Why there can be no internal democracy in the Congress party

The culture of the party, the way it has evolved, has become such that it cannot think beyond the Gandhi family.

Vivek Kaul December 16, 2013 11:28:00 IST
Why there can be no internal democracy in the Congress party

Rahul Gandhi wants to create a new Congress. "We will give you a party you will be proud of, and that has your voice embedded inside," he said, after the Congress party was routed in the recent state elections.

Why there can be no internal democracy in the Congress party

Former prime minister Indira Gandhi with her sons Rajiv and Sanjay. AFP

Congress is no longer a party with the voice of people embedded in it because it has had no internal organisational elections for four decades now. As Ashutosh Varshney wrote in a recent colum in The Indian Express “Internal elections in the Congress party began in 1920 under Mahatma Gandhi's stewardship and lasted till 1973, when Indira Gandhi suspended them.”

Indira Gandhi, as we all know, turned Congress into a family run business.

Varshney feels that if the Congress party has to have any long term future, it should start having internal elections again, even if it means that the Gandhi dynasty is ousted from the top rungs of the party.

The logic is if the party can revive internal democracy only then can it be in a position of choosing candidates who are likely to win elections. A candidate who has the support of the party members is also more likely to have the support of the people at large.

There are various reasons why this will not work. The foremost being that the party hasn't had internal elections for four decades now and in the process has become a party of sycophants. It is a party of the chamchas, by the chamchas and for the chamchas. These chamchas start right at the top. The first level of chamchas report directly to the Gandhi family. The second level of chamchas reports to the first level of chamchas. The third level of chamchas reports to the second level of chamchas and so on. This is how the hierarchy works.

Any attempts to break this hierarchy by encouraging true internal democracy would mean that the party will stop functioning totally. And that can't possibly be a good outcome.

The top two posts of the Congress party are held by the Gandhi family (i.e. Rahul and his mother Sonia). And that being the case, how can any Congress party member be expected to take the idea of internal democracy seriously?

Shekhar Gupta in a column in The Indian Express suggests that internal democracy can only happen by holding real elections for the posts of the party president and vice president. The question is will any real Congress member worth his salt decide to challenge Sonia and Rahul? Even if someone decides to do that what will be his chances of winning? And once he loses the elections, how safe will be his future within the party?

The culture of the party the way it has evolved has become such that it cannot think beyond the Gandhi family. When Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, the party immediately looked up to Rajiv Gandhi, Indira's son, to take over the party. When Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, the party immediately went to Sonia, Rajiv's wife, to take over the party. Rajiv accepted the post, Sonia did not.

In fact, it is very well known that Sonia did not like the idea of her husband entering full time politics after the death of his brother Sanjay in June 1980. Rasheed Kidwai's 24 Akbar Road – A Short History of the People Behind the Fall and Rise of the Congress has a small anecdote which proves the same. “'He(i.e. Rajiv) says his wife will divorce him if he joins politics,' Indira Gandhi told writer Khushwant Singh, when he asked her if her son Rajiv would fill the gap left by his brother Sanjay.”

Rajiv eventually did join the party in 1981. He contested and won the Amethi Lok Sabha seat on 17 August, 1981 and was made the General Secretary of the party on 3 February, 1983. He was elevated to the top post after his mother's assassination on 31 October, 1984.

But Sonia did not join the party after Rajiv's assassination in May 1991. Even though she stayed away from full time politics in the years that followed, she was never really completely out of it. As Rasheed Kidwai writes in Sonia – A Biography “There is general consensus that she encouraged all those who were opposed to Rao (PV Narsimha Rao, who was the prime minister between 1991 and 1996). Throughout the Narsimha Rao regime, 10 Janpath (where Sonia continues to stay) served as an alternative power centre or listening post against him.”

In December 1997, Sonia Gandhi indicated that she wanted to play a more active role in Congress politics. It took the party less than three months to throw out Sitaram Kesri, the then president of the party and put Sonia in charge in his place. In fact, the manner in which it was done was quite dubious.

