Debating India

CONGRESS

Sonia and the dynastic principle

Saturday 5 June 1999, by MURALIDHARAN*Sukumar

Pursuit of power is the Congressman’s natural inclination and fear of freedom his greatest limitation. The dynastic principle frees him from the need to deliberate over issues of ideology and leadership. He clings to the certainties inherent in the doctr ine with great ardour, prepared to go to great lengths in the attendant requirement that the critical faculties be suspended in accepting the presumptive right of the Gandhi dynasty to rule the country.

Rarely has a leader established or maintained a durable political niche on the explicit premise that he or she would be exempt from all public interrogation. Sonia Gandhi’s campaign style, as it was evolved in the 1998 general elections, made precisely s uch an affirmation. There was a marked preference for a declamatory approach and little interaction with either the electorate or the media. It was a campaign methodology that was, in the words of critics, akin to a "hit and run" strategy. Sonia’s campai gn speeches sought to efface public memory on some of the more traumatic events of the recent past, in which the Congress(I) under the leadership of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi bore direct culpability. And the strategy was tailored in most instances, to the nature of the audience. Thus a crowd in Delhi comprising a large number of Punjabis was told of Rajiv’s deep sense of remorse over Operation Bluestar and the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984, an audience in Hyderabad was treated to a narration of Rajiv’s resolve to stand in the way of the marauding hordes, rather than allow any harm to the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya, and a gathering in Bangalore bore witness to a virtual cry from the heart over the supposed campaign of vilification that her family had suffered ove r the Bofors scandal.

Yet for all that, Sonia did manage a successful holding operation for the Congress(I). Top and middle-ranking party leaders were voting with their feet against the leadership of Sitaram Kesri, a man who had ironically been voted in as Congress president just months earlier, in the party’s first formal elections in close to half a century. Sonia managed to stop the exodus and by adopting a non-intrusive style in inner party affairs, to cement the brittle solidarity of the Congress’ faction leaders.

The Congress(I) did not significantly improve its position in 1998. But the decimation of the Third Front provided it with a new salience, setting the stage for the transformation of Sonia the reluctant campaigner into an assertive party leader. Kesri wa s unceremoniously ousted to formally make way for her to take over the party leadership. And the Congress constitution was amended to enable her, a member of neither House of Parliament, to be elected leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party.

These moves must have seemed rather unsavoury to any individual who valued internal democracy in a party. In retrospect, it is clear that they did engender a degree of resentment, which was only suppressed on account of the compulsions of the moment. The November 1998 Assembly elections in the northern region underlined Sonia’s status as undisputed leader, although it was generally recognised that the twin perils the BJP faced as the incumbent party in government at the Centre and in the States played a major role in the Congress’ sweeping victories.

Centralisation of power in an individual entails multiple hazards, all of which the Congress is familiar with. These become especially acute when the leader is exempt from scrutiny both within party councils and the larger political realm. In certain of her decisions since assuming undisputed sway, Sonia showed a tendency to adopt a collegial and consultative process of decision-making. The decision to oppose the Vajpayee government’s imposition of President’s rule in Bihar was one such instance. But co mplex situations, such as the collapse of the Vajpayee government and its aftermath, clearly brought out a glaring inability to deal with political ambiguities. Further, there was a tendency to fall back upon the advice of a narrow coterie and to adopt a style of imperial hauteur that prospective allies in the search for an alternative regime found deeply offensive.

Indira and Rajiv Gandhi enshrined the dynastic principle in the Congress(I) on the specific understanding that no alternative centres of power would be tolerated. Indeed, the separation of ministerial and organisational responsibilities was the rule in t he Congress till 1977, when Indira Gandhi split the party one more time, rather than be held accountable for the Emergency and the electoral debacle that followed. By leading a party greatly diminished in terms of internal democracy back to power in 1980 , Indira Gandhi ensured the demise of accountability as a guiding principle within the Congress(I). Any leader who could attract votes would be exempt from internal scrutiny and assessment.

Rajiv Gandhi put his own seal on the principle of dynastic and non-accountable leadership by leading the Congress(I) to an unprecedented 400-seat majority in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections. Yet he proved an extremely insecure leader, intent of neutralising any prospect of an alternative power centre. Chief Ministers in the States and party leaders at the second and third rung were changed around on sheer whim, as the Leader became increasingly dependent on a coterie with little exposure to political reali ties.

As the Congress(I) drifted far afield of its traditional ideological moorings under Rajiv, it was wilfully quashing all possibilities of internal correctives. And since no individual leader in any region was allowed to consolidate his position, the party found that its traditional processes of political mobilisation were failing. But for his tragic assassination in 1991, Rajiv Gandhi would surely have earned for himself the dubious distinction of being the first Congress president to lead the party to t wo successive electoral defeats. The party’s traditional system of faction management, of attracting and retaining the allegiances of social classes that would form relatively stable coalitions at the local level, was in shambles; and its commitment to t he traditional values of the freedom struggle and Jawaharlal Nehru’s early efforts at development, deeply eroded.

A party that substitutes principles with a personality cult may enthuse the electorate in a contingent situation, marked for instance by a massive upwelling of anti-incumbency sentiment. But it affords few assurance that it will be able to exercise power credibly. Indira Gandhi was able, although with growing infirmity in her later years, to retain her commitment to a basic set of political values. But then she was a political personality with an interesting, if deeply flawed, political vision. Rajiv Ga ndhi, in contrast, had little of this breadth of vision. He began the trivialisation of the Congress(I) and as his natural legatee it now seems Sonia’s mandate to complete the job.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

Volume 16 - Issue 12, June 05 - 18, 1999

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