The Ways of the Indian National Congress
Posted on 1-September-2011
Not many days after the Indian parliamentary election of May 2004 which brought a coalition headed by the Indian National Congress to power at the federal government of India, I was in the audience in a small group to which a prominent Delhi intellectual of India, a professor at one of India's most prestigious universities, was talking about the post-election situation in the country and about the new government. Everyone who was not an astrologer had assumed that Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, the President of the Indian National Congress would become the new Indian Prime Minister. She and Dr. Manmohan Singh had together met the President of India late on a May morning. Before that meeting with the President, Mrs. Gandhi had looked definitely prime ministerial on the television screens, and after the meeting, much less so. In the evening, at a televised meeting of the members of parliament of her party she had said that listening to her inner voice--many have always believed that that inner voice had been prompted by a human agent outside her family circle--she had decided that Dr. Manmohan Singh and not she would the new Prime Minister. She stayed on as President of her political party. That arrangement continues till today. Talking of this arrangement, new at that time, the professor said in her lecture to the group I was sitting in that it was very healthy that after a long time there would be two separate individuals, both powerful, heading the party and the government. After the talk, at question time, I asked her if this arrangement was not unusual compared to other democracies, adding that for example in the UK or the USA the real head of the party in power was the Prime Minister or the President and not the nominal heads. I have ever since regretted not also having mentioned Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, both of whom as Prime Ministers had at different times asserted their authority over the party and its president and prevailed. In reply she said first of all that the UK and the USA were different from us and that their examples were not germane to our situation. Then she added that after all in the Soviet Union the real political authority lay with the head of the Communist Party. I was so surprised to hear this from a top ranking professor who no doubt proclaims her faith in multi-party elections and freedom of political choice whenever and wherever, that I decided not to pursue the argument. A few days later, in a private conversation with someone I had known for a number of years, a former super bureaucrat, a darling of Delhi's lecture circuit and someone close to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, I asked the same question. He also defended the arrangement about this diarchy by citing the case of the Soviet Union. As if to prove these two right about example of the Soviet Union, it did not take long for the diarchy to become a monarchy: there has been since 2004 a steady accretion of power to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi while Dr. Manmohan Singh has frittered his authority away. The most important centre of political power in the India of 2011 is Mrs. Sonia Gandhi.
The tendency once in a while to impose on the party--and the rest of the country, if the party is in power-- important political decisions taken secretively, conspiratorially by a small number of influential people is another trait that the Indian National Congress shares with the Kremlin of the Soviet Union. On three occasions, this has been most clearly in evidence. Through 1974, Indira Gandhi's government had lurched from crisis to crisis. The economic situation was dismal. Inflation was high and so was the level of discontent among the people. Jayaprakash Narain, a veteran of the freedom struggle, a man who had not held any position in any government nor was seeking any office and therefore could not easily be dismissed in a country which has always held renouncers in great esteem, had started a movement against corruption and was gaining support from people across the country, making things increasingly difficult for the government through the first half of 1975. Against this backdrop came a judgment of Allahabad High Court on 12th June 1975 invalidating Indira Gandhi's election to parliament. This increased her difficulties. She could have as a consequence of the judgment taken the perfectly correct step of resigning as a member of parliament, continuing as prime minister and fighting another election, winning it and returning to parliament within six months. She could have taken the additional, morally correct, decision of resigning as prime minister and returning to that office after re-election. Instead of doing what was legally and morally right, she allowed a secretive group of advisers--exactly who these were in addition to Siddhartha Shankar Ray, then Chief Minister of West Bengal has been a matter of conjecture--to persuade her to hold on to her office by declaring a State of Emergency on the ground that India's internal security was endangered. An advice to the President of India along with a draft decree was sent to the President of India in the evening of 25th June for a compliant President to sign in the dead of the night. The Cabinet, the highest political authority of the country was informed only afterwards. No one protested, no one resigned. Within days, everyone in the government and Indian National Congress became a cheer leader for what an American journalist with long experience of India, whom I knew, always scornfully called Mrs. Gandhi's coup d'état.
