The Congress May Eschew Democratic Ideals in its Functioning, but It Isn’t the Only Party to Do So

One-time Congress loyalist and former environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan walked out of the party she had been closely associated with for three decades last week. BCCL
07 February, 2015

In a rare display of defiance, one-time Congress loyalist and former environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan walked out of the party she had been closely associated with for three decades. While rumbles within the Congress had been growing louder since the party’s smashing defeat in the 2014 general elections, none of the complaints found the kind of public expression that Natarajan’s did. Before announcing her decision to leave the party, Natarajan wrote a trenchant letter to the Congress president, which was published in The Hindu on 30 January 2015. The letter, which pointedly blames Rahul Gandhi for some of the decisions Natarajan was forced to take as the environment minister, has set off yet another round of debate around the Gandhi family and its failed leadership. The crux of the debate appears to be the high-handed functioning of the top echelons of the Congress.

Admittedly, the Congress party has been perversely unique in its unwavering loyalty to a leadership that has displayed little political skill in leading the 130-year-old party. Natarajan’s letter and her subsequent allegations were an attestation to this dysfunctional party structure and organisation. Like devotees in a religious order, Congress leaders and ministers—including our former prime minister—were expected to execute instructions from the top without any questions.

Consider the following extract from Natarajan’s letter:

I would like to record, that I was carrying out my duties as Minister of State (I/C) Environment and Forests in the routine course, when suddenly that day on December 20, 2013, the then PM, Dr. Manmohan Singh summoned me to his office. When I entered he stood up from his chair, looking tense and grim, and uttered these exact words. He said ‘Jayanthi, I have been told by Congress President, that your services are required for party work.’ I was puzzled, and I said, ‘Yes Sir. So what should I do?’ He replied, ‘She wants you to resign.’

As we are often told, ministers in the government hold their office at the pleasure of the prime minister. It is the prime minister’s prerogative to select or sack his or her cabinet colleagues. But here we find a bizarre exception—a prime minister who appears to be forced into sacking his cabinet colleague at the behest of the party president. Such instances may have found their roots in the well-known conflicts between the Congress and the Manmohan-led government, but the problem is not the Congress’ alone. Rather, incidents like this alert us to the inherent structure of political parties that makes them favour dictatorship over democracy, regardless of the rhetoric thrown around.

At a broader level, we have to recognise that this functional disorder is not unique to the Congress. Regardless of their diverse ideologies, political parties across the spectrum are run tightly like religious institutions with a pointed emphasis on extracting fealty from those who enter that space. Structures of formal politics and organised religion seem to be founded on the common principles of loyalty, discipline and devotion to the presiding deity, or as may be the case, the leader and dynasty.

Party structures are meant to muzzle dissent and homogenise opinion, under the guise of creating a unified voice. Inner-party democracy is an airy slogan meant to be used at appropriate moments, without any thought spared to its implementation. Obedience and discipline are what sustain political parties; entities largely immune to criticism and transformation. Leaders at the top survive by building coteries, nurturing them and rewarding them at appropriate times for their loyalty. The keyword for surviving in such outfits is sycophancy and not an intellectual interrogation of policies and political methods. Look beyond the Congress. The ruling BJP dispensation is headed by a prime minister who likes to brandish his idea of smart governance at the expense of democratic functioning. Undoubtedly, Narendra Modi runs a tight ship and monitors it with an eagle eye. One of his main objectives as the prime minister in power appears to be stemming unwanted leaks. Such a carefully controlled apparatus is surely incapable of forming a template for democracy—within or outside of the party. Advocates of strict party discipline argue that dissidence should be expressed at the party forum and not in public. But the autocratic nature of most political parties in India inhibits displays of democratic dissent, allowing only ritualistic and manageable expressions of mild disagreement.

For instance, the Communist Party of India-Marxists (CPI-M) makes much of democratic centralism as a key organisational tenet. Democratic centralism supposedly makes space for party members to discuss and debate matters of policy and direction. But once the party takes a decision by majority vote, all members are expected to abide by that decision. In Lenin’s words, it is “freedom of discussion, unity of action.”

But in practice, the CPI-M functions more through centralism than democracy. In fact, all Communist parties—recall the Soviet Union’s infamous purges under Stalin and the Cultural Revolution under Mao—muzzled contrarian beliefs and opinions ruthlessly. Key decisions have always been taken by a tiny group of men at the top and then rammed down through the organisation’s ranks. Dissenters are usually sidelined, their positions made untenable, and their significance intentionally diminished.

What about the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)—the latest entrant into India’s formal party culture? Till recently the AAP had displayed remarkable flexibility and a refreshing consciousness of public opinion and criticism. But that could be changing. Of late, it appears that the AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal has surrounded himself with a cabal of men and women. Party insiders complain of Kejriwal’s inaccessibility. He is not available even to his own party colleagues who are not a part of the insiders’ club. These complaints are not very different from the ones that Natarajan voiced in her now-infamous letter.

In her letter to Sonia Gandhi, she wrote “You may wonder why I write to you now, which I have decided to do after 4 months of prayer and contemplation. I wish to record that I tried several times to meet Shri Rahul Gandhi and you, but was not given an appointment. During our last meeting, and only meeting after my resignation, you instructed me to avoid the media. Until today I have followed your instructions.”

Ironically, all parties—the right, the Left and the centre—swear by democracy even as they violate one of its basic principles, dissent. It should be no surprise then that larger specters of censorship and authoritarianism appear on our political landscape. In a country where even the political culture within parties eschews democratic values, there is little hope is left for the nation as a whole—save for the token lip-service to Gandhi twice every year.

Monobina Gupta is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi.