Reloading the family matrix


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Like a shopkeeper in an Indian bazaar, it (the Congress) squats with its large, flabby shape in the middle of its wares, the heart of a political market place in which bargaining and dissent are the language of the discourse.

W.H. Morris-Jones, 1966


The party (the Congress) is held together largely by opportunism – by the power, patronage and money that public office can command. No longer an organisation of continuous activity, it has become an electoral machine to be activated periodically for the campaign.

Robert Hardgrave and Stanley Kochanek, 1986


Till a few years ago, critics of the Congress Party would scoff that the Congress is not a political party but an election machine. Now, the Congress seems to have ceased being even that.

A.K. Antony Report, 2000


ONE has to be a Congress buff to have noticed that 14 March 2003 came and went without the AICC establishment acknowledging the importance of the date. Indeed the party has deliberately refused to attribute any significance to the day. This non-acknowledgement is most incongruous in a political party that thrives on an elaborate celebration of the past. For the uninitiated, on 14 March 2003 Sonia Gandhi completed five years as the Congress president; an occasion, by any yardstick, to be remembered and celebrated.

Yet, in a collective conspiracy of silence, the day was allowed to pass off unheralded. Perhaps there hangs a tale. And it is this tale that tells us as much about the organizational culture as also about the great mystery as to why the Congress has not been able to reinvent itself as party that is capable of answering the needs and the yearning of a changed and changing India.

On 14 March 1998 the Sonia Gandhi partisans, let it be recalled, had staged a bloodless coup; the party’s elected president, Sitaram Kesri was thrown out lock, stock and barrel. Sonia Gandhi was proclaimed as the Congress President. It was claimed that the party had been purged of its recently acquired unnaturalness: the usurpers – non-Nehru-Gandhi family leaders, Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri – had been scratched from the escutcheon, and now the leadership had been restored to its natural and only claimants: the Nehru-Gandhi family.

There was much celebration; this stage-managed euphoria notwithstanding, those who participated in this unprecedented conspiracy – the new leader and the her plotters – were mindful of the grand organizational sin they had committed. Each one of them knew that the deposed president had been elected only less than a year ago in a democratically contested election, the first of its kind in more than two decades. The coup had abruptly stopped the party’s gradual rediscovery of democratic ways of conducting its internal affairs. That day the Congress opted to move against the grain of a democratic India.



On 14 March 1998 the legitimacy of the democratic leadership was deemed to be dispensable in favour of the dynastic claims of a family, undoubtedly a remarkably dominant, domineering and demanding family. The family had over the decades weaned a whole generation – in fact, two generations – of Congressmen away from rigours of internal democracy. The 1991-1998 interlude found the party fumbling its ‘liberation’ from the family. Now the family was back with a vengeance.

Sonia Gandhi had no claim to any kind of political apprenticeship and her only qualification for the leadership of the Congress party was that she was married into the Nehru-Gandhi family. On her part, she took up the leadership burden as a kind of noblesse oblige; the rest of the leadership crowd, each with calculations of his/her own, sought to renew faith in one of the most enduring (though a carefully cultivated) political myths in India: the Nehru-Gandhi family is divinely gifted with shamanistic qualities.

From day one, Sonia Gandhi was piled up with the dynasty’s cult of leadership: only a Nehru-Gandhi family person had charisma, only a political legatee of Indira Gandhi could command an all-India appeal, presence and name-recognition, and only a nominee of the Nehru-Gandhi family could restore order among Congressmen, otherwise prone to fractiousness and divisions.

14 March 1998 thus became the defining moment for the relationship between the leadership and the rest of the Congress. Here was the world’s oldest political organization collectively and willingly renouncing democratic principles as the basis of its internal arrangements and, instead, opting for a quintessentially feudal order. Whatever the trappings of subsequent ‘democratic’ electoral exercises, the fundamental nature of the party remains unchanged – a Nehru-Gandhi claimant sitting, unchallenged, at the top. The most natural order of things, with all the embellishments of organizational modernity. For better or for worse, the party would be given no other leadership choice, and its leaders must reconcile to this format. The only alternative to Sonia Gandhi would be her children; you, dear Congressman, are free to exercise your democratic choice between the daughter or the son. The top leadership was not negotiable, nor questionable, nor accountable.



