More democratic India gets, less Congress does

E.R. RAMACHANDRAN writes: The Ace Political Expert (APE) is a veritable Wikipedia on democratic norms all over the world. He can tell you how the process of election takes place in Holland, reel off biodata of contesting candidates in Finland, and the process of recounting votes in Sivaganga.

APE also knows how democracy works in one of the oldest, largest political parties in the world.

As we settled down to have coffee on the lawns of Hotel Ramya, I said: “Sonia Gandhi has been elected president of the Congress for the fourth time. This must be a record of sorts. Can you tell me how the whole process of election operates in the Congress?’

“A bit of background is necessary to understand this,” said the APE, as he took his first sip of coffee. “The Indian National Congress (INC) Party was founded in 1885 by a foreigner, a Scotsman actually, Allan Octavian Hume, who arranged its first meeting in Bombay with the approval of the then viceroy Lord Dufferrin. Please note Congress has a history with foreigners since its inception!”

“That’s interesting.”

“In 1907, the party was split into two factions, one led by Balgangadhar Tilak called garam dal (hot faction) and the other by Gopalkrishna Gokhale called naram dal (the soft faction). It shows leaders were allowed to have radically opposite views. They didn’t have to toe the line of their bosses all the time. It was truly democratic then.”

“I am surprised to hear that.”

“One interesting fact was that some of the leaders who differed with the Congress split, set up their own party called Swaraj Party. Prominent among them were Annie Besant, Chittaranjan Das and even Motilal Nehru! It shows dissent was alive and kicking those days and they could even contest, fight election for the party presidentship.”

“Sounds unreal!”

“Though Congress was the single largest party, it had stalwart-leaders like Sardar Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Rajaji, Acharya Kripalani, Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, Sarojini Naidu among others bringing in divergent views. It was far from becoming a party belonging to a single feudal family run by its members.”

“Amazing.”

“In 1938 and 1939, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was elected as president of the party but was expelled for his socialistic views and Congress veered to becoming a pro-business party of Bajajs and Birlas! But what was significant they had elections for the post of the President.”

“Just can’t believe it!”

“After the World War I, Mahatma Gandhi was associated with the party as its spiritual leader and mass icon even as younger men and women became presidents of the Congress party after contesting and winning in elections. No son of Gandhi was anointed a youth Congress leader. For that matter, Kasturba Gandhi did not became president of the Congress Party to ‘assist’ the Mahatma.”

“Are we talking of the same party or what? Nobody from the Gandhi family had its members in any responsible position? Where did they go wrong?” I queried.

“It was after independence,  in fact quite some time after, when Prime Minister Nehru was getting old, they thought of  a younger person as  Congress president ‘to assist’ him  and what better person  than his own daughter?”

“Looks like the first steps of dynasty politics or modern politics era!”

“That’s how the Gandhi’s name entered Indian politics although it was quite a different Gandhi altogether. The Father of the Freedom Movement never aspired for any post nor ‘groomed’ his children for the coveted post!”

APE gulped down some cold water without touching the rim: “The INC after the split, etc became Congress (I),  “I” for Indira, named first time after a person. From then on, it was a matter of personal ambition of grooming sons, daughter-in law and grandsons with the party members working to make sure the same family stay in power even when out of power!”

“‘It’s all so nice to know history. Now only we know why there are 55 nominations to one person even as nobody dares to stand for election! One more thing; doesn’t the grand old party have norms for various posts?”

“Of course they have! Nobody can continue as President in taluk, district level and state level as chief for more than two terms…. except for the post of national president which is now a life term post! The INC, which  once believed in freedom of thought, action and practiced internal democratic traditions such as elections for various posts and had titans as its members is now populated with pygmies.”