In the aftermath of the ‘letter bomb’ in the Congress that didn’t quite explode, there has been much angst over the apparent lack of inner party democracy in the grand old party. ‘Family-run private limited company’ is a charge that has been often made to describe the Congress party’s seemingly fatal obsession with the Gandhis. In the 51 years since Indira Gandhi split the Congress and redefined the party of the freedom movement forever, a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family has controlled this ‘new’ Congress for all but seven years. To that extent, the charge of being a dynastical party is a legitimate one. But does that also mean that the Congress is less ‘democratic’ than its principal rivals? Not quite.
Take for example the BJP, the party that now dominates the country’s political landscape. When did the BJP, for example, hold an open election to the post of president or even when choosing its prime ministerial nominee? When Rajnath Singh finished his term in 2014, Amit Shah was unanimously ‘selected’ as the BJP chief, no questions asked. He was, after all, the most trusted aide of prime minister Narendra Modi. When Shah completed an extended term in 2019, JP Nadda was again ‘selected’ as party chief, not necessarily because he was the most popular choice for the post but because he was simply the most convenient: an affable leader with no mass base who would not rock the boat.
When prime minister Narendra Modi was chosen as the BJP’s candidate for the top post in 2013, did the party go through a robust election or even discussion when making the choice of the man from Gujarat? Fact is the decision to elevate Mr Modi was made in Hedgewar Bhavan in Nagpur, the RSS headquarters, before being formally announced after a BJP parliamentary board meeting in September 2013. When party patriarch LK Advani chose to voice his dissent at the anointment, he was confined to the political doghouse and subsequently to the marg darshak mandal, a clear reflection of the fact that no challenge would be tolerated to the BJP’s ‘Chosen One’.
Sonia Gandhi, by contrast, is an obvious beneficiary of the dynastical principle whose initial foray into politics is solely because of her status as the Gandhi family ‘bahu’. But while she took over the Congress in a ‘bloodless coup’ from Sitaram Kesri in 1998, she did go through at least the ritual of a contested ‘election’ where she defeated senior party leader, Jitendra Prasad. That Prasad had challenged her leadership didn’t prevent his son, Jitin, from becoming a minister in the UPA government subsequently. The ‘forget and forgive’ approach has meant that Sharad Pawar, who left the Congress after challenging Sonia Gandhi on the foreign origins issue, was actually soon perceived as a valuable ally in Maharashtra and at the Centre. And even now, Sonia has claimed that she bears ‘no ill will’ against the ‘rebellious’ letter writers.
By way of comparison, there is less space in the BJP it would seem for dissenters to play an active role within the party. In the 1970s, when a Jan Sangh stalwart like Balraj Madhok took on the Vajpayee-Advani duopoly, he was banished from the party forever. When Govindacharya, the charismatic Hindutva ideologue, allegedly described then prime minister Vajpayee as a ‘mukhauta’ (mask), he was stripped off all party posts and eventually forced into virtual oblivion. In more recent times, all BJP leaders from Gujarat who were seen to belong to opposing factions to chief minister Modi have been systematically downsized or removed. Can anyone in the BJP dare even write a letter today that obliquely questions the prime minister’s style of leadership and expect to survive, much less even be heard in party fora? Has there been any vigorous debate within the BJP over the last six years on any crucial issues of national concern, be it demonetization or national security, or is the party now totally subservient to the prime minister’s office?
Truth is, where the Congress is undoubtedly more dynastical, it is also ironically perhaps more democratic than the BJP today. Where the top post in the Congress appears reserved for a family member, the BJP has given far more opportunities to those from outside privileged backgrounds to aspire to be the party chief. But where the BJP also falters is that it now has its own political supremo who cannot be questioned in any manner. Moreover, it also has its own ‘parivar’ in which the RSS as an extra-constitutional authority is the final arbiter on key political appointments. Was, for example, the decision to make Yogi Adityanath UP chief minister in 2017 taken by the elected MLAs in Lucknow or was it made by the RSS-BJP leadership in Nagpur and Delhi?
And what of the regional parties that dot the country’s political landscape? To a large extent, these parties have imbibed the worst of both the Congress and the BJP. Almost all these parties, without exception, are run like family fiefdoms, with power being passed on from one generation to another through dynastic succession. None of these parties tolerate any contrarian voices and decision-making is rarely done through any consultative process. Can anyone within the Trinamool Congress, for example, even mildly question Mamata Banerjee’s leadership?
Even regional parties that have come through a vigorous process of social and political churning – like for example the DMK in Tamil Nadu – have been reduced to family run enterprises. When the family patriarch fades away, the party struggles to retain its core identity: the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar being the latest example. Even a party like the Aam Aadmi party, which claims to have emerged from a popular peoples movement, is now identified solely with the persona of its ‘Supreme Leader’ in Arvind Kejriwal. The left parties too, which also claim to represent wider peoples movements, have been reluctant to encourage genuine debate within their ranks, or indeed allow delegates to vote independently for elections to key party posts.
Maybe then, the notion of inner party democracy is exaggerated in the Indian context: we are simply not the United States where electoral primaries for example are designed to encourage leadership contests and a clash of ideas. In India, any contest is viewed as divisive and runs the risk of only splitting a party further. Instead there is a marked tendency to obediently follow the leader in the spirit of ‘democratic consensus’. Which is why a seven hour Congress Working Committee (CWC) to discuss the issues raised in a letter by 23 Congresspersons is perhaps as far as any party would go in opening itself to debate and dialogue. Maybe the true test of this democratic spirit will come if in the proposed Congress session a few months down the line, there is actually a vigorous election to the CWC and even the Congress president. Now that would truly be a political event worth looking forward to!
Post-script: Just before the CWC meeting, a ‘gang of 23’ member told me that the controversial letter was not targeted at the Gandhi family but aimed at reviving the party. “But all this is off record please, else I will get into more trouble,” he pleaded. When fear is the key, can inner party democracy be truly embraced?