As Letter to Sonia Gandhi Causes Upheaval, a Look at Congress's Muddy Internal Democracy

The last few elections to choose a person to lead the party have either been messy or a mere facade to appoint a member of the Gandhi family.

New Delhi: The leadership debate in the Congress has virtually split the party down the middle. While a large number of senior leaders, in a letter to Sonia Gandhi, have expressed their grievances with the interim nature of the party leadership, most state-level leaders have rushed to show their support to Sonia Gandhi, almost in a synchronised fashion. Then there are others who have carefully adopted a “wait and watch” stance before making their preference clear.

With Sonia Gandhi making it clear that she will most definitely resign and hand over the mantle to the Congress Working Committee (CWC) to decide who her successor in the party president’s position will be, talks about an imminent intra-party election are doing the rounds. While Shashi Tharoor has been publicly supporting the idea of an election to choose a new leader, many other signatories of the letter, expressing the desire for a democratic overhaul of the party, are also not averse to the idea.

An intra-party election, however, is easier said than done in the Congress. Even if the party goes in for an election to choose a new party president, the democratic overhaul that the rebel leaders are talking about would be a much larger exercise, and can’t be restrained to a mere replacement at the top level. The last few elections within the party have either been messy or a mere facade to appoint a member of the Gandhi family to lead the party.

The Congress constitution, in fact, talks about a large electoral process for its decision-making bodies. It says that the CWC should constitute 20 members out of which 10 should be elected. The CWC, in turn, should be elected by the AICC, whose members too are supposed to be elected by the Pradesh Congress Committees (PCC). The party constitution ensures that the PCCs, too, should be elected by district committees consisting of active members of the party. Despite its constitution advocating such a robust system of democratic representation, the party has almost always failed to adhere to the system as its top leaders have found ways to subvert the intra-party elections from time to time.

Sonia Gandhi has now become the longest-serving Congress president in its more than 130-year-old history. Her elevation to the post of party president in 1998 is reflective of the way elections are manipulated in the party. Sitaram Kesri held the reigns of the party from 1996-1998. However, after the party lost the general elections in 1996 under his leadership, leaders loyal to the Gandhi family started planning a coup. In the winter of 1997, Sonia Gandhi, who until then had dodged all efforts by “loyalists” to lead the party, announced her plan to campaign for the upcoming general elections.

Also Read: The Gandhi Family Will Have a Hard Time Quelling Resistance Within the Congress

A constitutional coup

She joined the party in December 1997 at the Calcutta plenary session and held her first rally in Tamil Nadu, where her husband Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. Immediately after this, the call for Gandhi to lead the party started getting louder by the day. In March 1998, the then CWC dramatically passed a resolution asking Kesri to step down from his post. Kesri, who wanted to put up a fight, was physically locked in a room at the AICC headquarters to let Sonia Gandhi take over the party. Gandhi, thus, was appointed as the party president in what was a clear case of a constitutional coup.

Before Kesri could have the CWC platform, rebel leaders had gathered to draft the contentious resolution at Pranab Mukherjee’s house and acted swiftly to outmanoeuvre Kesri.

Mukherjee later told the press that Gandhi was the only person to provide leadership to the party at that juncture. In May 1999, her position as the party president was challenged by the trio of Sharad Pawar, Tarique Anwar and P.A. Sangma on the grounds that as a person of foreign origin, she wasn’t fit to become the prime ministerial candidate. When Sonia offered to resign, the CWC worked its way to expel the trio and let her have the top seat.

In 2000, Congress leader Jitendra Prasada challenged Sonia Gandhi in the presidential election. However, the election of Gandhi was predestined as Prasada hardly had any clout in the party; the election became only a democratic facade.

