The editorial ‘The rewind’ (IE, August 12), on the Congress party’s decision to choose Sonia Gandhi as its interim president makes statements that are ultimately contradictory. First, it is critical of the choice of a “timid party”, reflected in its inability to keep a pledge of the outgoing president that the new chief would not be from the Nehru-Gandhi family. Second, the editorial expresses hope that her induction as the working president “ensures a genuine transition by taking tough decisions”. The editorial is silent on how this transition would take place.
Political parties rise and decline, and new formations emerge over time when important issues become political at a particular place and time. It is because of the need of this inherent elasticity that political parties need a democratic set up to bring about essential changes peacefully without the system either breaking down or collapsing. The Congress party lacks this capacity.
In a well-developed party system, political parties perform a wide variety of functions. They build channels of communication between the people and the decision-makers. They also act as channels of communication between the government and people. In not performing these basic functions of a political party, the Congress by clinging to a pre-modern dynastic mindset has proved to be grossly inadequate. This, it failed to do during the days of Indira Gandhi’s stewardship of 17 years when no organisational elections were held and then, subsequently, all the non-Nehru-Gandhi family party workers were eased out: Be it Narasimha Rao or Sitaram Kesari. Is there any other example of a political party where the top slot is reserved for a person from the first family; where the interim president replaces the outgoing president, her own son whom she anointed after holding office uninterruptedly for 19 years? The Congress points to the presence of dynasts in other parties which is untrue — in no other party is the top slot kept reserved for a family member as it is in the Congress. One must not confuse dynasts with political families. The latter are there in all the parties, except the Left Front, but dynastic succession is unique to the Congress party and some regional satraps.
The Congress, since the days of Indira Gandhi, is a classic example of clientelism, with the loyalty to the family superseding that of the party. As a result, it has lost the ability to remain in contact with the people at the grassroots. In the 1950s, V R Gadgil, a Congress party functionary, used to comment that in every single village in India, two things were visible, a 15 paise postcard and a Congress worker. The first one is visible even today but the second one, even with a pair of binoculars, is hard to find.
In the absence of an organisation as such, the Congress plays machine politics, where power brokers exercise decisive advantage in nominating candidates. The candidates are imposed from the top and lack any grassroots experience or support. In which other political party does a president entrust his sister — a novice — with the task of revamping the organisation in a major part of a decisive state? In spite of its initial scepticism, the editorial expresses the hope that Sonia Gandhi “could step up to this moment and ensure a genuine transition by taking tough decisions”. How can she, when Sonia is part of the problem?
A political party channelises mass support in an institutional manner. It allows ordered accommodation of new groups and demands within the political process. The Congress party, in the last two decades when Sonia was at the helm, miserably failed to achieve this.
Sonia Gandhi had the golden opportunity to revamp the party after declining prime ministership in 2004. But, rather than allowing Pranab Mukherjee to lead the party, she chose Manmohan Singh, a non-political bureaucrat lacking any political base, to be the prime minister. Many grass roots leaders like Himanta Biswa Sarma and Jagan Reddy left the party, floated their outfits and emerged as successful leaders of their state. Rahul himself never thought it necessary to hold an office under Manmohan Singh, thus easily lending himself to the BJP’s criticism of “naamdar” versus “kaamdar”.
The editorial acknowledges the lack of organisational structure in the Congress. But it holds the party’s decision to fall back on Sonia as a “symptom” of the problem. But that actually is the problem itself. To contend, as the editorial does, that it reflects a “lack of talent” in the Congress is incorrect. Last year, the party won elections to state assemblies in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh. But to hold that the Nehru-Gandhi family seems to be the “only glue that can hold the party together” is absurd in a democratic set-up. It seems that the editorial willy nilly endorses the Congress leadership’s fear of a churn.
This seems all the more glaring given that the BJP has seen so many new faces as its party presidents and as leaders in the two houses of Parliament. The CWC comprises people who have not gone through the electoral process, and yet are there to advise the party on how to win elections. Sonia’s role is similar to that of Napoleon III, who survived because of the relative weakness of all social forces. To expect that such discredited leadership would be able to revamp the party or bring in crucial changes is itself illusory.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 22, 2019 under the title ‘Don’t fear the churn’. The writer retired as professor of political science in Delhi University.