The myth of inner party democracy

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 party. “Family-run proprietorship” is a charge often made to describe the Congress’ obsession with the Gandhis. In the 51 years since Indira Gandhi split the Congress, 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 dynastic party is valid. But does that also mean that the Congress is less “democratic” than its principal rivals? Not quite.

Take, for example, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). When did the BJP hold an open election to the post of president or while 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 (PM) . When Shah stepped down in 2019, JP Nadda was again “selected” as party chief simply because he was the most convenient; an affable leader with no mass base who would not rock the boat.

While he undoubtedly had the support of the party cadre, the fact is that the decision to elevate Modi was made at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) headquarters in Nagpur, before being rubber-stamped at a BJP parliamentary board meeting in September 2013. When party patriarch LK Advani chose to voice his dissent at the anointment, he was pushed into the marg darshak mandal, a clear signal that no challenge would be tolerated.

Sonia Gandhi, by contrast, as the Gandhi family “bahu” is an obvious beneficiary of the dynastic principle. 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 United Progressive Alliance government subsequently. Even Sharad Pawar, who was forced to quit the Congress after confronting Sonia Gandhi on the foreign origins issue, soon became a valuable ally. Even now, Sonia has claimed that she bears “no ill will” against the letter writers.

In comparison, it would seem that there is less space for dissenters to play an active role within the BJP. 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 the then PM Vajpayee as a “mukhauta” (mask), he was stripped off all party posts and forced into virtual oblivion. In more recent times, all BJP leaders from Gujarat belonging to anti-Modi factions have been downsized or removed. Can anyone in the BJP dare even write a letter today that obliquely questions the PM’s style of leadership and expect to survive, much less 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 demonetisation or Kashmir, or is the party now totally subservient to the PM’s office?

The truth is that where the Congress is undoubtedly more dynastic and plagued by an ad-hoc nomination culture, 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 now has a “supremo” cult which allows little space for alternate views.

Moreover, the BJP also has its own extended “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 legislators in Lucknow or was it made by the RSS leadership?

And what of the regional parties? To a large extent, these parties have imbibed the worst of both the Congress and BJP. Almost all these parties are run either like family fiefdoms or by autocratic rule. None of them 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?

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 potentially divisive. 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) meeting, to discuss issues raised in a letter by 23 Congress leaders, is perhaps as far as any party leadership would go in opening itself up to scrutiny. Maybe the true test of genuine democratic spirit will come if in the proposed All India Congress Committee session there is actually a spirited election to the CWC and even for the Congress president’s post. Now that would truly be a political event worth looking forward to.

Post-script: Just before 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?

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

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