To be fair, Sonia Gandhi’s record since the March 1998 coup has not been all that dismal. It can certainly be argued that her presence at the top has prevented fragmentation of the party. With her as the party’s mascot, the Congress has been able to reclaim its natural political space in state after state, though only those states which operate a two-party system, and today the party can boast of being in power in about fifteen states. These successes at the state level have helped the party assert its national presence in a rather efficacious manner. The party is the natural choice for all those individuals who feel ill at home with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, for instance, Shankersinh Vaghela of Gujarat. After the 1998 assembly elections in Gujarat, Vaghela discovered that there was no room for a third force in the state and that meant that the only realistic choice for him was to merge his outfit with the Congress.



True, the old splinter groups have not come back to the Congress. Take, Mamata Banerjee. Her exit from the Congress in late 1997 was blessed by the ‘10 Janpath’ establishment and her departure was cited as prime evidence of a party on the verge of fragmentation under Sitaram Kesri’s uninspiring and uncharismatic leadership. Even after five years of Sonia Gandhi’s consolidation, Mamata Banerjee refuses to bargain her freedom for the joys of serving a leader from the Nehru-Gandhi stable. Even the old ‘10 Janpath’ faithful, G.K. Moopanar, refused to merge his party, the Tamil Mannila Congress with the parent body; it was only after his death that the depleted TMC cadres decided to experience the joys of ‘home coming’. Nor for that matter have the ‘ex-Congressmen’ of Chandra Shekhar vintage rediscovered the Congress.

On the other hand, the party witnessed a major exodus almost within a year of the Sonia Gandhi coup; three senior leaders – Sharad Pawar, P.A. Sangama, and Tariq Anwar – were forced to leave the party for having the audacity to question Sonia Gandhi’s eligibility (on account of her foreign origin) for the office of prime minister of India. The Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party has since forced the Congress into coalition arrangement in Maharashtra, and has otherwise shown a capacity to hurt the Congress.



Nonetheless, the Congress ‘high command’ – leaders and the cadres – are entitled to a sense of satisfaction, even smugness; the dominant belief at the core of the Sonia Gandhi establishment is that all that the party has to do is to sit tight and wait for the next round of the Lok Sabha elections when anti-incumbency and tiredness with a non-performing NDA should make the voters give the Congress the requisite majority. The AICC brass sees to it that the ‘leaders’ and cadres are kept sufficiently engaged internally with this or that ‘conclave’, ‘retreat’, ‘convention’. The fact that there are 15 Congress chief ministers is often worked up to create a prime ministerial ambience around Sonia Gandhi.

Yet there is an all-round sense of unease, a sense of something amiss, something unreal, something artificial in an otherwise picture-perfect political setting. Hence, the nagging question: Why is the Congress not reinventing itself? Why is the Congress still saddled with the oldies – Arjun Singh, Narain Dutt Tiwari, Karunakaran, Vasant Sathe, Moti Lal Vora, R.K. Dhawan, Mohsina Kidwai? It is a logical and obvious question; any modern political organization should have long been able to weed out the non-functional ‘bosses’ from their hierarchical positions. But outsiders miss the point; these oldies, who for their own selfish reasons prefer to call themselves ‘family loyalists’, constitute the praetorian guard, forever willing to fight the family’s battle the moment someone invokes the democratic principle to question’s leader’s (non)performance. These oldies are useful retainers in a decaying feudal order.

To be fair, the Congress is not the only party that has shown little inclination and experience of reinventing itself. The tradition among political parties in India is that of a dissident/dissatisfied leader walking away, forming a new outfit, rather than staying put and trying to change or capture the party from within. The ‘constitution’ of almost every party provides overwhelming advantage to the incumbent leader/group. The Socialists got around the problem by splitting perennially; later the Janata Party/Janata Dal continued the tradition – a Chandra Shekhar walks out, forms his mini party; Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Prasad Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan, H.D. Deve Gowda, Ajit Singh, all prefer to be big frogs in their own very small ponds.



As far as the Congress is concerned, there have only been two recent occasions for the party to do a bit remulching of leadership slots. The first time was the great split of 1969, when an exodus at the top created vacancies and opportunities for the eager and the ambitious middle cadres. The second occasion came during the Janata Party era, when faced with massive prosecution and persecution, Sanjay Gandhi took charge of the party and reforged it into a fighting force, bringing in new faces and younger, rougher voices.

On both occasions the party reached out to new social groups, gave itself a different ideological profile, and re-marketed its leadership as dynamic, energetic and purposeful. On both occasions the electorate favoured the party with massive mandates. Once again, there is a lurking yearning among the cadres, friends of the party as well as the secular voices, that somehow the Congress will reinvent itself as a pan-Indian political organization, capable of rescuing the polity from the clutches of the BJP/sangh parivar. This yearning is very much at odds with the otherwise picture-perfectness that defines the prevailing mood at the AICC.

And this yearning for ‘reinventing’ has primarily to do with Sonia Gandhi’s all too palpable ‘foreignness’. In this age of mass communication, round-the-clock electronic news channels, the expectation of highly verbalized leadership, Sonia Gandhi is a major public relations embarrassment every time she makes a public appearance. And in this age of heightened and reinvented nationalism, Sonia Gandhi’s foreignness becomes a sore point.

The cultivated standoff with Pakistan, and the post ‘9/11’ animosity towards Islam have made a vast majority of the Indian electorate vulnerable to patriotic/nationalistic/xenophobic appeals and symbols. The middle classes remain unenthusiastic about a leader who remains the ‘outsider’; and, given the communication explosion, this middle class unease about Sonia Gandhi has travelled to the periphery and has seeped into the rural calculus as well.



Most Congress leaders pretend that the ‘foreigner issue’ has dissipated because the party has continued to do well at the state level, while the party’s political opponents are only too happy to allow the issue to linger on, to be tapped and exploited only at the time of national vote. But both the Congress leaders and the Congress’ political opponents remain deeply conscious of the divisive potential of the issue. Yet the mythology of ‘natural order’ within the Congress renders it blasphemous to question this family-centric arrangement in the party.

More than the ‘foreigner issue’, there is an all-round acute awareness that Sonia Gandhi has failed to restore the ‘high command’ to its old glory, when the high command acted wisely, and fairly, inspiring both respect and awe. All the presumed gifts of the Nehru-Gandhi family seem to have eluded Sonia Gandhi. She has so far proved to be a poor vote-catcher, no patch on her mother-in-law, or even on her husband; large chunks of the country – Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal – remain impervious to the family’s charm. Nor has she surprised the cadres or the country with any flash of ‘vision’ or even freshness of approach; outside the party’s cheering-crowd, she has yet to emerge as a symbol of inspiration and hope.

Sonia Gandhi as the High Command does not command the requisite awe: ask K. Karunakaran. (And it is this same Karunakaran who was the first to cast a stone at Sitaram Kesri, demanding that he make way for Sonia Gandhi; today, five years later the old man wants to ‘negotiate’ terms of reconciliation with Sonia Gandhi). Despite all the visible consolidation, she is unable to infuse new blood. The centrepiece of the latest round of ‘reshuffle’ at the AICC is the return of the 76-year old Nawal Kishore Sharma as the general secretary in charge of the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh. What is more, an entire generation of the Indian voters has no recollection of the ‘sacrifices’ made by the Nehru-Gandhi family; the last time a Nehru-Gandhi took oath as prime minister of India was in 1984 but by the time Rajiv Gandhi was voted out, his pedigree no longer impressed anyone.



The Congress thus finds itself having to grapple with an existential dilemma. The Nehru-Gandhi family’s contributions in the past are no longer an asset in an India that has changed so dramatically since 1991; the present nominee of the Nehru-Gandhi family is yet to set the Jamuna on fire because her very political persona hinges not on her leadership attributes but on who her husband and her mother-in-law were. There is a stalemate between the family-centric Congress and the new, changing India; one insists on the validity and relevance of the past, the other does not care for the pretenders and pretences in the name of the past.



The problem, then, can be redefined: the family (and its parasitically dependent durbar) will not let go of its control over the party, and will therefore continue to promote a structured bogusness in the Congress and its ways of thinking and behaviour. The shaman has been found out to be without the gift of witchcraft and yet will not permit the modern medicine man to set up shop. Can then the feudal demands of a family-centric control mechanism be married with the imperatives of a modern political organization in a fast changing and always churning polity? Can the Congress reposition itself in the electoral market as an alternative to the straggling ‘accommodate one accommodate all’ National Democratic Alliance? Given its present family-centric leadership, can the Congress still hope to mesmerize the vast electorate to give the party a chance to restore vitality and resilience to the Indian state order?

