Amidst the din over the Congress president election, almost unnoticed was a news item quoting BJP sources that JP Nadda would get an extension as BJP president in January. Congress supporters accuse the media of being partisan, of singling out the party’s feudal ‘high command’ culture for intense scrutiny while ignoring the BJP’s opaque ‘selection’ procedure. Truth is, while the BJP acts with military-style regimentation, the Congress party’s moves are like a never-ending political soap opera with no shortage of drama and excitement. Perhaps, in the Congress’s half-hearted stab at ‘internal democracy’ lies a recipe for chaos while the BJP ensures that its decision-making is more tightly controlled, hence appearing less muddled.
When, for example, in August this year, senior union minister Nitin Gadkari and Madhya Pradesh chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan were dropped from the BJP parliamentary board, the party’s highest decision making body, no explanations were given for their ouster. Or for example when Vijay Rupani was removed overnight last year as Gujarat chief minister and replaced by the unknown Bhupendra Patel, there was no outcry over why MLAs were not consulted before the sudden decision was taken. The BJP, especially in the Narendra Modi- Amit Shah era, is a party that has little time for democratic niceties. The overwhelming authority of the top two BJP leaders and the personality cult around the prime minister ensures total obedience, no questions are asked, no answers given.
In sharp contrast, the ‘high command’ of the Congress is neither ‘high’ nor in ‘command’ at the moment. The near unprecedented rebellion in the Congress ranks in Rajasthan is reflective of a weakened party structure that no longer feels ritually obliged to pay obeisance to its central leadership. So long as the Gandhi family was seen to deliver votes and win elections, it earned the respect of the party faithful. But a series of election defeats in the last decade have greatly diminished the power of the First Family to demand eternal devotion.
Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot may have since fallen in line and ‘apologised’ to Sonia Gandhi but the messaging is clear: even the support of long standing family loyalists can no longer be taken for granted. Which might explain why the Gandhi family courtiers had to finally abandon the pretence of election ‘neutrality’ and turn in desperation to octogenarian Mallikarjun Kharge as their ‘unofficial’ choice to be party president: an independent-minded Shashi Tharoor couldn’t be trusted to toe the line while Kharge is seen as one of the few senior Congress leaders who would never challenge 10 Janpath’s writ.
Ironically, there was a time when the BJP found itself in a not too dissimilar position to which the Congress is in today. Recall how Uma Bharti in 2004 famously walked out of a BJP meeting in full glare of the television cameras after a spat with the party’s top leadership. The BJP had just lost the general elections and the party hierarchy seemed almost powerless to stop the internal recrimination. Strange as it may seem today, Gadkari as party president couldn’t get Mr Modi to even campaign in the 2012 Uttar Pradesh elections.
Moreover, the BJP’s high command structure is unique because of its complex relationship with the RSS wherein the road to Delhi has to take a detour through Nagpur. Rewind to 1998 when the RSS leadership vetoed Jaswant Singh’s nomination as finance minister in the Vajpayee government. Then whether it was seeking LK Advani’s resignation as party president for his laudatory remarks on Jinnah in 2005 or pushing for Modi as the chosen one for prime ministership in 2013, the RSS has been the BJP’s ultimate third umpire.
Paradoxically, while the RSS’s shadowy role appears prima facie anti-democratic – how are a group of unelected men in khakhi shorts conferred with such immense clout – it also ensures a measure of accountability within the BJP. Even a leader of Vajpayee’s stature couldn’t survive the 2004 general election defeat because the RSS had decided it was time to move on. In the Modi-Shah age, the RSS may appear less assertive but that is only because the BJP’s electoral successes and ideological push under Gujarat’s jodi number one have given it little reason to quibble.
By contrast, the Congress’s high command is elected but yet unaccountable. Two massive defeats in 2014 and 2019 should have led to internal churning and disruption in the status quo. Instead after Rahul Gandhi’s dramatic resignation in the aftermath of the 2019 defeat, the party was unable to find a suitable replacement, eventually plumping for Sonia Gandhi’s return as ‘interim’ president. This fixation on a family as the only solution to every crisis has meant that the Congress is unable to throw up new and imaginative options to attract the voter. The perception of a non-meritocratic, family run party is unshakeable: since 1998 when Sonia Gandhi took over the party leadership, the Congress hasn’t thrown up a single mass leader of substance, with the late YS Rajasekhara Reddy in Andhra Pradesh and Gehlot in Rajasthan perhaps the only exceptions.
Contrast this again with the BJP which in this identical 24 year period has had as many as 10 party presidents, not all of whom may have been tall leaders or even suitably empowered but where the roll call of names at least conveys the impression of change rather than continuity. A JP Nadda for example maybe dwarfed by Modi’s larger than life presence but by catapulting him to the president’s post, he is now a nationally recognizable face.
This is where the Congress high command has missed a trick to re-invent itself. Rather than electrifying its cadres with a generational change at the top, the party has tied itself in knots by turning to its trusted but failed old order. By once again looking to the future through a rear view mirror, the Congress is in danger of remaining fossilized: can an ageing, physically weakened Congress presidential front-runner like Kharge really take on an energetic Nadda who every week is travelling to some corner of the country?
Post-script: At the Congress headquarters last week, a number of party workers were from Madhya Pradesh in anticipation of Digvijaya Singh filing his nomination as party president. When in a last minute twist, their leader withdrew in favour of Kharge, there was visible anger. “We want a more dynamic person from the Hindi heartland,” was the loud chorus. I wonder if similar voices of dissent would be tolerated at the BJP headquarters. Ironically, a disorganized Congress also offers more freedom to speak out.