Debating India

Fighting factionalism

Monday 11 April 2005

AFTER FAILING TO settle factional wars through consensus or compromise, the Congress high command appears to be falling back on organisational elections as a dispute-resolving mechanism. Several of the nine State units where these polls have been rescheduled suffer from dissidence and revolt. In Kerala, organisational elections have been one of the major demands of the dissident group led by the former Chief Minister, K. Karunakaran. Although the party polls in Kerala were rescheduled along with those of eight other States, the high command did not seem particularly keen to hide the fact that it was giving in to the terms set by Mr. Karunakaran. In the case of Kerala alone, the returning officers will be from outside the State: 13 from Tamil Nadu and one from Andhra Pradesh. Although the All India Congress Committee has not yet revoked the suspension of Mr. Karunakaran’s son, K. Muraleedharan, several faction leaders see in the organisational polls an opportunity to return to the mainstream of the party. Rather than continue to raise other issues at this juncture, many of them want to take advantage of the polls to increase the faction’s representation in decision-making bodies. Thus, for the moment, the polls have served as a meeting point for the two dominant factions.

In Tamil Nadu, another State where factionalism has been endemic, organisational polls will likewise present the different groups an opportunity to capture the District Congress Committees. Even after the merger of the Tamil Maanila Congress - the dominant stream of the old but no longer grand party in the State - and the consequent accommodation of its leaders in positions of responsibility in the Congress, the party is hardly performing as one coherent unit. The Congress is not in power in Tamil Nadu, and the factional chieftains have a reduced stake in lobbying for posts in the organisation. However, in the post-merger phase, the TMC stream felt grossly under-represented where it really mattered. The organisational polls might help those looking to legitimise their claims for an enhanced share of power. In Pondicherry, the organisational polls have been rescheduled after a senior leader, P. Kannan, defied the high command and launched a tirade against the Chief Minister, N. Rangaswamy. Mr. Kannan, who had earlier merged his independent outfit with the Congress, seems to command the support of a sizable number of the primary members of the party. He has the choice of forcing a split - or using the polls as a testing ground of his strength.

In all the three State units, organisational elections offer the high command a chance to settle the conflicting claims of the dominant factions without seeming to take sides. In Kerala, where the Karunakaran faction was stepping up the pressure using `inner-party democracy’ as the mobilising slogan, the conduct of the polls has seemingly restored the moral authority of the high command. But what is certain is that the polls will not see the end of the factional wars. Those who have reason to be unhappy with the outcome will press on with their overweening demands. After all, inner-party democracy goes far beyond organisational polls held every now and then. Believe it or not, Congress factionalism in some States is rooted in differences over goals and strategies, rather than being expressions of the personal ambitions of group leaders. Organisational polls can help, to an extent, in separating the pretenders from the leaders, but cannot resolve issue-based conflicts within the party.

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