On 31st October,1984, Indira Gandhi was gunned down in Delhi by her bodyguards. At that time, her son Rajiv Gandhi, a general secretary of the Indian National Congress, was travelling in West Bengal. When he returned to Delhi, a small cabal of people close to him, not all government ministers, worked in the shadows to make him Prime Minister. They asked the President of India to swear him in that day itself as Prime Minister and the President of India obliged. It is after that that he went through the motion of getting the endorsement of the members of parliament of his party. There had been two other earlier transitions in the office of Prime Minister on the death of an incumbent, both with the Congress being in power in Delhi. When Jawaharlal Nehru died in May 1964, his cabinet colleagues quickly agreed that the Home Minister, Gulzarilal Nanda, should take over as acting Prime Minister while the party's members of parliament took more than two weeks to agree on Lal Bahadur. Exactly the same procedure was followed when Lal Bahadur died suddenly on 11th January 1966 in Tashkent. Gulzarilal Nanda, still Home Minister of India, acted as Prime Minister till, seventeen or eighteen days later, Indira Gandhi duly chosen by her party's members of parliament, took over. It is not known if after Rajiv Gandhi's endorsement by his party in parliament any of the senior members of the government winced in public or in private. One of Indira Gandhi's ministers who could easily have become at least an interim Prime Minister on the day of her assassination was exiled from Rajiv Gandhi's durbar. Soon the entire Indian National Congress, very large sections of the bureaucracy, various kinds of company managers, advertisers who wanted to properly package and sell the new Prime Minister and sundry other English knowing city folk became his cheer leaders. He could have gone on thus, with no one in his party to challenge his authority, were it not for a bribery scandal that sunk him, a scandal with which his name will for ever be associated.
At the beginning of August this year it was made known that Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, the President of the Indian National Congress, accompanied by her son, daughter and son-in-law had gone abroad for medical treatment. The public was told neither of the place of treatment nor of the nature of her illness, though, through non-Indian media both became known widely very soon. Much ink and paper was wasted in India by journalists arguing that because of her importance in India's political life the public had a right to know what she was suffering from and where she had gone. It did not occur to these worthies that since she held no position in government, there was no way in which her absence could affect the functioning of government, unless it was assumed that government ministers were a bunch of children who felt lost when the nanny or mummy was away. Besides, these men and women owed it to Mrs. Gandhi to respect her desire for privacy in matters as personal as her ailment and its treatment. In contrast, demurrals in the news media were muted when it was made known that Mrs. Gandhi had named a committee comprising her son Rahul Gandhi, Defence Minister A.K. Anthony, party spokesman Janardan Dvivedi and political secretary Ahmad Patel to look after the affairs of the party during her absence. This was of great national importance because the head of the Indian National Congress which is the dominant partner in the majority coalition in parliament is in a position to decide who will run Government of India, just as the Communist Party Presidium did in the Soviet Union, except that the Presidium of the Soviet Communist Party was always a multi-member body which did not mechanically accept the diktat of the Secretary General before and after Stalin, while the Presidium of the Indian National Congress has become a one-member body. It is difficult to understand why Mrs. Sonia Gandhi did not simply ask the Working Committee of the party, its highest decision making body, to name someone to take her place during her absence and let someone, on the promptings her political secretary for example, propose the name of Rahul Gandhi. The Working Committee would have accepted the proposal by acclamation. Cosmetically at least, the decision would have been that of the party. If any of the senior most five ministers in the government, also among the senior most members of the party, whose average age would on a rough calculation be 72 years had any reservations about the appointment of this four-member committee, they must have hummed them while taking their showers. These five men who collectively have an average of eighteen years of life left--in the case of this government which measures its performance only in terms of aggregates like the GDP and averages like the rate of growth of the economy it should not sound inapt to talk in terms only of average age and average number of years of life left of its ministers--obviously prefer as many more years as possible of pelf and power over living the remaining years of their lives in honourable retirement, comfortable in their skins, engaged in a number of possible worthwhile and life-enriching activities outside government and politics. At the present moment, if Mrs. Gandhi wished, she could easily become president of the Indian National Congress for life--the Indian National Congress has been hailing her for some time as its longest serving president. Likewise the party would endorse Rahul Gandhi for prime ministership whenever he and his mother wanted it. In fact this has been the state of the the party since 1975, except for a brief interregnum between 1991 and 1997. It is sobering to think that had it not been for an aircrash in June 1980, one of modern India's most unsavoury politicians would have become its Prime Minister with the full approval of the Indian National Congress, manufactured crowds cheering and sections of the intelligentsia inventing arguments to defend his worst misdeeds. That would have given the country a real taste of fascism.
