The Congress party faces the risk of ruining its internal democratic structures.
Time and again, the Congress — which has been primarily functioning under the aegis of the Nehru-Gandhi family since 1978, except for a brief period from 1991-1998 — has been criticised and mocked for being a family-run affair. But even under dynastic rule, there have been sufficient number of formal and informal democratic structures within the party. And the Congress’ dynastic presidents have traditionally considered party members’ views, discussed issues and aired differences.
The erosion of its collective decision-making in the face of unilateral and often bulldozing methods does not bode well for the Congress, especially since the change is taking place at a time when Indian politics is witnessing a transformation.
Rahul rocks the boat
Despite the Congress’ nature of gravitating around the Nehru-Gandhi family, its leaders have respected the institutional decision-making bodies, such as the Congress Working Committee (CWC) and the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP).
The CWC is the party’s highest policy-making body, which has wide representation as its members are from the All-India Congress Committee. The CPP is a group of Congress Parliamentarians who meet periodically to deliberate on legislation, House agenda, etc. Earlier, CWC and CPP frequently conducted meetings and every MP and member had a say in the sessions. Prolonged discussions on bills, ordinances and other measures too were common at these platforms. The party also has an informal mechanism in the Congress Core Group, which came into prominence from 2004 onward because the country’s prime minister and Congress president were two different people. The Core Group therefore is a coordinating committee between the government and the party. The Congress president and political secretary represent the party while the prime minister, finance minister, defence minister, home minister and Congress members represent the government.
Senior party leader Makhanlal Fotedar recalls that while Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi have often been described as authoritarian, both the leaders encouraged discussions at the CPP. Current Congress president Sonia Gandhi too has operated through the CWC and through the informal and unofficial Congress Core Group in the last 15 years of her presidency. Even if a decision is first made by the Core Group, as was the case with the Telangana decision last year, it is formally approved by the CWC.
Congress insiders say this command structure has been disturbed by the arrival of Rahul Gandhi on the scene as the party’s vice-president. Rahul, who is being pitched as a future prime ministerial candidate for the Congress, does not operate through existing communication channels. Rahul is not a member of the Core Group, but doesn’t hesitate in bypassing the informal body or even the formal CWC. In that, he literally deals with the government on his own terms. For instance, in 2010 Rahul directly approached prime minister Manmohan Singh and home minister P. Chidambaram to save his friend Omar Abdullah from being dislodged as the chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir in the wake of the aggressive street protests and agitations in the state that summer.
In the case of the Land Acquisition Bill, Rahul constantly monitored the progress and received direct updates from rural development minister Jairam Ramesh; the bill was eventually passed in August 2013. The next month, he hijacked party spokesperson Ajay Maken’s press conference on the controversial ordinance preventing the disqualification of convicted MPs and MLAs. That Rahul didn’t wait to approach PM Singh, who was attending a UN meet in New York at the time, before tearing up the ordinance document in front of the media displayed his brazenness. Ironically, the Congress was in favour of the ordinance, — described by Rahul as “absolute nonsense” — which eventually came to a naught. Earlier this week, the 43-year-old scion once again put Congress leaders on the spot when he said that the Maharashtra assembly should reconsider the Adarsh Commission report.
Senior Congress leaders trace Rahul’s outbursts to a lack of forums within the party. The CWC is a constitutionally-approved forum, but it has lost to the Core Group and rarely meets. In the meantime, Rahul’s undemocratic and bulldozing ways, which stand out in sharp contrast to that of the party’s most powerful leader, Indira Gandhi, is unnerving the old guard in the Congress.
A new power structure emerges
Amid the dual power centre, wherein Sonia and PM Singh were perceived as final arbitrators, Rahul’s defiance has placed him above the two and altered the power equation into a troika. The party cadre and office bearers see him empowered enough to overturn not only the Congress Core Group’s decisions, but also the Cabinet’s decisions.
