By Swapan Dasgupta
As general secretary of the Congress, Rahul Gandhi has earned the adulation of the chattering classes and beyond for his dogged campaigns on two issues: Greater youth participation in his party and internal democracy. Both issues are unexceptionable and deserve encouragement and support.
The theme of inner-party democracy has surfaced in a big way over the past week in the context of the Women’s Reservation Bill. Both the Congress and the BJP have been gripped by the murmurings of backbench MPs against the iniquities of the proposed Constitution amendment.
Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj went public in naming two Congress whips who have been discreetly campaigning against the measure. They have apparently been encouraging BJP members to unfurl the banner of revolt in their party so as to strengthen the hands of those Congress MPs who believe that the Bill is gratuitous and unnecessary.
It is not necessary to believe that the disquiet in a section of the BJP over the Bill is a devious Congress ploy, just as the counter-accusation that Sushma and her counterpart in the Rajya Sabha are Congress moles. The fact is that despite 16 years of pious proclamations, the manifesto commitments of both parties don’t seem to enjoy all round support of the membership. There is genuine disquiet and this frustration has been compounded by a complete lack of meaningful discussion within the parties.
The issue is one of internal democracy, the very cause that Rahul has so passionately espoused. Yet, it is curious, that there is not even a squeak from the heir apparent on this issue. Internal democracy cannot stop at having elections to the post of secretary to the local units of the party, important as these may be. They have to be complemented by debate and discussion on policy issues too. The principle of democratically-chosen apparatchiks pursuing leadership-dictated politics is, to say the least, odd.
Understandably, it is too much to ask Rahul to lead the move for a no-holds-barred debate within the Congress on women’s reservation. Since the issue is now intimately linked to Sonia Gandhi’s reputation as the Goddess of Social Empowerment, it is unlikely that anyone in the Congress will muster the courage to call for a free vote. The outcome of such a free vote is well known: It is doubtful if even half the Congress MPs in the Lok Sabha will support it. The outcome of a free vote in the BJP would be similar.
Yet, even if Rahul puts the image of his mother above his quest for principled politics, it is about time that greater heed was paid to internal democracy in the two main parties.
The argument that both parties are bound together by their respective ideologies is spurious. There may be a loose set of principles and a history that distinguish the Congress and BJP. But there is no doctrinaire ideology that sets out solutions to all contemporary issues. Politics is all about issues that keep arising periodically and the approaches to which keep changing according to political compulsions.
Those in the BJP who believe that it is imprudent to oppose a seemingly ‘progressive’ legislation that has acceptance within the middle classes have a point. Equally, they are also right in arguing that the BJP cannot be identified with the opposition of caste-based parties and reactionary clerics who seem driven by a desire to keep women insulated from public exposure. Finally, there is also merit in the assertion that the BJP must keep a healthy distance from the hooliganism of a handful of MPs. The dignified approach of the BJP in the Rajya Sabha was appreciated by those who see the party as a natural nationalist alternative to the Congress. To squander away that goodwill by reverting to the mindless bedlam that marked its parliamentary presence between 2004 and 2009 would be self-defeating.
Yet, there are BJP MPs who espouse a regressive social worldview. There are others who see a mini-revolt as their way of settling scores with Sushma and Jaitley. Whether they are also being egged on by small time leaders who believe that it is in their stars to be Prime Minister is also a moot point.
Whatever be the cross-currents both in the BJP and the Congress, it is imperative to introduce a measure of inner-party debate so that there is a degree of coherence. The Women’s Bill, as it stands, may achieve its desired objective of enhancing women’s representation in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies. However, given the lack of any genuine enthusiasm for the measure from MPs fearful of being edged out of ‘reserved’ seats, it is very unlikely that it will contribute to women’s empowerment — the ostensible larger objective of the measure.
Social engineering from above has its uses. However, the road to a more harmonious and non-discriminatory society will be built by popular consent, not diktat. The absence of free choice in elections will breed distortions and nurture a resentment that, tragically, will be borne by women. Worse, to salvage the honour of its president, the Congress may have to cut collateral deals with sectarian interests. The ill-conceived Ranganath Mishra Commission recommendation in favour of religious quotas in education and employment may well be the terms of settlement for the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill. If that happens, political reservation for minorities is but a small step away.
Two decades after the Raja of Darkness unleashed a bout of caste conflict, the country seems to be readying for another ugly bout of divisiveness. And all because leaders wake up one day with a wish that immediately becomes the party’s command.
Sunday Pioneer, March 14, 2010