Why there can be no internal democracy in the Congress party

rahul gandhiVivek Kaul 
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.
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 democarcy 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 August 17, 1981 and was made the General Secretary of the party on February 3, 1983. He was elevated to the top post after his mother’s assassination on October 31, 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 
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.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on December 16, 2013 

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

Rahul Gandhi is paying for the mistakes of Indira Gandhi

Vivek Kaul

Some twenty eight days before my tenth 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 ii of the play comes a line which I found very relevant to the way 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 institution of democracy. As historian Ramchandra Guha recently told CNN IBN “Nehru nurtured institution 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 heydays she first had Dev Kant Baruah installed as the 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 to 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 the President of the elder party by her son Rajiv who remained the President of the party till his death in 1991. This more or less institutionalized “dynastic” rule within the Congress. As Guha said “Even Nehru’s fiercest critic wrote at that time that the 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 the district level for that matter. The lack of internal democracy and the centralized 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, 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 the 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 but 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 March 14, 1998, when the Congress Working Committee members led by Pranab Mukherjee invoked the Clause J of the Article 19 of the Congress constitution to throw out the elected President Sitaram Kesri. They then installed Sonia Gandhi as the 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 mold, 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% 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 marginalized, 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 principal troubleshooter for the party has decided to retire and move to the biggest house in the country.
It’s been nearly twenty three 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.
(The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on July 30,2012. http://http://www.firstpost.com/politics/rahul-gandhi-is-paying-for-the-mistakes-of-indira-gandhi-396001.html/)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])

Pawar is no Mamata di! He is giving the Congress batting practice

Vivek Kaul
“A woman and an elephant never forget an injury,” wrote Hector Hugh Munro better known by his pen name Saki. Wonder whether, Sharad Pawar, the sharp man that he is, has ever read Saki? (On a totally different note, the short stories of Saki are an absolutely delightful read).
The Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar resigned from the Union Cabinet last week. Media reports suggest that he was miffed by the fact that after Pranab Mukherjee decided to retire, and move to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, he was not made the number two in the Union Cabinet .It seems that the defence minister AK Antony has been allocated the seat to the right of the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, where Mukherjee used to sit, making him number two in the government. And that’s a seat that Pawar had wanted.
The Congress Party has been trying to mollify Pawar and his Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) since he quit a few days back. “In a Parliamentary democracy, all are equal in Cabinet. The Prime Minister is first among equals and there is no number two or number three,” Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh told the Deccan Chronicle.
That apart it would be rather stupid of Sharad Pawar to assume that the Congress would offer the number two position in the cabinet to him, assuming there was a thing like that. Pawar was one of the first to raise revolt against Sonia Gandhi by bringing her foreign origins to the forefront, after she had taken over as the President of the Congress Party in the late 1990s.
Even before that Sonia and Pawar never shared a great relationship. As Rashid Kidwai writes in Sonia-A Biography “When she (Sonia Gandhi) took over as the Congress chief, there was a certain unease between her and Sharad Pawar. Though Pawar concurred with the party’s decision to request Sonia to save the Congress, he later candidly admitted that he was never comfortable with her. Their conversations never lasted long and even that short duration was punctuated by long pauses.”
On March 14, 1998, the Congress Working Committee unceremoniously shunted out Sitaram Kesri, an elected President, and requested Sonia Gandhi to take over as the President of the Congress.
Kidwai in his book suggests that after Sonia took over as the President of the Congress, Pawar got an informal poll survey done. The results of the survey concluded that if he raised the banner of revolt against Sonia on the issue of her foreign origin, he would be the second Lokmanya Tilak. “The actual findings of the survey were never made public,” writes Kidwai. Things got nasty a little over a year and two months later on May 19, 1999, when Sharad Pawar, P.A.Sangma and Tariq Anwar raised a revolt against Sonia Gandhi on the issue of her foreign origin. Sonia resigned in a huff. But she took her resignation back after the trio was kicked out of the Congress party.
Therefore things went from bad to worse between Pawar and Sonia. “After revolting against her on the ground of her foreign origins, Pawar said that Sonia would never openly speak to him, but a CWC member who had tried hard to bring about a rapprochement between Pawar and Sonia said the same thing about him: ‘We encouraged him to have an open, heart-to-heart discussion with the Congress president, but he would just not open up,’” writes Kidwai.
So all this suggests that Pawar and Sonia share a very uneasy relationship and probably bear each other because of the compulsions of coalition politics. Also Sharad Pawar effectively ensured that Sonia Gandhi never became the Prime Minister of the country. Given that it is highly unlikely that Sonia would appoint Pawar number two in any union cabinet which she effectively controls.
Pawar of course understands this more than anyone else given the shrewd man that he is. So why is then all the drama of quitting in a huff happening? The major reason seems to be the fact that the Maharashtra chief minister Prithiviraj Chauhan is seen to be hurting the interests of the NCP. He has announced a white paper on the irrigation department which has been headed by Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar for ten years now.
The other major issue has been with co-operative banks. The Reserve Bank of India had dissolved the board of directors of the Maharashtra State Co-operative Bank which was controlled by Ajit Pawar in May last year. Pawar junior had come down heavily on the manner in which Chavan had implemented the RBI order in haste.
A few months back in March, RBI dissolved the NCP controlled Sangli District Central Cooperative Bank for violation of the Banking Regualtion Act. This move came a week after the NCP leader Dinkar Patel was elected as the Chairman of the Bank.
Chavan has also distanced himself from the refurbished Maharashtra Sadan in New Delhi. Allegations are now being made that relatives and family members of public works development (PWD) minister Chhagan Bhujbal, a senior NCP leader, benefitted considerably from contracts that were awarded out at inflated costs.
The NCP is also unhappy with the fact Chavan is not giving Pawar enough respect. “”In the past, CMs would make it a point to call on him and give him the respect due to a tall leader,” Times of India reported sources as saying.
The other theory going around is that Pawar is worried about the increasing influence of his nephew Ajit among the party legislators. Hence this move of resigning from the union cabinet is also being seen as a pressure tactic to get a ministerial birth for his daughter Supriya Sule, who is a member of the Lok Sabha from the Baramati constituency. As the Times of India on July 22 “Congress sources feel Pawar is shrewdly leveraging his unhappiness with the CM to pressure the Centre on demands ranging from a say in governorships, appointments to various boards, a ministerial perch for daughter Supriya while invoking the coalition mantra. He is also seen to be pitching for a say in Rajya Sabha nominations.”
The game is all about drawing some concessions out of the Congress party. At the end of the day we must remember that Pawar is no Mamata Banerjee. The influence of the NCP is limited to parts of western Maharashtra (primarily in districts around Pune). Pawar and NCP cannot win an election in Maharashtra on their own, unlike Mamata can and did in West Bengal. They need the Congress party as an alliance partner as much as the Congress needs them. The elections in Maharasthra are due in 2014. NCP is a party of business barons who have huge stakes in co-operative banks, sugar co-operatives and education institutes. Given this, it is important for them to remain in government. And they won’t remain in government unless they have a seat sharing agreement with the Congress party.
So what Pawar is doing right now is throwing some tough deliveries at the Congress party to give them some batting practice and hoping that he is able to draw out some goodies from them in the process. In the meanwhile we will some serious rhetoric from the NCP continuing. The one that caught my eye was of Jitendra Ahwad, an NCP leader, recently telling CNN-IBN that Sharad Pawar was the best man to be the Prime Minister.
(The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on July 23,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/politics/pawar-is-no-mamata-di-he-is-just-giving-cong-batting-practice-386923.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])