It is not surprising then that the gates of 12-Tughlak Lane attract serpentine queues every day. Congress general secretaries and office bearers arrive with mountains of files await their turn in the lawn to meet the Congress vice president. Among the general secretaries is one who has sought an appointment for Rahul’s endorsement of a project involving party men in the central government’s 12 flagship programmes. Even though this general secretary has received an approval from 10-Janpath, he is here because he doesn’t want to risk incurring Rahul’s opposition later.
To prevent just such a quandary, the Congress’ media department, which flags issues and seeks guidance from senior party leaders every morning, has been asked to vet the party’s stance from the vice president’s office as well.
Word of Rahul’s increasing hold on decisions impacted the party’s fortunes in the recently-concluded assembly elections in five states. Even though Rahul had been emphasising on decentralisation of ticket distribution, many Congress members made a beeline outside his office-cum-residence at 12-Tughlak Lane in the hope of getting tickets to contest in the elections. For Rajasthan alone, Rahul selected candidates for 130 of the total 200 seats. “All files were routed to him and all campaign teams sought orders from Tughlak lane,” said a general secretary, without talking about the subsequent disastrous election results.
That sinking feeling
Earlier this week Alka Lamba quit the Congress to join the Aam Aadmi Party. The former Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee general secretary compared the party to a “sinking ship” and said that while Rahul’s style of functioning may be appropriate for a corporate house, it is certainly not apt for a political party.
The old guard at the Congress headquarters is obviously worried about this. Senior leaders admit that Rahul is impatient and inaccessible. “He (Rahul) is not as democratic as his mother is. He also has a shorter attention span,” they concede.
Earlier, the party would turn to Sonia for a final word. Except for the time when she refused to become prime minister, Sonia has rarely gone against the Congress’ tide. “Her style is entirely different. She has been democratic in her functioning,” a senior party leader told dna on condition of anonymity. “She seldom gets angry or rebukes others in meetings. In fact, in the Congress Working Committee or Core Group meetings, she often goes with the majority view even if her personal opinion is in the contrary. She listens to everybody before taking a decision.”
Congress allies too are getting increasingly uncomfortable with Rahul’s behaviour. Some allies, who were keen on having the Congress announce Rahul as a PM candidate ahead of the 2014 general elections, are now a worried lot following his open defiance of Sonia over protecting Congress’ trusted ally Lalu Prasad Yadav, convicted in the fodder scam case. While a majority Congress members are in favour of an alliance with Lalu’s Rashtriya Janata Dal party in Bihar, Rahul recently questioned in a closed-door meeting the chemistry between himself and the convicted leader.
The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) with which the Congress is in an alliance government in Maharasthra too expressed dismay with Rahul’s handling of the controversial ordinance and the Adarsh Commission report. “This is the first time in nine years that this has happened. I hope this doesn’t happen again,” said NCP spokesman DP Tripathi, while referring to Rahul’s interference in nullifying the ordinance to save disqualification of convicted MPs and MLAs.
NCP co-founder and chairperson Sharad Pawar said that the NCP was never against the withdrawal of the ordinance, but the incident highlighted disregard of a larger issue — that the government belongs to the UPA, and not to the Congress alone. “It is the undemocratic nature (of the withdrawal) that we were opposed to,” said Pawar. “In the past as well, we have been insisting on discussing such issues at the UPA coordination committee meetings. But it seems, they don’t even discuss them within their own party.”
NCP’s senior leader and minister Praful Patel said that while he agreed with Rahul’s stand on Adarsh, the Congress needs to make up its mind while taking crucial decisions to avoid making a laughing stock of its leaders.
Laughing stock or not, senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar said the party desperately requires a revamp and so a stint in the Opposition would do the Congress a great deal of good. “When we win elections, they say what is the need for a revamp?” said Aiyar.
Incidentally, Rajiv Gandhi too had promised such a revamp in 1985, but it never materialsed. The question now is if Rahul will rise to the challenge, and if so, how democratic will he be.