Rahul Gandhi is paying for the mistakes of Indira Gandhi
The Dynasty is all there is to the Congress party. So Rahul should stop trying to make the party democratic - a democracy that his Grandma Indira destroyed
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.
Rahul’s mother Sonia Gandhi has been the President of the Congress since 14 March 1998, when the Congress Working Committee members led by Pranab Mukherjee invoked Clause J of Article 19 of the Congress constitution to throw out the elected President Sitaram Kesri. They then installed Sonia Gandhi as President. This was unprecedented in the history of the party where an “elected” president of the party was thrown out by invoking a vague clause. The clause did not clearly point whether an elected president could be removed, by invoking it.
As The Hindu wrote after the death of Sitaram Kesri: “The constitutional coup was hailed widely as restoring the party's leadership back to the site of its only natural entitlement - the Nehru-Gandhi family. When the historians get to chronicle the import of that eventful day, most of the honorable men of the Congress would be shown to have acted way less than honourably; even those who owned their rehabilitation and place in the CWC to the old man had no qualms in abandoning him. The transition that day cast the Congress (I) once again in the dynastic mould, and the consequences are visible.”
Sonia Gandhi has been the President of the party ever since. Even if the party had presidential elections regularly the chances of anyone else other than Sonia Gandhi (assuming she continued to contest) winning the elections remained low. As Jitendra Prasada found in November 2000, when he ran against Sonia Gandhi, in the hope that she would ask him to withdraw his nomination and reward him with a senior position. Sonia never did, and got nearly 99 percent of the votes polled.
As Rashid Kidwai writes in Sonia – A Biography, “As the date for the withdrawal of names drew nearer, Jitty Bhai waited in vain for a call from 10 Janpath offering a face-saving, last-minute withdrawal. Humiliated and marginalised, Jitty Bhai realised that this gambit had failed. Accompanied by a handful of leaders from Uttar Pradesh, Prasada filed his nomination papers and was humbled in the party polls as Sonia went on to get nearly 99 per cent of the votes. The peacemakers and many of those who had encouraged Prasada to teach Sonia a lesson were nowhere in sight.”
Prasada never recovered from the humiliation he suffered at the hands of Sonia and died of a brain haemorrhage a few months later.
So try as much as Rahul might to revive the democratic process within the Congress party, it doesn’t really matter. To paraphrase what Dev Kant Baruah said about Indira Gandhi: “The Nehru-Gandhi family is the Congress. And the Congress is the Nehru-Gandhi family”.
The only constant in a party which lacks any ideology is the Nehru-Gandhi family. Given this, it doesn’t really matter if the Congress party has internal democracy or not? What matters is whether there is someone around from the Nehru-Gandhi family around to lead it.
It’s time Rahul Gandhi realised this and moved on from a full time party role to a role in the government while continuing with his role in the party as well. This will go in a long way in motivating the party cadre than all the moves to promote democracy within the party. There is nothing more that a Congress party worker likes than being led by a scion of the Nehru Gandhi family. This move also becomes even more important in a scenario where Pranab Mukherjee, the principle troubleshooter for the party, has moved to Rashtrapati Bhavan.
It’s been nearly 23 years since Rajiv Gandhi lost power to Vishwanath Pratap Singh. A Nehru-Gandhi family scion has not been a member of the Indian government since then. It’s time for Rahul and the Congress party to set that anomaly right.
Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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