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Partying shots

For its government’s sake,the Congress needs to create space to debate policy internally...

Congress,n.: the formal act of coming together and meeting,for the purposes of discussion and usually action on some question. Nobody expects words to retain their meanings in this degenerate age,so horrifyingly casual about linguistic purity; but this word,in India,seems to have lost its entire second clause.

An odd complaint,perhaps,given that some Congressmen appear to be quite willing to unburden themselves of long-held frustrations. What could be more democratic,you might ask,than Jairam Ramesh denouncing the home ministry’s stand on Chinese telecom companies as “paranoid”,and claiming that it undermined the epochal diplomatic breakthrough he was personally responsible for at Copenhagen? Than a party general secretary attacking the government’s line on a divisive question in print,the way that Digvijay Singh did in his broadside,so pleasingly personal,against Home Minister P. Chidambaram? Than the very presence of Mani Shankar Aiyar,dancing about the margins,throwing well-honed knives every which way?

But it isn’t that simple. Actually,such needling,more about the target than about what is said,characterises organisations which stifle open debate.

This isn’t simply ideological,the party’s left revolting. That would fit in with a fairly simple story: Manmohan Singh is of the right,Sonia Gandhi of the left; the government reflects the Congress’s right,the “party” the Congress’s left. Earlier the Congress’s left hid behind the actual Left; but now they have to take potshots at Manmohan Singh on their own. And,certainly,it isn’t hard to hear the startling contempt with which some in the Congress speak of their “munim” PM. But the story doesn’t hold up completely: were not Jairam Ramesh and Shashi Tharoor both in government? And neither is uncomplicatedly “of the left”.

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These are more the first,carefully-planned shots in the War for 2014. Casus belli: Manmohan Singh might be on his way out by then. Perhaps Rahul Gandhi will be in,in which case extravagant loyalty to the prince’s party is believed to require a few rude remarks about the king’s. Perhaps he’ll continue to turn it down,in which case chucking mud at Chidambaram’s perfect white angavastram doesn’t hurt anyone,right? Except it does. For a government at the mercy of every floor vote,the illusion of authority and stability is all.

Like everything to do with the Congress,this problem stems from the later Indira period,and the slow internal decline that began then. A party based on robust discussion and famously combative all-India sessions rapidly became one where,on matters of policy,the leader alone would take the call; opinions could only be expressed hesitantly,always subject to the leader’s approval. Hence,today it is impossible for anyone within the Congress to speak out about policy without it appearing,and usually being,one of two things: an attack on the leadership,either of party or government; or an attack sanctioned by the party leaders on the government.

This is not sustainable for much longer. The UPA has got by this far largely on the menu of policies decided on in 2004,on which,in the first surprised flush of that victory,a degree of internal consensus was achieved; but,six years on,new challenges have been thrown up — the Maoists,for one — and further reform has to be agreed on — finance,land acquisition. Yet these issues aren’t the stuff of reasoned debate,but rhetorical weapons.


We may have lost sight of what political parties are actually supposed to do. They are more than merely vehicles for “mobilisation” of an undifferentiated mass of people with an inchoate sense of grievance. No,just as democracy,for political scientists,is one method of aggregating individual preferences over policies into some sort of social preference,parties play a crucial role in enabling that policy choice.

Indeed,halfway across the world,in the country where the modern party system was born,we’ve seen it work. The UK’s Labour Party initially looked like making a deal with the Liberal Democrats,a course favoured by both then-PM Gordon Brown and by most of his possible successors. But the compromises on policy that a deal would need were too much for many faithful. The party system worked: Labour’s leaders got the message that its grassroots were too concerned about the policy concessions in any deal. That required a culture in which even political allies would speak their mind — loyalist former Home Secretary and loyalist David Blunkett opposed any deal,though it caused “ a comradely expression of views from Downing Street” ; yet one in which the characteristically understated “comradely expression of views” is neither caused by disloyalty,nor seen to be disloyal.

Unfortunately for all concerned,when discussing the Congress’s future,it is hard to manage without a What Will Rahul Do moment. He appears to be serious about reviving the Congress’s long-dead tradition of internal democracy. The first experiments,carefully supervised and open elections in various states,haven’t been completely successful — they haven’t magically cured our tendency to vote for familiar surnames,for example — but nor do they provide us with any reason to despair.


Yet,just as India’s liberal democracy is about much more than elections,so is inner-party democracy. An energetic restoration of the Congress’s internal institutions cannot substitute for the absence of any culture of open policy debate — in which the positions are taken for more than just to further one’s own career. Yes,Rahul Gandhi has demonstrated a personal openness to questions. But on policy? Once or twice he intervened to help settle a decision,in the old style: on the importance of the nuclear deal,for example. Occasionally,on the implementation of policy that’s already been decided: on state-level performance of the NREGA,for example. Largely,the desire to not be seen to be interfering with policy takes precedence. A laudable motive. Yet non-interference doesn’t preclude the creation of spaces within the party for discussion. But it seems to be the belief that organisational change is sufficient,without enabling debate on alternative policy positions.

It isn’t sufficient. Without such a space,the only discussion of policy that isn’t from a minister will be an attack on already-decided policy that the government is struggling to implement or legislate. That undermines the government,and hurts the party. Without such a space,the only reason to bring up policy will be to use it to fight personal battles. And,most fundamentally,without such a space,there’s no reason to suppose that parties will get policy right,that they will reflect what their members feel. They won’t be really democratic.

First published on: 13-05-2010 at 03:06:21 am
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