In India, inner-party democracy is an idea whose time has come, though a little late. It has to start from the party that has been in power for the longest period, the Congress.

Rahul Gandhi, despite all the banalities he came up with during his two hour-long interview, did have a point when he said that our country having adopted a parliamentary system of democracy, the Prime Minister should be chosen post-elections by the elected legislators.

However, he erred, and brutally so, in making the apocryphal statement that an incumbent Premier, Dr. Manmohan Singh, was ‘re-elected’ in 2009. For, Dr. Singh, though an astute technocrat, has never been popularly elected. He came in through the Rajya Sabha route, the indirect-election-after-nomination one.

The reality, as opposed to Rahul’s naive but honest intentions, is that though we talk about embracing parliamentary system of the true nature, the politics practised has always been personality-oriented rather than issue-based.

It is possible that Mr. Gandhi has the noble intent of fostering inner-party democracy. It is equally possible that he may already have hit a wall while trying to do that. His much parodied ‘nonsense’ remarks did reflect desperation of a newcomer — despite having been elected twice to the legislature — at not being able to sound it across in a more democratic manner.

This culture of sycophancy is practised in the Congress and by extension in other political parties. By extension because, if we observe carefully, we can find shades of Congress in almost all political outfits, many of them splinter groups that broke away from the Congress in the post-independence phase.

This culture of yes-manship has been with us — in the political as well as social spheres — since independence. At that time, Congress, hitherto a movement comprising diverse ideological strands, congealed into a political outfit. With the departure of Sardar Patel in 1950, the only patriots of equal standing to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru could be Purushottamdas Tandon and Rajendra Prasad.

The country was faced with its first general elections in 1952 when ideological tilt to the right had caused many liberal elements to move out to form their own political outfits. In June 1951, Gandhian J. B. Kripalani formed Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party (KMPP).

This forced veteran congressmen to find secondary roles for the right-leaning Tandon and Prasad, though they were still allowed to voice their displeasures at the government’s and the party’s functioning. The All India Congress Committee was forced to consider getting power concentrated in a single person. Nehru was the biggest ‘vote catcher’, as an editorial quoted in Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi puts it. And ‘on the eve of the general elections it is the votes that count[ed] and Pandit Nehru ha[d] a value to the Congress which none else possesse[d]’.

This made Nehru the party president. He remained an unequalled power centre for the rest of his tenure — a lot of it justifiable — though party presidents changed. In terms of leading by example in Parliament, none could equal Nehru; however, he was seldom able to devote his energies toward doing that in his party. As someone once said, ‘Nehru remained a benevolent Banyan tree, giving shade to everyone but not helping anyone else grow’.

At that time, nation-building and fostering a sense of democracy in citizens had to take precedence over inner-party work. But could this be done when the the party that claimed to be a torchbearer of the freedom struggle had, at best, a chaotic form of democratic functioning inside?

Slide toward autocracy

After the death of Nehru, inner-party struggles, not for democracy but for power, ensured that personality politics became prominent. This reached ugly proportions during the autocratic phase of Indira Gandhi’s career, when the government misused legislative majority to create alternative power centres, like her ‘kitchen cabinet’ and her ‘Prime Minister’s Office’. There was no question of inculcating an inner-party democracy now. There was no incentive for it either.

In the mid-70s, with disenchantment with the Congress at its peak, other political parties could have shown some inclination to foster inner-party democracy rather than focusing on grabbing power. In other words, ‘setting their own house in order before knocking the doors of power’. However, they showed an utter lack of imagination. That Cold War calculations placed them in the sphere of influence of one of the two hegemons did not help democracy in any way either.

Rajiv Gandhi had the best possible chance of bringing in such democracy and he did not fall short for want of efforts. However, the efforts he put in surely did not do justice to the huge parliamentary majority his party was given in the aftermath of his mother’s cowardly assassination.

After this, the Congress, once again, became a party defined by struggles and counter-struggles with an amicable compromise being found in 2004, when an elected Sonia Gandhi decided to head the National Advisory Council, leaving an unelected Dr. Singh to take the most responsible post of the world’s biggest democracy.

Needed, a constructive opposition

In this light, Rahul Gandhi’s efforts to conduct primaries, inspired no doubt by the Aam Aadmi wave, are to be appreciated. However, it may have come as too little, too late for this general elections. The oldest party of India, having been responsible for nation-building for the longest phase of our democracy, has also — in its post-Nehruvian phases — fostered a culture of sycophancy and dynastic politics which it is struggling bring itself out of. The greatest responsibility, hence, rests on it to extricate our country out of this situation. The other parties — most dangerously the primary opposition one, the Bharatiya Janata Party — are only taking personality politics to extreme levels. Hence, the party needs to introspect. Perhaps spending some time as a responsible opposition, in the best democratic traditions envisaged by Pandit Nehru, would provide it with a healing touch.

For, as one of the most erudite Founding Fathers of our democracy, the chairman of its drafting committee, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, had said:

“Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.”

The top-dressing has ensured a domineering executive — including a top-heavy bureaucracy and extra-constitutional bodies like the Planning Commission and National Advisory Council. It has also ensured timely elections but a highly-debilitated legislature, with Parliament functioning in the most unparliamentary manner and disruptions becoming the norm rather than the exception. The nadir was reached earlier in the week with pepper spray being used to deter legislators rather than counter molesters.

The silver lining has come in the form of an empowering judiciary filling in the vacuum left by our legislature. However, this does not portend well for a parliamentary democracy, where separation of powers has to ensure that the judiciary interprets legislations rather than giving itself the role of framing them.

Further, this also results in the judiciary not being able to concentrate on its core areas, like being a guardian of the Constitution.

This situation is not sustainable. Inner-party democracy can be one step to ‘cultivate’ democracy in our collective psyche. The task has to start from the party that has been in power for the longest period.