The answer is an unambiguous no, both in the short and long term. In the short term, there is little likelihood of Sonia Gandhi overcoming her ‘Indianness’ deficiency; unless the national mood changes dramatically before the next Lok Sabha elections, the voters are likely to remain uneasy about wanting to see her as prime minister of India. The Congress’ political rivals can be relied upon to exploit this dormant unease. The problem, however, goes beyond the next Lok Sabha elections. The family-centric control mechanism has gradually brought about three profound changes, each one of them fundamentally debilitating.

First, the Nehru-Gandhi ‘natural order’ has over the years de-recognised the legitimacy of popular support. No one – no chief minister, no central minister, no parliamentarian, no MLA, no MLC, no sarpanch, no mayor, and no zilla parishad leader – can be deemed to have won a democratic election without the help of the divine charisma of the Leader. Everyone is reduced to a creature of the ‘high command’; be it the veteran Narain Dutt Tiwari or the greenhorn Ajit Jogi, everyone is forced to proclaim himself to be ‘Soniajee’s’ humble servant.



There was a time when the Congress leaders could have a popular base of their own and make do without the leader’s charisma. Electoral success was deemed to independently bestow a halo on the winner. Remember how S.K. Patil was humbled in the 1967 Lok Sabha elections by a young socialist, George Fernandes, but within two years he won a byelection in the summer of 1969 from the Sabarkantha Lok Sabha constituency. The moment the elections results were announced, he could proclaim that he was going to Delhi to rearrange equations. That kind of democratic assertion is no longer permissible.

Consider, for instance: after the Himachal Pradesh vote, it was obvious to one and all that Virbhadhra Singh was the only logical claimant to the chief minister’s post, but the Sonia Gandhi coterie pretended that it could deny Singh the post and if eventually he got the job he had to be demonstratively thankful to Soniajee rather than to the voters in Himachal Pradesh. There is no place in the Congress for someone like a Narendra Modi who can claim to have won on a ‘Modi vote’. This psychology – internally enforced as the working religion – blunts the organizations’ collective egalitarian instincts, thereby rendering it at odds with the masses; leaders and cadres alike spend much energy and resources in preserving and protecting their patch within the party rather than reaching out to the citizens.



Second, this wilful delegitimization of the principle of popular support for anyone other than the Leader makes the Congress an extremely unattractive proposition for the ambitious, the hungry and the angry activist/leader, grounded in any kind of social base structure. This insistence that every leader of any stature survives and prospers only because of the Leader’s indulgence turns the potential Ram Vilas Paswans and the Mayawatis away from the party. It is no wonder that the Congress today cannot claim to have a dalit leader of any standing (though it may have a Harijan chief minister in Maharashtra); or, for that matter, any OBC leader or a Rajput leader.

The Congress is no longer the ‘platform organization’ that was open and hospitable to one and all and knew how to accommodate the ambitious and the aspiring. Its new internal value system has eroded the party’s capacity to attract new forces and individuals. This has reduced the party to a status quoist organization and, hence, a moribund political outfit. Worse, the party’s internal obsession with the feudal control rites render it at odds with its core electoral support structure: the poor, the adivasis, the kisans, the harijans, the original Indira Gandhi constituency.

Third, and this follows as a consequence of the first two propositions: the Congress has become a closed shop, no longer a mass political organization but a private arrangement between the First Family and, say, a thousand other families. Lok Sabha and assembly constituencies are deemed to be family pocket boroughs; the operating principle has become that ‘If I retire (or die) the party must nominate my son/wife/daughter from my constituency.’ In the Gujarat assembly elections, sons of almost all leading Congress leaders – Madhavsinh Solanki, B.K. Gadhavi, Amarsinh Chaudhry, Prabodh Raval, Shankersinh Vaghela – got party tickets. The story is repeated in state after state.



The Congress is beginning to look like a loose federation between an ineffectual Mughal emperor and numerous sultanates paying nominal obeisance to the Delhi throne. The only other group that is able to break into the party is of very rich individuals and industrialists, who are able to ‘buy’ their entree and nominations to the Rajya Sabha or the Lok Sabha. If this trend does not get reversed in the years to come, the Congress would cease to a political party, reducing itself to a grand zamindari.

Conclusion, foregone.

A political party changes itself on only two counts: a massive electoral defeat triggers an internal power struggle or a national catastrophe forces a party to re-evaluate its ideology and re-examine its leadership. For the Congress the choice is whether the party can find the collective wisdom to understand that feudal values and ideas cannot be the governing principles for a modern political organization in the 21st century. If the Congress chooses not to acknowledge the democratic temper of the 21st century, it would find itself ignored and bypassed in the new India.