Congress Must Move Away From Hero Worship And Towards Intra-Party Democracy

The leadership crisis in Congress is symptomatic of a larger malady within Indian democracy where dissent is not tolerated.

Born often out of superstition or out of historic, religious and cultural processes, most societies cling on to symbols and totems that are of special spiritual or personal significance much like the ‘fertility totems’ of indigenous people. All of them have some origins and associations with natural phenomenons, hoary rituals or ancestry.

For the Congress it’s ancestry – the Nehru-Gandhi family is its totem. Over the years successive coteries of courtiers and sycophants have cast a spell of voodoo magic on Congress workers down the line, with those closest to the Gandhis dancing around the ‘Gandhi totem pole’.

The majority of these minions and hangers-on derived their power through the family and the Gandhi talisman was necessary for their own survival and for keeping the party together. They stood to gain by perpetuating the myth. Implicit in this act of worship was the message that discarding their lucky charm would spell doom for the party. And the ruling family readily embraced the idea.

Now Rahul Gandhi has resigned. And the devotees are utterly bereft, like the faithful who feel orphaned when their godman or cult leader is whisked away from the ashram and put away in jail for crimes that they believed only ordinary mortals like themselves could commit.

Rahul Gandhi did the right and the courageous thing by standing firm and not yielding to emotional pressures to return to the kind of cult that Congress dynastic rule had morphed into. He has set an example by accepting electoral defeat and holding himself accountable and has walked away. And he has walked away tall.

Therein lies the central message for India’s grand old party— there is, or should be, no place for hero worship. No one, not even the ‘superhero’ is exempt from being held to account. A few years ago Rahul Gandhi had tried to galvanise the party bottom-up from the grassroots, trying to usher in a new era of politics through organisational elections across the country, but it excluded himself. That rule also did not apply to his mother Sonia Gandhi or members of the top coterie which had surrounded them, the ones who had come to acquire extra-constitutional authority in the party and government during Congress’s rule over the years.

The elections acted as a clarion call. The sentiment was increasingly reflective of the fact that yes, all were equal, but some were more equal than others. This now bordered on the comic, sounded hollow and Rahul’s attempts to enforce a sense of equality fizzled out.

Also read: It’s Time to Let Rahul Gandhi Go

Yes, he should have quit earlier but it’s never too late. It’s not easy to simply walk away from the throne. The fawning disciples make it impossible. It has to be admired he’s done it now and he is resolute. Rahul ‘s detailed letter is a good starting point. Clean up the deadwood, through genuine organisational elections.

Breathe in fresh blood and ideas by attracting people who genuinely believe in the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Sardar Patel and other stalwarts. It will be a long haul and an arduous task, but it is the only way to save Congress which is necessary for a robust democracy when there’s hardly any opposition to count on. Just as a vibrant opposition to Congress was the need after Independence.

The Congress party rank and file do not have to go far to take lessons — they just need to look at the party’s own illustrious history of over 134 years. Many eminent people who were titans of their time, including foreigners, have been presidents of the party. Gokhale, Mahatma Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, Chittaranjan Das, Maulana Azad, Madam Mohan Malaviya, Lala Lajpat Rai, Annie Besant, Subhas Chandra Bose, Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel are just a few names of those who led the party.

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's death has been proved conclusively with evidence in Ashis Ray's book, Laid to Rest. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was a rank outsider when he contested and won the election to the Congress leadership in 1938 and 1939. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

From its very inception, the party believed in genuine democracy, diversity and plurality of ideas and religions. That explains why it attracted so many luminaries and had such a huge following among the masses. Subhas Chandra Bose contested and won the presidential elections in 1938 and in 1939 when Mahatma Gandhi openly lobbied and worked hard to defeat Bose. Then, Purushottam Tandon, in 1949, backed by Sardar Patel won the election to become president even as Nehru opposed his nomination. This was the time when Nehru was prime minister and Patel the home minister.

Gopal Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson had this to say in his op-ed in the Hindu:

“In that election (of Bose) and its aftermath lies another lesson for today’s Congress. The party’s new President should be elected as ‘grandly’ as Netaji was but she or he should not be treated as Netaji was, by the Gandhi-loyal Working Committee of the day. The new President should be left completely free to form the Working Committee, from out of persons whose service-mindedness not boss-mindfulness, is manifest. .. No leader will be found if the attempt is to find a dummy, not a leader. A dummy President will make a dummy of the party.”