The point is that the Congress cannot really see itself beyond the Gandhis. Also, the bigger question is will the Gandhis ever not want to be at the top of their family run concern? If that was the case Sonia Gandhi would have never entered full time politics and neither would have Rahul.

In the recent past, elections have been held in the Youth Congress. This has been the brainchild of Rahul Gandhi and his team to encourage internal democracy within the party. They have used former election commission officials to manage these elections. But the results clearly prove the point that I had made earlier. The Congress is a party of the chamchas, by the chamchas and for the chamchas.

Aarthi Ramachandran in Decoding Rahul Gandhi gives examples of chamchas winning these elections in several states. As she writes, “In Chhattisgarh, Rahul Gandhi's team member Jitendra Singh spoke to Congress strongman Ajit Jogi's son Amit to dissuade him from contesting the elections... Though 'Team Rahul' managed to stop Amit from contesting it could do nothing about the post being won by his supporter, Uttam Kumar Vasudeo. In Jharkhand, Manas Sinha, a youth leader who had the support of... Subodh Kant Sahay (then a cabinet minister), became the president. Priyavrat Singh, a supporter of former chief minister Digvijay Singh was elected in Madhya Pradesh.”

This was repeated in almost every state throughout the country. A major reason for the same is the fact that it takes a lot of money to fight these internal elections in the Youth Congress. As Ramachandran writes “Only those who have a corpus of about Rs 5-10 lakh can aspire to win the Assembly level Youth Congress elections, one IYC (Indian Youth Congress) office-bearer from Bihar, who did not want to be named, said.”

At a higher levels the money can be a lot more. “The money required to fight IYC elections at higher level varies according to the socio-economic profile of states. The amount of money spent in states such as Bihar is still modest compared to the Rs 2 crore spent in Tamil Nadu for the position of the Lok Sabha Youth Congress president's post, according to the figures of a party insider,” writes Ramachandran.

Hence, it is not surprising that chamchas of the bigger chamchas in the party are winning these elections, given that so much money is needed to fight these elections.

Also, a party which has followed a certain way of operating for four decades cannot change overnight. It is worth asking here does the party really attract people who believe in the idea of internal democracy? Or does it just attract people who are looking to latch onto a reasonably senior chamcha?

And during the time it tries to change itself, it is not as if other political parties will be sitting around doing nothing. As Gupta writes in The Indian Express “If a rapidly declining, even self-destructive, political party wishes to rebrand, reposition and rejuvenate, will it be done through a 10-year project to democratise it from bottom up? By that time, the BJP would have taken away your mantle of being India's largest political party and the Aam Aadmi Party would have stolen your Muslim vote-banks pretty much the way it took away Delhi's urban poor.”

Given this, all this talk about rejuvenating internal democracy in the Congress party, should at best be taken with a pinch of salt.

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

Updated Date:

also read

UP Assembly Election 2022: BJP to return to power with 'overwhelming majority', says Yogi Adityanath after EC announces poll dates
Politics

UP Assembly Election 2022: BJP to return to power with 'overwhelming majority', says Yogi Adityanath after EC announces poll dates

The Election Commission has announced seven-phase voting in Uttar Pradesh starting 10 February. Counting of votes will take place in March, along with four other poll-bound states

UP Assembly polls: Unnao rape victim's mother, ASHA worker, anti-CAA activist make it to Congress’ first list of candidates
Politics

UP Assembly polls: Unnao rape victim's mother, ASHA worker, anti-CAA activist make it to Congress’ first list of candidates

Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra released the party's first list of 125 candidates, including 50 women, for the upcoming assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh

Modi, teleprompter and talking heads: Brief history of a love-hate relationship
Politics

Modi, teleprompter and talking heads: Brief history of a love-hate relationship

Modi’s oratory is proven on almost every playing field. A machine glitch at a global event won’t take away much from that