“PARLIAMENTARY government, as it is understood in the UK, works by the interaction of four essential factors: the principle of majority rule; the willingness of the minority for the time being to accept the decisions of the majority; the existence of great political parties divided by broad issues of policy, rather than by sectional interests; and finally the existence of a mobile body of political opinion, owing no permanent allegiance to any party and therefore able, by its instinctive reaction against extravagant movements on one side or the other, to keep the vessel on an even keel. In India none of these factors can be said to exist today,” the British parliament’s joint committee on constitutional reform observed in 1933-34.
These words, as a pretext for denying independence as well as a slur, offended Indians.
Today, it is hard to deny the truth of these observations. India has done remarkably well in many a sphere, yet its one glaring failure lies in the political sphere. It has failed to evolve a vibrant political system in which political parties alternate in occupying power. Instead, the pattern has been one of monolithic power that drives others to forge a coalition, which falls apart shortly after it comes to power.
The party is like a duke in reduced circumstances.
Jawaharlal Nehru governed as prime minister from August 1947 till he died in May 1964. In this moment of trial, Congress leaders failed the nation. The correct procedure was to hold a leadership election. However, none wanted the hated but ambitious Morarji Desai. So Congress president K. Kamaraj met the MPs individually and declared the consensus: Lal Bahadur Shastri.
When he died in January 1966, an election was held for the first time. Indira Gandhi defeated Desai by 355 votes to 169. In the 1967 election, the Congress was re-elected and elected Indira as leader. She appointed Desai as deputy prime minister, but he did not reconcile himself to his defeat.
This came to be known as ‘Congress culture’ — democratic in form but barren of the spirit of democracy. Indira’s opponents selected a president who would checkmate her as prime minister She split the party and her faction swept the polls in 1971. She ruled autocratically till 1977. To defeat this monolith, the opposition parties united in a bid for power — only to break up in ego.
Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980. On her assassination in 1984, her son Rajiv presided over a corrupt, authoritarian regime. Once again, a coalition of egos united to oust him, only to fall apart.
This pattern continues. A monolith opposed by a conglomeration whose leaders cannot unite. A naked contest for power on both sides, with one difference — the monolith is led by a strong leader; the conglomerate is a house divided by a clash of egos. Certain features stand out. There is no internal democratic working in any political party. Cabals rule them all.
The BJP, the political front of the RSS, came to power under Atal Behari Vajpayee, a liberal. It lost the 2004 election to a Congress-led coalition that ruled till 2014. As prime minister, Manmohan Singh won international and domestic acclaim. But his second term was torn apart by internal conflict, corruption and Sonia Gandhi’s baleful influence as Congress president.
The situation changed in 2014. The BJP returned to power, but under the leadership of autocrat Narendra Modi. He consigned the old guard to the shelf, starting with L.K. Advani, who had opposed Modi’s claim to be prime minister. He foisted his henchman of Gujarat days, Amit Shah, upon the party as its president.
There is none to challenge it. The Congress is like a duke in reduced circumstances. Its president no longer commands the respect she once did. Imitating Indira, Sonia promoted her son Rahul.
Three of the tallest leaders in the Congress have demanded ‘reforms’, specifically elections to the party’s committees and posts, including president. The chickens have come home to roost. The ‘strong’ leader no longer commands the respect she once did. Leaders are only followed so long as they can get the party elected and provide jobs for the minions.
Sonia Gandhi has two fatal defects — her anointed heir is not respected or liked. And she has no contribution to make to ideology or programmes. Worse, she has reduced Congress to the level of a B-team of the BJP. Sonia and Rahul ostentatiously pay obeisance at temples, devotion neither revealed till recently. On Ayodhya, Kashmir and like issues, the Congress supports the BJP. Designed to compete for the Hindu vote, this cheap stratagem has done the Congress no good. It is in a stage of decline.
Yet it would be tragic and dangerous for India’s democracy if the Congress were to pass into oblivion. India needs a powerful opposition to the Modi government’s arbitrary and rabidly communal ways.
The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai.
Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2020