Harish Khare

For the first time a senior Congress leader has publicly proposed some kind of family entitlement. The Congress ought to move decisively against claims of family privileges if it wants to remain relevant to modern, democratic India.

One of the primary functions of a political party in a parliamentary democracy is to provide a slate of candidates for various legislative bodies. These parties in turn become the focus of approval or disapproval of voters, as part of the larger and democratic process of political elite recruitment. And given that an elective office in India has become a lucrative calling, in every sense of the term, it is only natural that all parties find themselves inundated with a number of aspirants, be it the election to the Rajya Sabha or the Lok Sabha or the Vidhan Sabha or the zilla parishad. At the moment, both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party have to cope with the anger and disappointment of a very large number of rejected “candidates” in Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Becoming a political party’s nominee is in itself deemed a badge of privileged membership in a select category, bestowing on the candidates, even the defeated ones, an aura of neta, with all the attendant claims and pretensions. This hunger for public office, no doubt, is part of the wider — and healthier — process of deepening democratic sentiment and practices.

This deepening of the electoral competition in the democratic arena ought to be juxtaposed with another unvarnished reality: the political parties in India are the least regulated organisations. Neither the judiciary nor the Election Commission nor any other statutory body has any significant say in their internal functioning. Admittedly, most parties, especially the older ones, do have party constitutions to regulate and guide internal relationships but the advantage always accrues to the incumbent leadership.

Consequently, it is rare that an entrenched leader is shown the door; dissent is rarely permitted. The preferred option for the dissenter is to walk out with his/her followers to set up a rival shop. The socialist segment in particular has been unsuccessful in striking a balance among the need for debate, dissent and organisational discipline. The unabated proliferation of political parties can be attributed to the leaders’ unwillingness to subordinate their ambitions and ideas to the larger organisational goals and cohesion. In our current public discourse, every act of defiance is cheered as an expression of legitimate dissent, putting a premium on unhelpful individualism.

And while it seems a very reasonable proposition that all parties must function openly and transparently, most political organisations find it problematic to practise perfect internal democracy. The dilemma has become very acute in recent years because strongly motivated individuals find it difficult to submit themselves to the larger organisational discipline. A Uma Bharti, therefore, finds herself disciplined out of the BJP; or, the CPI(M) central leadership had to move against two senior members of the Polit Bureau — one a Chief Minister and the other a State secretary — when they failed to observe even the basic obligation of restraint and circumspection.

Yet this carefully balanced relationship between organisational discipline and the party activists’ ambitions opens itself up most unpredictably at the election time. The very democratic requirement to go out and renew the popular mandate makes the party leadership respectful towards its own activists; and, as the process of electoral competition becomes deeper and inclusive, the parties find themselves having to cast their nets wider, tapping new voices and reaching out to new social groups.

Need for balance

A healthy and well-oiled political organisation devises its own rules on selection of candidates. No party can afford to be satisfied with the incumbent slate; any vibrant organisation needs fresh blood. This chore of having to periodically select candidates becomes rather exacting for a reasonably successful party, because it needs to retain its current crop of “leaders” while exploring ways and means of inviting representatives of new, rawer social forces. The in-crowd feels it has invested in the organisation; the leadership feels the need to balance the claims of the in-crowd with widening appeal to the younger generation of voters.

The Congress has always found it difficult to handle satisfactorily the selection process, even when it had the advantage of having established and popular leaders at the helm. The AICC archives tell the painful story of allegations and counter-allegations in the selection of candidates; however, whereas in the earlier days factional loyalty was deemed the reason for denial of the party ticket, in recent years accusations of a personal and financial nature have been made. Margaret Alva is not the first, nor will she be the last, to suggest impropriety in selection.

However, earlier these allegations did not add up to much because the Congress was blessed with leaders who had the charismatic appeal to win votes for the party; the leader could impose his or her preferences on the rank and file as also on Pradesh Congress leaders in selection of candidates. The proposition was — since it was the leader, with a capital L, who was garnering votes for the party, it was only natural that the regional “bosses” were cut off the selection process. And, as long as the party kept winning the elections, there was no need to undertake any organisational introspection. It was only after 1991 that the AICC establishment felt obliged to re-examine the selection procedures.

But what is somewhat curious about Ms Alva’s charge is her open assertion of a kind of family entitlement. The bottom line of her complaint is that her son was unfairly denied ticket in the last Assembly elections in Karnataka. Her argument seems to be that the party is obliged to prefer as its nominees sons, daughters, granddaughters and other relatives of its established leaders. Various leaders within the party have privately made a similar assertion but this is the first time a senior functionary has gone public.

On the face of it, there can be no iron law that the children of a leader be kept out of the electoral arena. After all, a leader’s family members find themselves having to make painful adjustments and sacrifices; often, a family connection becomes a disadvantage. From very early days, the leaders have found it easy to assign to their blood relations the role of a confidant, gatekeeper or organising secretary. Sardar Patel was ably assisted by his sister, and Jawaharlal Nehru by his daughter. In the same tradition, Atal Bihari Vajpayee is being faithfully helped by his son-in-law, and L.K. Advani by his daughter. In the later years after Independence, family ties have been sought to be converted into political assets.

Politically loaded

What makes Ms Alva’s invoking of a family entitlement argument politically loaded is the widely-held perception of her being a close confidante of the Congress president. Ms Alva seems to be saying that if the Congress leadership can be reserved on the basis of membership of one family, second-rung leaders too are similarly entitled to ensure politically lucrative careers for their sons and daughters. She has come very close to inviting every senior leader and functionary into a proposition to convert the party into a family affair. Sonia Gandhi may find herself having to make the most difficult decision on how to deal with the Alva outburst.

How the Congress sorts out the Alva conundrum will influence the much-delayed process of democratisation of the Indian party system. As it is, a number of political parties operate unapologetically as family outfits; some others are one-person shows. Only the Left and the BJP seem to have resisted the lure of a preponderance of family connections.

If the electoral democracy has fallen in the citizens’ esteem, it is because the political parties and leaders, who shoulder the responsibility to man public offices, have sought to make their organisations their families’ preserve — to the exclusion of different segments of society and their aspirations and dreams. Unrepresentative political parties cannot be effective instruments of a healthy, representative democracy that India needs as it moves into a new egalitarian age. The Margaret Alva proposition of family entitlement must be rejected.