Who do you think would have said this: “Why is it that we have a democratic system to run the country but have no democracy within political parties?”
Would you be surprised if told it was Rahul Gandhi, the general secretary of the Congress party and son of the party president, Sonia Gandhi (wife of the late Rajiv Gandhi and daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi)?
Even while the resident cynic in us would exercise caution, most of us would not be surprised. So far, Gandhi and the rest of the dynasty, naively or otherwise, seem to be walking the talk: Their unequivocal choice for the post of the next prime minister, if the Congress party is re-elected, is the incumbent, Manmohan Singh.
The office bearers of the Youth Congress in Punjab are now elected. This experiment is to be extended to the rest of the country.
Also Read Anil Padmanabhan’s earlier columns
At one of those rare meetings with a group of journalists at his residence, Gandhi elaborated on his long-term plan to revive the Congress party. Unmindful of the forenoon heat, the bespectacled and clean-shaven Gandhi, clad in the politician’s standard white kurta-pyjama, doggedly set forth his plan of action.
“In the Youth Congress what we are saying is that there is not going to be a single person who is not going to be elected,” he said. “Going through the process of election and being backed by a mandate gives confidence to people. Our state president in Punjab is a confident person because he has been elected.”
Something that was echoed by his sister, Priyanka Vadra, in an interview to Outlook magazine: “My brother is actually translating it into something that can be used in the (Congress) organization. What he’s trying to do in the Youth Congress is going unnoticed, but will actually revolutionize politics.” Clearly, there seems to be unity of thought in the family. It is a key part of the strategy to not only sow the seeds of change within the party but also to reorder the way politics is practised in India. “Today, all our political parties are designed in a way that empowers people whom the leader likes. Long term, this model is not sustainable as it causes fragmentation,” Gandhi said.
A reminder no doubt about how political challenges to the Congress have sprung from the disaffected—V.P. Singh, Sharad Pawar and so on—within its fold as they were unable to break through the glass ceiling imposed by the dynasty. By allowing for democracy, Gandhi is hoping to ensure that aspirants do not leave the fold.
At one time, the Congress party had adopted this strategy to provide something for everybody—Dalits, minorities—in Indian polity. The implementation of the Mandal Commission report, which introduced reservation for the so-called other backward classes (OBCs), led to the first significant shift away from the Congress. The OBC alliance with Muslims against the Congress had a devastating impact on the party’s political prospects in central India as well as in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh—the two states where the Congress has shunned an alliance in the 2009 election as part of the initial steps to rebuild the party.
Theoretically, all of it sounds so wonderfully seductive, especially to the urban middle class, which is otherwise cynical about politicians.
But we all know the realities are so different and challenging. While the Gandhis may, for whatever reason, want to seek a change, vested interests may not be so willing to comply.
At the moment, the Gandhi family is on top of the game. They ensured the Congress returned to power in 2004, even though it was only as a coalition leader. In a winning situation, discipline is natural.
But what if the 2009 verdict throws up a nasty surprise for the Congress party? That is when the doctrine of the Gandhis would be put to the test. If it survives, Rahul Gandhi would have proved more than just a point.
Till then, we only have his optimistic view: “I have got this opportunity. I could say I don’t want it. I’m saying that I want to work for this country, let me try and steer it in a positive direction.”
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org