The death of YS Rajasekhara Reddy in tragic circumstances has triggered a wave of mass hysteria that may well influence the Congress’s choice of his successor. Since the party now rests on a series of interlocking dynastic attachments, with the Queen-Emperor at the helm, there should be no ethical problems in elevating YSR’s son, already in politics as a Lok Sabha MP, to the Chief Ministerial gaddi. If a majority of MLAs also decide that YS Jagan Mohan Reddy is the best bet to harness the emotional turbulence to the party’s advantage and, at the same time, keep the Reddy dominance broadly intact, the ubiquitous Congress high command is unlikely to say ‘No’. The experience-inexperience argument, after all, is a double-edged sword whose injudicious application could return to haunt Rahul Gandhi at a future date.
Regardless of whom the Congress eventually names as the successor to YSR, one feature of the succession process is apparent: There are no rules and procedures to facilitate it. Over the past few years, the Congress has evolved a system of consultation and approval: The legislature party gives its views to the central observers but then delegates the authority to Sonia Gandhi. The Congress president may take heed of the preference of MLAs or impose her own nominee on the State which has no choice but to grin and bear it. By and large in the choice of Chief Ministers, Sonia Gandhi has not been driven by flights of whimsy. She has broadly maintained the balance between sensitivities and political calculations. To that extent, she has departed from the legacy of both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi who were wary of strong leaders in the States.
However, the fact that Sonia has hitherto acted with tact does not lessen the inherent dangers of a system where local democracy is remote-controlled by the Centre. A spiteful cabal in Delhi has the power to make a mockery of the principles of democracy. With the modified anti-defection laws making it virtually impossible for the dissatisfied to break away from the parent party, even where fundamental principles are involved, the stranglehold of the Centre on the States has been ensured.
That there is a need to institutionalise the procedures governing political appointments isn’t in doubt. In the case of legislature parties, the principle is relatively simple: The MLAs and MPs must be allowed to choose their leader. The party high commands have a right to advise and supervise the process but the choice should rest exclusively with the elected legislators. Some people may object to the impulses that have made YSR’s son the frontrunner for the Chief Minister’s job in Andhra Pradesh, just as others have objected to BJP MLAs in Rajasthan reposing faith in Vasundhara Raje continuing as Leader of Opposition. There can be only one response to these misgivings: Tough luck.
Democracy doesn’t always produce results that are to everyone’s liking — by definition it cannot. But if the principles of democracy are adhered to fanatically, the process itself will foreclose the dangers of arbitrariness.
The issue is relevant not merely for the Congress but also to the BJP which has been witnessing internal strife over the process of succession. The BJP, which prides itself on rejecting dynastic democracy, has not been very successful in creating procedures that are democratic in both letter and spirit. Indeed, at times its record is worse than that of the Congress. The Congress, for example, had a secret ballot of its MPs in 1966 to choose Lal Bahadur Shastri’s successor as Prime Minister. Indira Gandhi won that contest defeating Morarji Desai. Again, in recent years, Sonia Gandhi’s election as AICC president has been contested on two different occasions.
By contrast, the BJP has preferred a mysterious process of consultation and consensus-building when choosing party presidents. No one, for example, is willing to own up to the fact that the choice of Rajnath Singh as party president in 2006 was not by consensus but by appointment. Who decided? Was there even a semblance of consultation? Will this mysterious process be repeated in December/January when a new president assumes office? LK Advani is understood to be playing a major role in the selection process. But will Advani be the facilitator of a larger process of consultation or will he, like the town crier, be the one to make the announcement of a decision taken by someone else?
Arguably, the BJP has the right to determine its own procedures. But are these procedures transparent? More important, are they appropriate for a mass political party which is bound together by different and often contradictory impulses? Would it not be fitting if there are defined democratic procedures for the selection of a party president? Should there not be an electoral college to decide? The debate can be over the composition of the electoral college and the relative weightage given to different wings of the party — I believe elected MLAs and MPs must have ‘super delegate’ status. But there should be no disagreement over the fact that only an electoral college should choose the party president.
It is paradoxical that while Indians are naturally argumentative and have readily taken to democracy, they are less than enthusiastic about the process of constant negotiations and engagements that make for politics. It is the absence of institutional procedures that often make politics seem fractious, individualistic and anarchic. In which case, the solution is not to throw the baby out with the dirty bathwater. There are many good practices India needs to borrow from the West. The democratisation of political parties is one that readily comes to mind.