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The unhealthy, but necessary dependence of Congress on the Nehru-Gandhi family

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 29, 2009

“Power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues and freebooters. All Indian leaders will be of low calibre and men of straw. They will have sweet tongues and silly hearts. They will fight among themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles” – Attributed to Winston Churchill on the eve of Indian independence. (Disputed)

Sixty years on, neither India nor Pakistan have reached the stage suggested in the remark, though Pakistan has on and off teetered on the edge of collapse, but got a slight gasp of fresh air, after its division. One of the key reasons that India stayed put as a nation instead of falling into its former constituents was the singular and unambigous leadership at the centre in its initial years. Leadership skills not withstanding, by simply being there for close to two decades, any doubt regarding the unity of the nation was vanquished and a new generation of Indians were born (Reminds me of the transition of the Republic of Rome to the Roman Empire under Octavian).

However, this also meant that the question of what happens after Nehru remained unanswered.

One of the key characters of India is that the executive is selected by consensus, rather than by popular election. The elected representatives arrive at a consensus to select the executive from amongst themselves. This essentially leads to a situation where a person who has the most influence over this select group, like the leader of the political party with majority seats, is elected as the executive. If no such leader exists (In the case of coalitions), a compromise candidate will have to be selected.

But at the end of the day, it necessitates the political parties to have a definite leadership structure. (Anyone know who heads the Democrats or Republicans in US?)

Back to the mid 1960s now, when Nehru suddenly died with no clear succession planning in place. Now the question arises who will lead next. For normal persons like you and me, the answer will be obvious – Take a vote and let the majority decide. However, what will happen if the people who lost the vote chose to leave the party unhappy with the results. This is one of the inherent issues of intra party democracy, where there is a practically no exit barrier.

Among the early dissenters of the Congress leadership would be (the later Prime Minister) Charan Singh, who would create his own party in his home state of UP after differences with the Nehru administration. More would follow during the transition from Jawaharlal Nehru to Indira Gandhi – Biju Patnaik, Ajoy Mukherjee and Indira Gandhi herself, in a reverse coup of sorts, leaving behind a nominal Congress (O) led by (the later Prime Minister) Morarji Desai. These frequent departures acted as a drain in the voter base, continuously weakening it.

The success of the dissidents shows how an intra party democracy can be the bane of a national party.

The same scenario would repeat itself after the death of Rajiv Gandhi, when there was an interregnum till Sonia Gandhi stepped in. Leaders, unhappy of losing out of primacy in Congress, floated their own parties. Though some of dissidents flocked back once Sonia Gandhi came to Congress, others left as well. Their initial rivals at a national level, the Janata Parivar, was always a divided house before collapsing into regional entities.

The dependence of Congress on the Nehru-Gandhi ensured a Janata like collapse would be prevented in Congress.

The other comparable national opponents to Congress – the Bharatiya Janata Party is still in its initial stages, with the clear leadership of veterans like Atal Behari Vajpayee and LK Advani. It remains to be seen how BJP will be able to save themselves from falling into uncertain conundrum of leadership that Congress has become accustomed to, with leaders like Arun Jaitley, Narendra Modi, Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj and even Varun Gandhi (After his recent apparent increase in support) waiting in the wings.

The next decade will see the national parties attempt to put an effective succession plan (I wonder how) in order. The earlier they do this, the better. With the current leadership still having control over the party, it is easier to settle a dispute with minimum damage to their party. But as Diocletian found out after handing over power 305AD, even the most powerful man in the world may be rendered helpless by his quarelling successors and contenders.


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