Madhuri Santanam Sondhi & Dr Vivekananda L Sondhi
The Congress Party as leader of India’s national movement was one umbrella organisation sheltering several political viewpoints sharing the common goal of ousting British rule. On the eve of Independence Mahatma Gandhi memorably advised that since the Congress had fulfilled the task for which it had been constituted, it should be dissolved and reconstituted into at least two parties—one could imagine a more conservative wing led by Sardar Patel and a socialistic party led by Jawaharlal Nehru. That would have given Indian democracy a healthy two-party system to start with, with both parties inheriting traditions of strong nationalism and service.
Whether or not it was a practical idea is hard to say, especially from our current viewpoint of the drift into regionalism, casteism etc, but it certainly pointed to a fundamental flaw in retaining a composite party, no longer bound together by an inspiring common goal. This cumbrous body, representing a range of conflicting interests, was sought to be disciplined by a common ideology of secularism, democracy and socialistic development, but degenerated over time into an agglomerate of power-seeking factions, families and individuals.
To blame the Congress Party and its coalition successor the UPA for everything that has gone wrong in this country would not be entirely off the mark, not only because it is they who have governed this country almost continuously, with a few exceptional periods, since Independence, but because they have in the process instituted a political culture which has infected nearly all other parties. In this article I will concentrate on perhaps just two anti-democratic practices generated by the Grand Old Party of India’s Independence struggle which are gaining legitimacy and spreading throughout the whole body politic.
Familism & Dynasticism
The first glaring contradiction of the democratic spirit is the endorsement of familism, which appears to be entrenched at the centre as dynasticism. The Congress has put in place a system of family succession for its crucial posts of party president and Prime Minister, creating a curious hybrid of pre-revolutionary monarchy and electoral democracy. The rot started prior to independence when in 1929 at Lahore, Motilal Nehru persuaded Mahatma Gandhi to anoint Jawaharlal as president of the party in place of Sardar Patel, the choice of the Congress Working Committee. Nehru, who is memorialised as the great founder of Indian democracy, himself appointed his daughter Indira president of the Congress Party, sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit president of the UN General Assembly (after various prestigious diplomatic postings as with other members of his family). This precedent of nepotism legitimated what became known as the ‘bhai-bhathija raj’. After Nehru’s passing the Congress Working Committee selected Indira as Prime Minister, i.e., took the first step in democratically establishing dynasticism. They did so not on the merits of her case, but to keep contender Morarji Desai out, hoping that her Nehruvian lineage would win public support, and also, on their own confession, that she would be a pliable tool in their hands. Thus they also initiated puppet politics – that their choice boomeranged on them is another matter. In an all-India competition for applying for manufacturing India’s proposed small car, Indira (through a subservient committee) favoured son Sanjay, a foreign-trained car mechanic, for the venture (which never got off the drawing board in his lifetime). Soon after she conducted the biggest assault on the democratic system by establishing Emergency rule for a year and a half, but fate intervened to prevent her taking the next step of appointing Sanjay her political successor.
The dynasty continued however, not least with the help of the anti-Sikh riots in the wake of her assassination, adding a new element of goondaism at the Centre (it had been rampant in state elections for sometime) and son Rajiv, ex-Indian Airlines pilot and MP, became PM during that confusion – soon to be democratically elected by a massive sympathy wave. Rajiv became a victim of his own Sri Lankan policy and the country, by now brainwashed into the idea that the Nehru-Gandhis are the natural rulers of India, was ready to welcome his widow as successor. That she refrained from openly entering politics enabled a decade’s interlude when a few non-dynasts became PMs – most notably Narasimha Rao from the Congress and Atal Bihari Vajpayee from the BJP. Then Sonia Gandhi was ready to take up the fallen mantle, if only by remote control. If today’s rumour mills are to be believed power will soon transfer to Rahul, although some Congressmen pine for Priyanka. The Nehru-Gandhi aura is enhanced of course by the multitude of governmental public welfare schemes named after members of the family creating the illusion that they are the only caring benefactors of India’s poor and backward.
