An effortless return to the Indira and Rajiv Gandhi era
By Swapan Dasgupta
The extent to which life can be cruel on the loser was best illustrated by the hapless Amar Singh imploring a TV anchor, “Don’t laugh at me.” The occasion was the Samajwadi Party’s gratuitous letter to the president of India offering “unconditional” support to the Manmohan Singh government. The triumphant Congress has so far ignored the gesture. With the second Manmohan Singh government looking more like a Congress government (with some extras thrown in for colour and ethnic flavouring), it is likely that the illusion of single-party dominance is going to become the framework of political discourse for the next few years, or at least until there is a crisis that proves unmanageable. This effortless return to the mental parameters of the Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi era may not be a good reflection of ground realities. But resounding post-facto endorsement of the chattering classes for the Ruling Party of India has, unfortunately, never been marked by profundity.
The natural corollary of this winner-takes-all mindset is that after being at the receiving end of some initial mockery and derision, the vanquished will be left to lick their wounds in private, away from the intrusive glare of the media. Both the deflated ministerial aspirants in the Bharatiya Janata Party and the frustrated puppeteers in the Communist Party of India (Marxist) know that they have a lot of listening and explaining to do. But they also know that some perfunctory show of contrition will suffice to defray the immediate frustrations of the foot soldiers. Apparatchiks, particularly those who exist in a cloistered environment of the party offices, know that they can put off exercising hard options by falling back on the need to take a considered decision. Time and events being great healers, a rigorous post-mortem can be shelved indefinitely if the immediate pressure to take remedial action can be averted.
It is paradoxical that despite functioning in a democratic environment, the internal regime of India’s political parties is grounded in committee-room secrecy. This wasn’t always so. Till the late-1960s, the Congress, for example, had a reasonable degree of inner-party democracy. Elections to the All India Congress Committees and their state counterparts were held regularly, and were often fiercely contested. The annual AICC sessions were often marked by speeches that were robustly critical of the government’s policies and the party leadership. Additionally, there were ginger groups such as the Congress Socialist Forum, which played a role in mobilizing the ‘progressive’ wing of the party. Open, rumbustious discussion was also a hallmark of the socialists. Ram Manohar Lohia fought bitter inner-party battles with the likes of Ashoka Mehta, Chandra Shekhar, N.G. Goray and Nath Pai. His flamboyant followers, such as George Fernandes, Raj Narain and Madhu Limaye, were great ones for exercising the ‘change or split’ option.
Communism in India was nominally wedded to the Leninist tradition of party organization that ensured a paramount role of the central committee and politburo — the proverbial vanguard of the vanguard. Yet, and particularly after P.C. Joshi attracted a cream of intellectuals into the party in the mid-1940s, the undivided CPI boasted a vibrant culture of political debate and discussion. The subjects of concern — the class composition of the Indian State and the relevance of ‘bourgeois democracy’ were two all-time favourites — may have been abstruse. There was also an exaggerated reliance on what Lenin ‘himself’ or Mao Zedong may or may not have prescribed, and cravenness before discreet instructions from Moscow. However, despite these constraints, the political ‘line’ was thoroughly dissected at different levels and transmitted both upwards and downwards. The communists moved seamlessly from ‘correctness to correctness’, having internalized the party line with both passion and conviction.
The tradition of political openness received a grave setback after the Congress split of 1969 and the Emergency. The emergence of an all-powerful leader and the dynastic principle meant that decision-making was abrogated to the one and only leader. This may explain the steady stream of regional leaders and social constituencies that felt stifled and broke away from the Congress, never to return. In the 1990s, the Congress suffered three grievous electoral defeats and a complete washout in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal — states that accounted for more than 160 Lok Sabha seats. Yet, apart from one brain-storming session in Panchmarhi, the party did nothing to address the grave problem of political erosion. The Congress recovery in 2004, and the awesome advance in 2009, owed little to any well-considered plan of rejuvenation. It was an outcome of happy circumstances.
Rahul Gandhi has proclaimed his intention of democratizing the Congress, beginning with the Youth Congress. The intention is noble, and suggests that the heir apparent may have cottoned on to the root cause of the decline of political culture — a problem he has tried to circumvent by encouraging the growth of political families. However, the extent to which the Congress sheds sycophancy and reverts to its original moorings will depend on the calibre of its top leadership. It is one thing to promote inner-party democracy in the good times. But bad times often prompt a regression.
Jawaharlal Nehru loved debate because he possessed an intellectual rigour that his successors lacked. Nehru could coexist with the likes of P.D. Tandon and Pandit Sampurnanand because he believed they could be defeated in debate. Indira Gandhi couldn’t countenance the likes of Morarji Desai, K. Kamaraj and Atulya Ghose in the same party because her leadership style was based on manipulation and instruction. She was temperamentally suspicious of leaders with independent standing.
Curiously, it is the BJP which faces a problem not dissimilar to that of the Congress. If the Nehru-Gandhi family acts as an adhesive in the Congress, it is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that plays pope in the BJP. The BJP’s problems have multiplied on two counts. First, the RSS has lost its moral authority and social influence, thanks to its unwillingness to face contemporary realities. Secondly, success in electoral politics has triggered a breakdown of ideological certitudes and added to the charms of aggregative politics. The RSS has tried to hold things together by issuing whimsical three-line whips on organizational and political matters. Diktat has replaced informed choice, and this enforced regimentation has, in turn, stymied the party’s renewal.
After Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, the party’s presidents have lacked the depth to pursue creative politics. Since the defeat in 2004, the BJP has more or less shed all pretence of inner-party debate, not least because the RSS minders and their chosen nominees have lacked the calibre and self-assurance to handle challenges. After the May 16 defeat, there is a strong possibility that a beleaguered RSS may insist on eschewing all debate altogether and settling for greater control. If that happens, the future of the BJP may be bleak.
Restoring the credibility of politics and the political class is a national challenge. As democracy evolves and strikes deep roots, more and more people would want a say in how parties behave and who they project. The Primary was once an American quirk, but it has now become crucial to the British system as well. In India, people are offered choices on election day, but have no say in determining the shortlist. No wonder stories of the sale of party tickets abound. To strengthen the quality of democracy and the efficacy of political parties, a system of constant interaction involving the top and the bottom is imperative. David Cameron’s reinvention of the British Conservative Party suggests a possible way. It is time the political culture incorporated the argumentative Indian.