A month before my 10th standard exams I started reading William Shakespeare‘s Julius Caesar, seriously, for the first time. And I am still trying to figure out why the world fusses so much over plays written in a form of English that went out of fashion a long long time ago.
My memory of the play is very hazy now, given that it’s been two decades since. But what I do remember is that in Act 3 Scene 2 of the play comes a line which I found very relevant to the way the world operates. “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones,” says the character of Mark Antony in that scene.
The evil that men (and women) do lives after them and in some cases the coming generations have to bear the consequences for it. Take the case of Indira Gandhi who systematically destroyed the institutions of democracy. As historian Ramchanra Guha recently told CNN-IBN, “Nehru nurtured institutions of democracy – an independent election commission, an independent judiciary, bureaucracy autonomous of political interference, pluralism, secularism. Indira systematically undermined all of this.”
This included democracy within the Congress party as well. During her heyday she first had Dev Kant Baruah installed as President of the Congress party. Baruah is best remembered for saying “Indira is India and India is Indira”. Such was the level of the sycophancy that was prevalent when Indira Gandhi was at her peak.
After Baruah, Indira Gandhi took the presidency into her hands and was the president of the Congress party from 1978 till her death in 1984. Her younger son Sanjay more or less ran things within the party as well as the government (when Indira was in power) for a major part of this period.
She was succeeded as President of the party by her son Rajiv who retained the post till his death in 1991. This more or less institutionalised “dynastic” rule within the Congress. As Guha said, “Even Nehru’s fiercest critic wrote at that time that Nehru has no interest in promoting dynastic rule… Indira promoted first Sanjay and then Rajiv.”
With no democracy at the top of the Congress party, it simply wasn’t possible for the party to remain democratic at the state or district levels, for that matter. The lack of internal democracy and the centralised nature of the Congress party led to the coining of the legendary phrase “high command”. It was also ironic that the world’s largest democracy was and is governed by a party with very little “internal” democracy.
More recently, the party has seen Rahul Gandhi, the fifth generation of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, at the helm of things, trying to correct the lack of democracy within the party. In October 2008, while addressing girl students at a resort near Jim Corbett National Park, Rahul referred to “politics” as a closed system in India. “If I had not come from my family, I wouldn’t be here. You can enter the system either through family or friends or money. Without family, friends or money, you cannot enter the system. My father was in politics. My grandmother and great grandfather were in politics. So, it was easy for me to enter politics. This is a problem. I am a symptom of this problem. I want to change it.”
Rahul has tried to change this by trying to introduce some internal democracy within the Congress party by trying to ensure free internal elections. As Rasheed Kidwai writes in 24 Akbar Road – A Short History of the People Behind the Fall and Rise of the Congress, “Rahul Gandhi took it upon himself to bring about inner-party democracy in the Congress. He hired retired election commissioner JM Lyngdoh to design processes and implement policies to ensure that there were free internal elections within the party and that all initiatives and representatives were backed by elected representatives.”
While this is a good move, it is not going to lead to instant rejuvenation of a party that has constantly lost hold over the Indian electorate over the last two decades. Also, any move to initiate democracy within the Congress remains a non-starter given the lack of any democracy at the top.