FRONT PAGE Sunday, June 7, 2009 Politicians face credibility crisis Swapan Dasgupta
Till the late-1960s, the Congress, for example, had a reasonable degree of inner-party democracy. Elections to the All-India Congress Committee and its State counterparts were held regularly and were often fiercely contested. The annual AICC sessions were marked by speeches that were robustly critical of the Government’s policies and the party leadership. Open, rumbustious discussion was also a hallmark of the Socialists. Ram Manohar Lohia fought bitter inner-party battles with the likes of Asoka Mehta, Chandra Shekhar, NG Goray and Nath Pai. His flamboyant followers such as George Fernandes, Raj Narain and Madhu Limaye were great votaries of the “change or split” path.
Communism in India was nominally wedded to the Leninist tradition of party organisation that ensured a paramount role of the Central Committee and Politburo-the proverbial vanguard of the vanguard. Yet, and particularly after PC Joshi injected intellectual vibrancy into the party in the mid-1940s, the undivided CPI boasted a culture of political discussion. The subjects of concern-the class composition of the Indian state and the relevance of “bourgeois democracy” were two all-time favourites-may have been abstruse. There was also an exaggerated reliance on what Lenin “himself” or Mao Zedong may or may not have prescribed, and cravenness before discreet instructions from Moscow. However, despite these constraints, the political “line” was thoroughly dissected. The Communists moved seamlessly from “correctness to correctness”.
The tradition of political openness received a grave setback after the Congress split of 1969 and the Emergency. The emergence of an all-powerful leader and the dynastic principle meant that decision-making was arrogated to the one and only leader. In the 1990s, the Congress suffered three major electoral defeats. Yet, apart from one brain-storming session in Panchmarhi, the party did nothing to address the grave problem of political erosion. The Congress’ recovery in 2004 and the awesome advance in 2009 owed little to any well considered plan of rejuvenation. It was an outcome of happy circumstances.
Rahul Gandhi has proclaimed his intention of democratising the Congress. The intention is noble and suggests that the heir apparent may have cottoned on to the root cause of the decline of political culture-a problem he has tried to circumvent by making politics into a caste. However, the extent to which the Congress reverts to its original moorings will depend on the calibre of its top leadership. It is one thing to promote inner-party democracy in the good times. Bad times often prompt a regression.
Curiously, it is the BJP which faces a problem not dissimilar to that of the Congress. If the Nehru-Gandhi family acts as an adhesive in the Congress, it is the RSS which plays Pope in the BJP. The BJP’s problems have multiplied on two counts.
- First, the RSS has eroded its moral authority and social influence thanks to its unwillingness to face contemporary realities.
- Second, success in electoral politics has triggered a breakdown of ideological certitudes and added to the charms of aggregative politics. The RSS has tried to hold things together by command. Diktat has replaced informed choice and this enforced regimentation has in turn stymied the party’s renewal.
After Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani, the party’s presidents have lacked the depth to pursue creative politics. Since the defeat in 2004, the BJP has curtailed inner-party debate, not least because the minders and their nominees have lacked the competence to handle intellectual scrutiny.
Restoring the credibility of politics and the political class is a national challenge. As democracy strikes deep roots, more and more people want a say in how parties behave and who they project. The Primary was once an American quirk but it has now become crucial to the British system as well. In India, people are offered choices on election day but have no say in determining the shortlist. To strengthen the quality of democracy, a system of constant interaction involving the top and the bottom is imperative. The country pays lip service to the argumentative India; it is time to show similar respect to the arguments.