On 25th August, when the Government of India was trying desperately to get out of a corner it had painted itself into through a debate in parliament which the Prime minister had promised the previous day, Rahul Gandhi, member of Lok Sabha, general secretary of the Indian National Congress, a member of the quadrumvirate in charge of the affairs of the party and son of Sonia Gandhi, all those in ascending order of importance, decided to make an intervention in the Lok Sabha at midday, forcing those whose business it was to enforce the rules of procedure of the House to bend them. He made a fifteen minute long statement in a naked exercise of image projection. He said that the level of debate about a law to establish an Indian ombudsman needed to be raised, the ombudsman should be set up through a provision in the constitution--thus requiring a constitutional amendment which would just not be possible in the present parliament without the cooperation of opposition parties--which was seen as a not too subtle attempt to derail the process of enacting a simple law establishing the ombudsman, and then he issued a warning against the danger of crowds being used by different elements and thus endangering democracy, which was an attempt at discrediting a mass movement against corruption in government across the country since 16th August which the Government of India had till then handled exceptionally ineptly. Rahul Gandhi's intervention that day put the backs of the opposition parties in Lok Sabha up at a time when the government needed their cooperation. It raised at least two other questions. One is about the political maturity of the man and of the young, rich and rootless members of parliament who cluster around him. The other is about his respect for the institution of the Lok Sabha. It is difficult to feel at ease with the prospect of such a man becoming the Prime Minister of the country. He has shown himself capable of bending any convention or law, even the constitution to suit his interests--after all his grandmother assisted by his uncle did precisely that in June 1975.
From 16th to 28th August, thousands of people across the country sat or marched peacefully in support of an anti-corruption campaign led by Anna Hazare, a social worker from Maharashtra. Much as the government tried to discredit or wish away the movement, the numbers supporting it kept increasing. In this period, journalists and pundits who make regular peacock like appearances on television channels wrote and spoke a great deal of nonsense and, only occasionally, some sense. One group said that crowds asking for particular pieces of legislation were in effect challenging the authority of parliament which and which alone is empowered by the constitution to make laws. This group was either ignorant of history or their history tutors had never told them of the many mass movements in West Europe and the USA in the twentieth century which forced reluctant legislatures and governments into enacting a number of progressive laws, changing course in foreign or defence policy or accepting altogether salutary changes in society and its moeurs. Another group talked of the dangers to democracy posed by demagogues mobilising crowds. Some among such people taking the standard line of the Indian National Congress, were obviously pointing at the danger of Hindu crowds being mobilised. That danger can be dismissed as non-existent because neither the Bharatiya Janata Party, nor the Vishva Hindu Parishad nor the Rashtriya Svayam Sevak Sangha has been able to sustain any movement in the name of Hinduism for any length of time. Other glib talkers drew facile parallels with the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco on the back of large crowds and say such mass mobilisation carried the seeds of fascism and authoritarianism. Someone needed to tell them that arousing the sentiments of large crowds was only one quarter of the story about the rise of Nazism and Fascism. Drawing such parallels can only be the work of an illiterate. Another history lesson that such people needed was that similar circumstances in different places separated by space and time rarely produced the same outcomes. The only general rule of history is that there is no general rule about determining the forces that drive different processes.
As for fears about the rise of fascistic authoritarianism in India, it will most likely arise when it does if established governments take to using force for the suppression of popular discontent with misgovernance and its various facets. There is at the moment, across the country, widespread popular discontent and anger against government visible and audible to anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear. An arrogant and rotten government in Delhi neither sees nor hears the anger and the discontent, being far too preoccupied with propaganda, political tactics and manoeuvres for covering up its misdeeds. At different times, the Indian National Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Marxist Communist Party have all shown themselves capable of using force to suppress discontent. Authoritarianism could also come through the Soviet like functioning of established political parties, and one political party seems to have made that style its own, even improved upon it. These are the dangers to democracy in India and not mass movements in support of legitimate causes. India's political establishment, with the Indian National Congress in the lead, and sections of Indian intelligentsia do not seem to understand this.