Senior journalist Rasheed Kidwai recalls how the CWC chose Sonia Gandhi to succeed as the party leader immediately after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

“Eighteen CWC members, including four permanent members, and two special invitees, sat cross-legged on a white sheet, reclining on masnads. [P.V. Narasimha] Rao, who was not even a member of the CWC then, was to chair the meet and the place meant for the party president was kept vacant as a mark of respect for Rajiv. Grim-faced K Karunakaran, Arjun Singh, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Balram Jakhar, Meira Kumar, Jagannath Pahadia, Rajendra Kumari Bajpai, HKL Bhagat, Buta Singh, Ram Chandra Vikal, Sitaram Kesri, Sharad Pawar, Pranab Mukherjee, Jitendra Prasada, ML Fotedar, Janardhan Reddy and P Shiv Shankar chose Sonia as party chief — even though Rajiv’s widow was not even a member of the Congress,” he writes.

However, Sonia declined the offer and joined the party formally only in 1997. Narasimha Rao was then offered the role of working president and he continued in the position from 1992 to 1996, before Kesri was chosen by the CWC to lead the party.

Sonia Gandhi, Rahul and Priyanka at Rajiv’s funeral on May 24, 1991. Credit: File photo

Mockery of intra-party democracy

Rao himself made a mockery of the norms for intra-party democracy. Senior journalist V. Krishna Ananth recalled how at the 1992 Tirupati AICC session, he quelled the Arjun Singh-led dissent to re-jig the CWC. “Rao got all elected representatives of the CWC to resign and authorise the Congress president (the post which he held) to choose the CWC members,” Ananth said. Rao had to eventually step down after corruption charges appeared against him, and the rebel leaders made a case that the party president couldn’t be one of a tainted record.

His successor Kesri faced a small challenge from Rajesh Pilot, who threw in his hat for the presidential election. However, Kesri got a majority of the CWC votes and had one of the most controversial tenures as president. The wily politician Kesri followed a similar pattern of curbing democratic norms in the party as his whole tenure was marked by tactics to sideline rebel leaders of the time.

The Congress party has functioned most peacefully under the leadership of Gandhis. Sonia’s tenure from 1998 to 2017, the longest term any party president has had, was marked by relatively few controversies. The possibility of Rahul Gandhi, who hasn’t been kind to the interests of many senior leaders, taking over is what has brought the party to the verge of a split.

Speaking to The Wire, Ananth said, “The current infighting in the Congress has some parallels with the 1969 split, when senior state-level leaders split to form the Congress (Organisation). Indira Gandhi had only a small bunch of young Turks backing her. The split in the Congress can be characterised as Rahul Gandhi versus others. Rahul too has only a few young Turks backing him. No senior leader has come out in the open to support him.”

“Indira Congress won the elections with a great majority, humiliating the Congress (O). She became popular by promising bank nationalisation and abolition of privy purses. The opposition too was only taking shape then. But Rahul Gandhi has a much difficult play at hand, as the Congress has abandoned its support for socialism and seems to be confused about its secular ideal,” he added.

Indira Gandhi. Credit: Public.Resource.Org/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Charged atmosphere

As reports come in, the CWC meeting has already become a stormy affair, with senior leader Kapil Sibal tweeting that Rahul Gandhi has accused those who shot off the letter to Sonia of “colluding with the BJP”. [He later withdrew the tweet after personally being informed by Rahul Gandhi that he did not make such a remark.] Even still, this represents the charged atmosphere in the party and its potential to lead to a split.

However, the root of the problem is the undemocratic ways in which the party has functioned and evolved over the years. A mere change in the party’s leadership may not solve the problems that the Congress party is afflicted by. A true democratic overhaul would need the Congress party to implement its constitutional doctrines in letter and spirit. That would mean electing a functional and powerful AICC to begin with. The AICC alone has the power to dissolve the CWC. By empowering the AICC, the CWC, which has operated as a centralised coterie, can be kept in check.

The formal institutions of the party like the Congress Parliamentary Board, PCCs, District Committees need to be rejuvenated. Only then the CWC can truly represent the party workers. Are any of the camps ready to undertake such a big responsibility? That is the primary question staring at the Congress, irrespective of what may be the outcome of the current crisis.