as peers in individual chapters and also get together collectively at the state, regional and national levels".
The involvement is at different levels and in different ways.
One of AIPC's first policy engagements, says Tharoor, was a white paper that the Delhi state unit brought out on the air pollution crisis, complete with best practices from existing reports and their own innovative ideas.
"Similarly, the Tamil Nadu chapter did a study of the impact of demonetisation and GST on the Tirupur garment industry," he says.
One set of professionals also brought out a report on the chikankari industry in Uttar Pradesh and another studied why small and medium enterprises choose to stay small.
"We found that this was so because our incentive structure is such that SMEs benefit by staying small. So, we need to rethink this," says Soz.
Salam talks about the study that the Kerala AIPC conducted on the flaws in engineering education in the country.
"It was an eye-opener for parents and also for the political leadership, who can now think of how the curriculum can be revamped," he says.
The devastating Kerala floods of 2018 saw the AIPC fellows in another role as they helped coordinate relief and rescue operations, and blood donation drives and medical camps.
On request from the MLA from Ernakulam, a seven-member AIPC team also surveyed high-rise buildings, where the floods had left residents stranded, brought in snakes and had caused the central gas unit to burst.
The team carried back reports of the damage and of what people needed urgently.
Now, during the Lok Sabha election, the focus of the work has shifted to the political field.
In Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh, the AIPC is already working on campaigning for the candidate (Sanjay Singh).
"The pradesh Congress committees know that this talent pool is available, so candidates can tap into it," says AIPC policy coordinator Amitabh Dubey.
In Delhi, the members are waiting for a decision on an alliance with the Aam Aadmi Party before intensive work on the ground can begin.
Dubey was part of the consultations in Delhi on environment and forests as also on art and culture for the manifesto, for which the members engaged with NGOs, international organisations, individual activists and also resident welfare associations -- "we wanted the view of non-specialists as well".
It was a result of these consultations that climate change and disaster management, which would ordinarily have been clubbed together in the party manifesto, were addressed as separate, if related, issues that called for a green budget.
The AIPC organised an event at the Constitution Club in Delhi where Congress leaders Rajeev Gowda, who heads the party's research department, P Chidambaram and Soz explained the manifesto to those gathered and answered questions about it.
In Mumbai, the organisation has another task at hand -- to convince people to vote.
Voter turnout percentages in Mumbai in national, state and local elections have generally hovered around 40 per cent -- the last Lok Sabha election saw a record of sorts with 55 per cent voter turnout.
"Voting here is on April 29, a Monday. And May 1 is Labour Day, also a holiday. People will most likely make an extended holiday of it and head out of the city," says Rudresh Kaul, 30, business strategy consultant and fellow at AIPC Mumbai (West).
Getting access to people who live in residential complexes and gated colonies to convince them to vote isn't always easy for traditional political workers.
"But when you have a pool of professionals who live in these very same colonies, then it becomes a bit easier," says Kaul.
On election day, he says, some of them hope to get involved with booth management as well.
"A party needs presence at every booth -- a strong, ethical person who can spot irregularities, will not be bribed and can hold the EC person accountable on the spot. We can chip in," says Kaul.
Ultimately, says Soz, it is for the state units to decide how they want to employ the political professional this election season.