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Why Sonia's fourth coronation is not a good thing

By Inder Malhotra
Last updated on: September 03, 2010 20:43 IST
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India would earn the dubious distinction of being the world's largest democracy that is propped by a clutch of political parties totally bereft of democracy within them, says Inder Malhotra.

Exuberant celebrations by the Congress party and carping criticism by the Bharatiya Janata Party and some others accurately reflect the two sides of Sonia Gandhi's fully expected re-election as her party's president for the fourth consecutive time that makes her the longest serving head of what was once India's Grand Old Party and the core of the ruling United Progressive Alliance.

For eight years since 1996, the Congress was in the wilderness. It was Sonia Gandhi who resurrected it and brought it back to power in 2004. Despite the 'incumbency factor', she led the party to an even greater victory 16 months ago. So, if the Congress ranks, because of their gratitude as well as awareness that no one else would fit the bill, want to elect her again and again, why should others object?

On the other hand, those who say that in every democratic institution there should be a reasonable limit to the tenure of the holders of high office do have a valid point. But the trouble is that in the Indian milieu it is impossible to discuss anything calmly, leave alone rationally. Every issue generates a highly partisan shouting match and becomes an essay in one-upmanship. The critics' cry that Congress presidency has become a "monopoly of the Gandhi family" and the rejoinder of the party's chief spokesperson -- that the Congress would elect Sonia Gandhi 'not four times but 40' -- have reduced the debate to a juvenile level.    

Three other considerations are also relevant. First, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty may be what Salman Rushdie calls 'a dynasty to beat dynasty to rival Dallas' but it is by no means the only one. There is no dearth of other dynasties. To be sure they are diminutive but their hold on their respective fiefdoms is strong. From the Abdullahs and the Muftis of Jammu and Kashmir to Karunanidhi's extended clan in Tamil Nadu to Balasahib Thackeray's brood in Maharashtra to Lalu Yadav's husband-and-wife team in Bihar and Mulayam Singh Yadav's father-and-son diarchy in Uttar Pradesh, the list is long. More remarkably, in each of these dynasties, mini or midi, the incumbent of the top party post either holds it for life or, at a suitable stage, passes the baton to his or her progeny.

Secondly, while the BJP can surely claim that it is not, like other parties, a 'family concern', it cannot deny that it is constantly under the tutelage of the Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sangh, the karta of the Sangh parivar. Nitin Gadkari is the RSS's appointee as the BJP president; the party cadre had no option but to formally elect him.

Thirdly, even in the Congress, Sonia Gandhi is not the first to hold on the post of Congress president for so long. It was Indira Gandhi that established the pattern -- only after the second Congress split in 1978 and continued to be both the prime minister and Congress president from 1980 until her assassination four years later. Her son and successor, Rajiv, stuck to this practice. More strikingly, so did P V Narasimha Rao though quite clearly he was not a scion of the dynasty.

Indeed, Rao clung to Congress presidency as well as leadership of the Congress parliamentary party even after his resounding defeat in the 1996 general election. He had to quit, however, only after he became the first former prime minister to be hauled to a court of law on criminal charges. Sitaram Kesri, not one of the prepossessing Congressmen, replaced Rao as Congress president. On March 14, 1998 after the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance came to power the Congress Working Committee abruptly removed Kesri and appointed Sonia Gandhi in his place in an operation that was nothing short of a coup. The fate of Jitendra Prasad who was foolhardy enough to offer a token contest at the time of her re-election in 2000 would not bear retelling. The rest of the story is well known.

Against this backdrop my main point is that before presiding over the 125th anniversary of the Indian National Congress, Sonia Gandhi would do well to ponder the great legacy that today's Congress has not just discarded but also forgotten. The leaders of the freedom movement and the founder of Indian democracy, Jawaharlal Nehru, encouraged debate and dissent within the Congress because they knew these were the lifeblood of the democratic system. Nehru even wrote an article against himself in Modern India drawing attention to the dangers of concentration of power in one pair of hands. It is time the Congress takes the lead in bring back the old political values and culture if a new life is to be infused in our decaying political party system.

Let me cite a few examples of what I am driving at. Even in the era when the Mahatma's magic held the Indian National Congress in thrall, there was no dearth of dissent and democratic contest for leadership. Subhas Chandra Bose decisively defeated Gandhiji's candidate for the party presidency, Pattabhi Sitaramayya, in 1938. In May 1939, because of continued opposition to him by the Congress right, Bose was forced to resign and was replaced by Rajendra Prasad. From England, Indira wrote to her 'Papu' denouncing this.

On becoming Prime Minister, Nehru set the wholesome norm that someone other than him should hold the office of Congress president. He departed from this sound principle but briefly and under rather extraordinary circumstances. In 1949, Nehru had suffered the kind of defeat in the party presidential poll that the Mahatma had 11 years earlier. In a bitterly fought election in which Sardar Patel's nominee Purushottam Das Tandon easily vanquished the prime minister's candidate, Acharya Kripalani. Since no two men could have been so unlike in ideology and social outlook as Nehru and Tandon the struggle between them continued until 1951, when shortly after Patel's death, Nehru got rid of Tandon. However, he did so through the perfectly democratic method of a vote in the All Indian Congress Committee.

At that time there appeared to be no alternative to the prime minister taking over the post of Congress president, too. By 1955, however, he absolutely insisted on giving up the party job and U N Dhebar was elected. There were several Congress presidents after Dhebar, including Indira Gandhi herself. The last of the line in Nehru's time was K. Kamaraj, who masterminded Lal Bahadur Shastri's succession to Nehru and Indira's to Shastri. Kamaraj's successor, S Nijalingappa, though at loggerheads with the prime minister, continued to head the party right up to the Congress split of 1969. Afterwards, Jagjivan Ram and Shankar Dayal Sharma served as Congress presidents, with prime minister Indira Gandhi reigning supreme. Even during the Emergency Dev Kanta Borooah held the top party post. Things changed radically and for the worse during her second innings.

Admittedly, the situation did become complicated because of Sonia Gandhi's decision in 2004 not to accept the office of prime minister. She is, however, the repository of power both in the party and the government and is seen to be so. She is what the Chinese would call the paramount leader. The question therefore is simple: if she can retain her overriding power with someone else as prime minister, why can't she do so also other trusted party man or woman, as Congress president, too?

If this doesn't happen, India would earn permanently the dubious distinction of being the world's largest democracy that is propped by a clutch of political parties totally bereft of democracy within them.   


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Inder Malhotra