The Congress rebellion that never was: India's political parties lack internal democracy

Though the party crisis seems to have blown over, for the time being, the future of the Congress does not appear to be bright. And it has nothing to do with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), writes Vinod Aggarwal for South Asia Monitor

Vinod Aggarwal Sep 07, 2020
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It was expected that a devastating tsunami will hit the Congress party at the virtual meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting in New Delhi. The tsunami was supposed to be resulting from ‘undersea nuclear blasts’ carried out a few days earlier by a group of 23 Congressmen who mistakenly considered themselves as ‘leaders’ just because they have been in the limelight for the last few decades. While some of them had held offices of chief ministers in the states, were ministers in central government in the past, and held offices of Leader of Opposition in Indian Parliament’s upper house Rajya Sabha, etc. But the Gandhi clan felt that all these people held various offices not on their own strength or merits, but at their mercy. They had to be shown their right place in the party and country’s polity and this is what was done at the CWC meeting on August 24.

The Gandhi trio

The Gandhi trio - Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka - have been asserting that they are not at all interested in clinging to their position and that they sincerely want that a ‘non-Gandhi’ should be appointed as Congress President. But the savage manner in which the family reacted to the now-famous letter of 23 raising the flag of revolt against the rightful hereditary owners of the party showed their real intent. The message to these 23 and all others entertaining similar notions was loud and clear. The message was that the Gandhi trio is the only rightful owner owning 100 percent shares of the party and all others are only foot soldiers. An employee - even if he is a CEO - has no claim over ownership. He is entitled to only remunerations mentioned in the letter of appointment and once all his dues have been paid, he has no right on anything else. The family was visibly rattled. They either did not want to or failed to hide their panic.

The CWC ‘deliberations’ were conducted like a perfect symphony. On getting a cue from the symphony conductor Rahul Gandhi, all the musicians belted out their music in perfect harmony. The song/tune was that ‘these 23 are traitors and that all members of CWC have full confidence in the Gandhi family. That Gandhi family and only the Gandhi family are fit to lead Congress party and no one else.’ After seven hours of meeting, unanimity was achieved and everybody including four out of 23 dissenters who are members of CWC was ‘happy’ with the outcome. Later remaining 19 dissenters also echoed the same sentiment. 

Obviously, Gandhis must have been more than happy that a rebellion has been crushed. Everybody fell at the feet of the great and indispensable Gandhis begging them not to orphan them. All this at a juncture when Sonia Gandhi is battling some serious undeclared ailment for the last few years when Rahul Gandhi has already openly publicly declared that he will not return as party president and that some non-Gandhi must be named as a party chief and when Priyanka Gandhi has repeated the same desire as recently as a couple of weeks ago. 

But still, due to prayers and pleadings of all CWC members, Sonia had to continue as president for six months despite her ailment. What injustice to the poor lady!

Sonia Gandhi is behaving like Dhritarashtra of the Mahabharata epic. For her, there is nothing bigger or more important than ‘Putra prem’ (limitless love for son). As Dhritrashtra, who was blind, had only one aim in life and that was to make his eldest son Duryodhana as King of Hastinapur; in the same way, Sonia Gandhi has only one dream to leave the party to her son Rahul and nobody else.

Group of 23

The letter of the group of 23, which they must have hoped will shake the earth, had listed some issues which they thought were ‘important’ for the party. These included full time active, visible leadership, the formation of an independent election authority to ensure free and  fair polls to various posts in the party, the election of CWC members as per party constitution, the establishment of an ‘institutional mechanism’ to collectively guide revival of party, etc. All these show that these things were presently not happening at the party. It meant that according to these 23, the present leadership (meaning Gandhi family) were not ‘full time, active and visible’, that at present free and fair elections were being held in the party and CWC members were not elected as per the party’s constitution.

The 23 signatories, included former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister and present Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad, former union ministers Anand Sharma, Kapil Sibal, Manish Tewari, and Shashi Tharoor, former chief ministers of Haryana, Maharashtra, and Karnataka, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Prithviraj Chavan and M. Veerappa  Moily, and several others. All these people have been in the party for the last three or four decades and had held several important positions.

Till now they were considered loyal members of the party and nobody ever accused them as "traitors". But this was openly done at the August 24 meeting, if not by the Gandhis, but in their presence by several senior and other members in and outside the meeting that the 23 dissenters were operating "at the behest of the BJP". One CWC member Ambika Soni even demanded action against the dissenters.

Those who supported the Gandhi family included all the current Congress chief ministers - Capt Amrinder Singh of Punjab, Ashok Gehlot of Rajasthan,  Bhupesh Baghel of Chhattisgarh etc. 

Though the party crisis seems to have blown over, for the time being, the future of the Congress does not appear to be bright. And it has nothing to do with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The main factors stacked against Congress today are the protracted illness of Sonia Gandhi and her total unwillingness to consider any alternative to son Rahul Gandhi. Rahul Gandhi led the Congress campaign in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections; the party suffered its worst electoral result in its history, winning only 44 seats compared to 206 seats won previously in the 2009 general election. He took over as the president of the Congress in December 2017. The party slightly improved its seat count from 44 out of 543 in 2014 to 52 out of 542 in 2019. 

Priyanka Gandhi, who has been Uttar Pradesh Congress party in-charge has not been successful either in improving the party image, despite being considered politically very savvy and having traits of her grandmother late prime minister Indira Gandhi. The other factors that have gone against Rahul Gandhi have been his frequent and unexplained long spells  away from the country, which has created an impression in the public that he is probably not a serious and full-time politician. There is also the marked unwillingness of other important and powerful state leaders like West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav (both former chief ministers of UP) to accept Rahul Gandhi as the leader of the opposition party. So on its own strength, there is practically no chance of the Congress party coming to power at the Centre in the near future, and other powerful opposition leaders are not ready to lend a helping hand to them either. 

Events of August 24 and thereafter have clearly shown that the fate of 23 Congress mutineers is now sealed and they have almost no future in the party. The concept of genuine internal party democracy and free and fair party elections simply does not exist in most Indian political parties, including the Congress and BJP. The group of 23 does not seem to have any future even outside the Congress party. If they join another political party, they will not get any respect and will always be treated as second-class members.  If they form a new political party and start all over again, age and financial resources may be against them unless they choose one state at a time, like say Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Jannayak Janta Party politician and current Deputy Chief Minister of Haryana Dushyant Singh Chautala.

(The writer is a former journalist. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vinod.aggarwal@uniliftcargo.com)