Debating India

CONGRESS

Opportunities before Sonia Gandhi

Wednesday 25 May 2005, by KHARE*Harish

STATECRAFT The organisational elections provide Sonia Gandhi a chance to provide a face-lift to the Congress.

IF EVERYTHING goes well, and according to script, Sonia Gandhi will in a few days be declared to have been re-elected unopposed as president of the Indian National Congress. Though the purist may find her "election" a less-than-perfect exercise in internal party democracy, her anointment for four more years will be in perfect harmony with the mood and balance of forces within the organisation. Even before the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, there were no pockets of resistance to her supremacy; an unenthusiastic acceptance of her leadership gave way to an inspired surrender after she led the party to victory last May. And, ever since she performed the rites of renunciation and handed over the prime ministerial crown to Manmohan Singh, she has risen to the status of unquestionable leader. To that extent, the absence of a contest merely reflects the overwhelming respect and support she enjoys in the party.

However, the matter does not end - nor should it be allowed to end - with Ms. Gandhi’s election because the internal election process in a political party is not confined to the selection of the leader. A political party is not a private arrangement between the leader and the followers, though most political parties in India do seem to be organised as an extension of the "leader." A political party is a public institution; and though Indian political parties and their leaders claim to speak in the name of the masses, internal affairs of political parties remain, by and large, outside the realm of legal scrutiny. Except for a questionable leverage the Election Commission has tried to invoke infrequently, no other lawful authority has any supervisory power that can be used to make the political parties act internally in a transparent or democratic manner. The Congress too has gone through the motions of conducting an internal election whose outcome was known from the very beginning; this limited exercise nonetheless would meet the technical demands made by the Election Commission.

But a sound democracy does not thrive on technicalities alone. And the Congress has too critical and too central a role in sustaining and deepening the party system in India for its leadership to feel satisfied with technicalities. It is a sine quo non that the Congress conduct its internal affairs in a manner that enhances and deepens its institutional capacities to function as the premier pan-Indian political party, which in turn functions as the cornerstone of the Indian state order. And it is here that Ms. Gandhi has yet again wasted an opportunity.

It cannot be anybody’s contention that the Congress liabilities have suddenly reduced or that its assets have improved dramatically just because of her tyag (sacrifice) or because it is again saddled with the task of operating the Centre, as the largest constituent of the ruling United Progressive Alliance. Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal remain impervious to her new moral aura.

A healthy party system in a functioning democratic arrangement has to perform a number of tasks: it must participate in the selection of a governing elite; it should articulate and aggregate the thinking and demands of its support constituency; and, above all, in a developing country like ours, a political party must become an instrument of opportunity and upward mobility for all sections of society. Which sections it should woo and which demands it must press depend on the party’s history of ideological pretensions, as well as on the predilections of those who come to capture the leadership slots.

Admittedly, every party tends to become a prisoner of its current crop of leaders from the very top down to the block level. Those who find themselves on the inside use every bureaucratic device to protect and perpetuate their place under the organisational sun; there is an intrinsically built-in status quo-ist bias in party organisations. However, if a party has to remain a vibrant organisation then it is obliged to shake itself up from time to time. Organisational elections provide a legitimate avenue for cadres and activists to renew their ties with the party as well as to have their say in the matter of leadership.

The just concluded organisational election was an excellent opportunity for the Congress to renew itself. Organisational elections become the occasion as well as the provocation for launching membership drives; if carried out honestly, the exercise can help a party realign itself with new social forces, enlarging its catchment area, and tap their new energy and aspirations. Ms. Gandhi herself had given hints that she was alive to the obligation. Addressing the Congress Parliamentary Party on February 25, 2005, she had said: "we are in the midst of organisational elections. We are firmly committed to completing elections up to the AICC levels by April 30th. I would urge all of you to actively participate in this process. This is a time to implement what I have often emphasised, and that is to bring in young men and women from all walks of life, particularly from the weaker sections of society in much larger numbers."

That opportunity has been missed. Instead of allowing a genuine democratic churning to take place, the party establishment looked the other way as State and district leaders suborned the "membership enrolment drive"; this too was perhaps inevitable as top leaders have bargained among themselves to divide "PRO/DRO"(Pradesh returning officers/district returning officers). They have in the process ensured a "dependable" Electoral College for the president; and, these selected, rather than elected `delegates" for the Electoral College, in turn get used as instruments for packing the AICC. And, the AICC gets to elect the Congress Working Committee. The circle of inbreeding is complete. So, now we have the deliciously absurd spectacle where the Pradesh delegates are deemed to have been "elected" in all States, but the electoral process at the block and district level is yet to get off the ground.

Rearranging the hierarchy

Though an opportunity has been botched, the "elections" do provide an occasion to whip the party into shape. Ms. Gandhi gets a licence to re-arrange the party’s hierarchy. There will be a new working committee of the "elected" and the "nominated" categories and together the two form the party’s highest decision-making body. Most probably a "consensus" would get manufactured that working committee elections be avoided and the party president be authorised to name members in both categories.

It is understandable that Ms. Gandhi and her managers would want to put in place a loyal working committee but this concern for loyalty should not become an excuse for picking up incompetent, unhelpful, politically-challenged men and women; the CWC must once again become a body of the finest political minds in the party. And, in any case, a group of 24 individuals is too large a forum for any meaningful discussion. It is time the Parliamentary Board is revived. In picking a new hierarchy, Ms. Gandhi will be called upon to exhibit one particular leadership quality: the capacity to infuse new blood as well as to chop down deadwood. It must be realised that irrespective of its past services and loyalties the old guard is not only an anachronism but a positive hindrance to the Congress’ evolution as a party tuned into the modern age and its irreverent inclinations.

This re-casting of the party hierarchy becomes all the more necessary because the Congress has to re-orient itself for its new assignment as the leader of a coalition government at the Centre. Because the Congress president chose to stay away from the government, the party finds itself having to come to terms with a kind of "division of labour." So far the party establishment has been found out to be without the requisite intellectual or even political competence to be able to guide the government in terms of priorities and policies. The only creative inputs have come from outside the party and outside the government, the National Advisory Council. It is obvious that the party has to promote competence within its ranks, especially at the level of the AICC secretariat.

It can only be hoped that Ms. Gandhi would have by now realised the futility of packing up crucial party forums with family retainers or professional sycophants. There is no longer any need for her to persist with her noblesse oblige instincts of wanting to carrying everyone along; this otherwise unexceptionable habit has more often than not produced paralysis at the heart of decision-making. She and the rest of the party have to appreciate that with Dr. Manmohan Singh presiding over South Block, the Congress has got another chance to woo the middle classes with their preference for decorum in public life. This incipient love affair will run into trouble unless Ms. Gandhi is able to provide a face-lift to the Congress. She gets one more opportunity.

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