Dynasticism in Asia and
To put things in perspective, none of the Asian democracies seem to be totally immune from dynasticism. Today Lee Kwan Yew’s family is entrenched in power in Singapore, Bhutto/Zardari in Pakistan, Yingluck Shinawatra in Thailand (sister of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra), President Benigno Aquino (son of Corazon) of the Philippines; in Japan the LDP and its offshoots are populated with hereditary politicians. As Mark Thompson points out in a recent article in Asian Affairs, “dynasticism ‘works’ in modern political systems because it appeals to notions of inherited charisma that help legitimise leadership succession and minimise organisational division …Dynasties provide key advantages in a context of weak institutions or institutional decay”. In the Indian context, whether dynasties cause institutional decay or institutional decay leads to ‘dynastic solutions’ is only of academic interest: what is more noteworthy is the spread of dynasticism beyond the Congress to virtually all parties and movements in varying degrees. Even those borne of ideological movements like the Akali Dal and DMK are now family enterprises, and the Samajwadi Dal has further lowered standards, perhaps copying the Singapore model, where the father, at the height of his political power, passed on the crown to his son to ensure political succession. There is no doubt a sociological cum historical explanation for this in terms of received Indian or Asian social structures, but adoption of modern democratic constitutionalism based on a theory of equal citizenship entails rejection of inherited caste, family, community and other such institutions, especially by the political elites.
It is still important to ask what is wrong with dynasticism when the phenomenon occurs within the rules of electoral politics. Indeed, as with Indira’s justification of the choice of Sanjay for manufacturing India’s small car, in a free and open society should not family and relatives as bonafide Indian citizens also have a right to compete and win? On merit of course, the answer is yes, but not when the jury is packed with courtiers and yes-men.
Moreover a monarchy is not only a matter of succession, but of palace politics and manners. The Italian political philosopher Mauricio Viroli suggests that in quasi-royal courts the liberty of party men is comparable to the liberty of servants. The Congress political dynastic culture subordinates ideology, competition, ideas and service of the republic to the courtly culture of keeping the immediate dynast in good humour while increasing personal wealth and power. Published extracts from Arjun Singh’s forthcoming memoirs criticising Narasimha Rao for articulating what anyone with an iota of integrity should have said at the time of Rajiv’s assassination, “On hearing our suggestion (of offering the post of party president to Sonia), Rao kept quiet for a few minutes with a grave expression on his face. Suddenly, he burst out in anger and virtually yelled out words to the effect that whether it was essential that the Congress Party should be treated like a train where the compartments have to be attached to an engine belonging to the Nehru-Gandhi family, or were there alternatives? I was dumbfounded by Rao's outburst but kept quiet.” According to Singh Rao at once realised his mistake in having spoken too much and too soon and clammed up.
Patrick French’s analyses shows that dynasticism in India has become systemic: all members of the Lok Sabha below the age of 30 are hereditary MP’s, and overall 37 per cent of Congress MPs are dynasts where the percentage for BJP is less than half. French does not give us the data for other parties, but we can conjecture that the percentages are generally closer to those of the Congress than the BJP.
One fatal outcome of this phenomenon is that perceptions gain ground that public life has to do with family connections and/or qualities associated with servitude rather than integrity or intelligence or a desire to serve the nation, so the country risks losing all talented people to private vocations to the detriment of our democracy and governance.
Need for Inner Party Democracy
The answer of course lies in strengthening, and in many cases introducing, inner party democracy. If the ground rules for success within parties and for selection of electoral candidates are transparent and democratic, then we will not only reverse the dynastic trend but also reduce the influence of vested interests and corrupt practices like sale of party tickets that are afflicting the political system. The next parliament could make a start by introducing and passing a bill on the lines of the excellent recommendations of the 170th law commission, which noted , “Whether by design or by omission, our Constitution does not provide for the Constitution and working of political parties, though they are at the heart of a parliamentary democracy. A parliamentary democracy without political parties is inconceivable.
Yet, the Constitution does not even speak of political parties”. A new law will perhaps only set norms which could be circumvented or disregarded as is the case with laws in place. It perhaps falls upon BJP to lead the way. Speaking at a Bharatiya Vikas Parishad seminar on electoral reforms in Guwahati in 2010 Shri K.Sudarshan had suggested that the selection committee for any election should give primacy to state council/panchayat level members in both the choice of and amongst candidates by inviting each member to propose names of three candidates via secret ballot where the candidate drawing the maximum number of proposals would be the BJP candidate for the parliament/assembly seats. However, he emphasized that any candidate should have sufficient knowledge about economics, governance, India’s culture and society and proven integrity and character. With important state and Lok Sabha elections due in the next two years, the time for implementation of measures to further improve inner party democracy is now.
(Smt Madhuri Santanam Sondhi is an expert on international diplomacy and Dr Vivekananda L Sondhi is A Financial Consultant with Russell & Co. in London).