Suhas Palshikar, political analyst and co-director of the Lokniti programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, has said that even though Jawaharlal Nehru was a towering figure in the Congress, his decisions involved and included compromises. “Nehru allowed plurality of leaders. It was only after Indira came that dynasty took root in the Congress and the mantle was passed on to Rajiv,” Palshikar said.

Nehru, a historian himself, was not unaware of the dictatorial tendencies lurking inside him and the dangers of such a trait. He was the Congress president for nine terms and held that post even when he was the prime minister from 1950 to 1954 with vast powers vested in one man – himself.

Also read: Rahul Gandhi Does Not Have the Luxury of Simply Walking Away

Barring Maulana Azad, the tenures of most presidents were restricted to only one or two years. In 1937 when Nehru was elected Congress president for the fourth time, in a surprisingly candid article published in the same year in Modern Review and written under the pseudonym ‘Chanakya’ – unable, probably, to resist the temptations of power but yet troubled by it – he self deprecatingly, said:

“From the far North to the Cape Camorin in the South he has gone like some triumphant Caesar passing by, leaving a trail of glory and a legend behind him. And yet he has all the makings of a dictator in him.  … Caesarism is always at the door, and is it not possible that Jawaharlal might fancy himself a Caesar?”

It’s the obligation of the committed Congress party workers who cherish and believe in its great values, traditions and sacrifices to introspect and set about in earnest to rebuild the party. The Gandhi family, who are ridiculed and accused of practising dynastic politics cannot and ought not to be expected to set their house in order.

The crushing defeat in the recent parliamentary elections must be welcomed as a blessing in disguise by the Congress. They should take comfort in the fact that none of the other parties in the country have any semblance of genuine internal democracies, including the BJP, and the Congress’s history shows that the seeds of decline and degeneration were sown when the party adopted a dictatorial role.

File picture of Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

No party in the country holds elections through a secret ballot for any post in the party at any level as was done in the Congress since it was founded and for a few years after independence during Nehru’s tenure.

The legislature party leaders who are chosen by the party to be appointed as chief ministers or the prime minister are never elected either, and not just by the Congress. The BJP claims it does not promote dynastic rule but that does not mean it has internal party democracy.

Decisions are taken behind closed doors in party offices and five-star hotels and resorts and multiple power centres including the supposedly apolitical RSS, flex their muscles to appoint the president or leader of the party who then are known to wield power till they are ousted in various inscrutable and non-transparent ways.

The regional parties are worse and are led by erratic megalomaniacs, who resemble many tinpot dictators of third world countries. A few of these regional parties are also brazenly dynastic.

Also read: Dear Congress, Show Loyalty to Your Country Over a Family

We have a curious paradox. All parties when in opposition demand free and fair elections and swear by democracy, but strangely none of them care for intra-party democracy. Can we have true democracy in the country without genuine democracy within parties?

Democracy, in that respect, is modern and scientific. Yes, it’s messed up, but an admission of ignorance, that no one has the perfect answer is important because progress is possible only when there’s freedom of thought.

When asked why scientists can’t solve societal problems, physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman very eloquently said, “If we take everything into account – not only what the ancients knew, but all of what we know today that they didn’t know – then I think we must frankly admit that we do not know”. The leaders should sometimes admit that they do not know.

But increasingly, both at the state and Centre, no party in India encourages debate or tolerates dissent. “Difference of opinion is the one crime which kings never forgive,” said Emerson. Such a state of affairs does not bode well for the progress of either the state or any party in the long term.

In the prevailing political culture, the pervading absence of any ethics and total degeneration – which was also the cause of the downfall of Congress – is, in fact, an opportune time for new leadership to emerge, from within the Congress, to slowly and steadfastly rebuild an organisation on the ideals that great leaders like Gokhale, Gandhi, Bose, Nehru, Patel and others exemplified, because it will be sure to rise again to shape the destiny of the country. It will not be without challenges or difficulties, but it will be a worthy effort.

Captain G.R. Gopinath is an author, politician and entrepreneur who founded Air Deccan.