Congress' post-poll indecisiveness shows 'high command' isn't ultimate authority, there's more in-party democracy than assumed

When I turned 18 and became eligible to vote, the MP from Surat was the BJP's Kashiram Rana. He remained the MP from the constituency till I was nearly 40. Rana was a popular grassroots figure and was undefeated from the seat six times, also serving as a minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Cabinet. However, without any reason or scandal to his name, Rana was denied a ticket from Gujarat in 2008 and died a few years later, broken and disillusioned. I will come to why I referred to him a little later.

The Congress had one good day when the votes for Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh were counted. The next day, it was hammered again in the media for being unable to make quick decisions on its leadership in the three states.

The party then pointed out that this was not an unusual occurrence as the BJP, too, had been indecisive when it won in the elections in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. But the delay in the choice for the chief ministers of the three states felt unusual in the minds of many people. Let's take a look at why.

The first thing is that we are told the Congress has a "high command". Party's leaders use this term themselves. It means a leadership above all the rest that has final authority. It refers to the Gandhi family — the mother and son duo — who control the party.

File image of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. PTI

File image of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. PTI

But the events of the day after the election results were declared show that this authority is not absolute. If that were the case, Congress president Rahul Gandhi could have picked his man, and it would have ended there. The fact that this did not happen can only mean that the "high command" does not have the power to command in absolute terms.

This is not a bad thing by itself. It shows that there is more in-party democracy in the Congress than is assumed otherwise.

Compare this with the ease with which outsiders like Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh, Manohar Lal Khattar in Haryana and Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra were picked without public dissent. Each of them was given a chance over leaders who had been with the BJP and had built the party in these states for decades, but their claims were ignored and they had to accept this. This was exactly what happened with Kashiram Rana, who was denied a ticket by the then chief minister Narendra Modi.

This indicates that it is the BJP, not the Congress, that has a "high command" that can impose its will on the second line of leadership without resistance.

We think of the Congress as being a dictatorship internally because it is dynastic. I have referred to it as a private limited company, where one family holds all the shares, as opposed to the BJP, which is more like a public firm with wider shareholding.

However, recent events show that this may not necessarily be the right way of looking at it.

There was no fear in the aggressive manner with which supporters appeared on television, demanding their leader's elevation to the chief minister's post while the "high command" was still deciding. The dissent by Congress workers and supporters against what they thought the high command was about to do expressed itself in violence in Rajasthan.

The lack of absolute authority in the Congress also showed in the sequence of events. The contenders from Rajasthan were called to Delhi for discussions. They were asked to return but called back mid-way.

What does this tell us? That it was difficult for the Congress high command to make a decision, or it was difficult for it to implement its decision.

The presence of Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi at some of the meetings again indicates that this was a decision in which the Congress president needed support.

The defiance by the old guard and their ultimate victory over the younger faces also show a certain degree of independence. It tells us that the campaign victories in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh were not dependent on any significant extent on the Delhi leadership.

This is the difference between the two national parties. In the BJP, it is assumed that Modi's contribution to a victory is so disproportionate that he has absolute authority in deciding what happens afterwards.

The last thing that we can surmise from the events is that the approach Rahul took, or was forced to take, is different from his father's. When Rajiv Gandhi took over, he addressed the party's internal issues by threatening behaviour. On dissent in the Congress, he had once said, "Unko naani yaad dila denge".

This is quite different from the way Rahul dealt with those who disagreed with him. It is believed that Rahul wanted the younger and fresher faces of Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia to lead Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. That he was unable to get this done tells us a lot more about the Congress leadership and its structure and limitations than phrases like "high command".

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Updated Date: Dec 16, 2018 07:40:27 IST

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