Thursday, October 20, 2005

Conservative wisdom (October 21, 2005)

There is a deep distrust of inner-party democracy in India

By Swapan Dasgupta

As a political creed, Conservatism, with a capital C, is naturally nation-specific. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and even Lee Kuan Yew may inspire Conservatives across national boundaries but, at the end of the day, Conservative parties depend on home-grown heroes and a very indigenous idiom. Apart from the loose commitment to individual freedom, entrepreneurship and national identity, there is little that President George W. Bush has in common with, say, President Jacques Chirac. Yet both represent the dominant Conservative trends in the US and France. Likewise, there is a marked difference between the Conservatism of Lord Salisbury, whose portrait occupies the pride of place in London’s Carlton Club, and Margaret Thatcher. One was a 19th century Tory grandee who flaunted his “illiberal” credentials; the other, a grocer’s daughter, was in many ways a radical.

Notwithstanding the absence of anything remotely resembling a Conservative International, the British Conservative Party holds a very special place in the hearts and minds of most ideological Conservatives—to be distinguished from instinctive Tories. First, Britain has the longest, unbroken tradition of political Conservatism. Second, this Conservatism, in a very un-Conservative way, has actually been articulated as a philosophy by thinkers by, among others, Edmund Burke, Sir Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph. Theoretical rigour may now be the hallmark of the Neo-Conservatives in the US Republican Party, but the process predated the Jewish intellectual concerts from Trotskyism. Finally, the British Conservative Party has had the uncanny ability to reinvent itself periodically. For over 150 years, it has demonstrated its willingness to not only change but change for the better.

This week, the Conservative Party has completed the first round of an elaborate exercise to elect a leader to succeed Michael Howard. From a field of four, the party’s elected MPs in Westminster have short-listed two candidates. Approximately 300,000 Conservative Party members across Britain will now elect one of them as leader. As an exercise in democratic consultation, the process is exciting. Unlike the past when either the incumbent chose his successor or left it just to the MPs, the present procedure ensures that the new leader is both acceptable to parliamentary colleagues and endorsed by the foot soldiers. Since MPs are most concerned with winning power and the grassroots activists with Conservative values, the winner in the leadership race is expected to marry the twin imperatives of pragmatism and ideology.

It is instructive to scrutinise the leadership contest in the Conservative Party in view of the imminent changes in the Bharatiya Janata Party, the only party that fits the Conservative tag in India. In end-December, at the conclusion of the party’s National Council meet in Mumbai, party president L.K. Advani will hand over charge to a “colleague”. With just 10 weeks to go before the event, there is an eerie silence from within the party over the succession. While the media has speculated wildly over Advani’s successor, the party itself is in denial about the succession.

The contrast with the Conservative leadership contest couldn’t be more pronounced. For the past four months there has been a vibrant public debate about the future of Conservatism in a post-Thatcher Britain. Has the image of the party become excessively “ugly”? What has to be done to connect Conservatism with modernity? Should core values prevail over electoral imperatives? Should the new leader merely look to the committed or address floating voters? These are some of the important questions that have been addressed by the candidates for the top post. There has, in short, been a healthy exchange of ideas.

True, some of the preoccupation has been over image and the background of the candidates. The privileged Eton and Oxford background of 39-year-old David Cameron has been juxtaposed against the more humble origins of David Davies. At 65, Kenneth Clarke has been painted as a man of the past. There have been rude remarks of him having too much hair in his nostrils. Some retired colonels in the Shires have expressed indignation over Cameron’s ambivalence over a wild past, while old ladies have warmed up to him as the new “alpha man”.

The extent to which the replication of American primaries in the Conservative Party helps its members make a wise choice is still a matter of conjecture. However, there is little doubt that the process itself will be invigorating for a party that has tasted three consecutive election defeats. Although the Westminster system is parliamentary, electoral encounters are invariably presidential in nature. Voters in Britain do select an MP but they actually vote for a Prime Minister.

As of now there is little clarity in the BJP as to whether it is choosing a president to run the organisation or selecting a leader who will be the public face of the National Democratic Alliance in the next general election. In all probability, the wise men in the Sangh Parivar will settle for a president who can bring some order and stability back into the party and help it get over the turbulence of the past year. The choice of a prime ministerial candidate is likely to be deferred, at least till as long as Advani remains Leader of Opposition.

Yet, the choice cannot be deferred indefinitely. While the return of stability in the organisation is imperative for the BJP to play the role of a robust opposition, the NDA will need a face to posit against Sonia Gandhi in the next general election. There are at least four leaders, three of whom were Cabinet ministers in the previous NDA Government and one who is a Chief Minister, who could, arguably, occupy the space vacated by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But how will the leader be chosen?

The question arises because there has been a deep distrust of vibrant inner-party democracy in India. Neither Mahatma Gandhi nor Jawaharlal Nehru could countenance a Congress president elected against their wishes. Both Subhas Bose and Purshottam Das Tandon were unceremoniously dumped after winning presidential contests. To circumvent the problem, the very idea of elections for top political posts was done away with. Regimented consensus and unanimity became the norm. A spurious form of discipline was posited against the dangers arising from factionalism. Consequently, splits became the norm in India because the avenues of discussion and dissent were foreclosed.

The BJP faces the problem as much as the Congress does. Whereas in the Congress it is the ubiquitous high command that calls the shots, in the BJP a clutch of elders take all the crucial decisions. Pramod Mahajan’s veiled protest against this practice, in a TV interview last week, was valid. Equally valid was his suggestion that the National Council should elect the next party president. However, unless the outgoing president is bent on imposing an unacceptable candidate on an unwilling party, it is unlikely that anything remotely resembling the Conservative Party leadership contest will be witnessed in Mumbai in December. Even if a contest is forced, it will end up as a non-contest.

The political culture in India hasn’t sufficiently evolved for inner-party battles to be conducted in the public gaze without this jeopardising the overall health of the organisation. The overwhelming consensus is that family matters should be settled internally and behind closed doors. The BJP perceives itself as a joint family. In such a set-up, it is always the moral guardians who are entrusted with crucial decisions on behalf of the collective.

It is not classical democracy in the Western sense but it is a manifestation of Indian Conservatism.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, October 21, 2005)

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