(The Political Line newsletter is India’s political landscape explained every week by Varghese K. George, senior editor at The Hindu . You can subscribe here to get the newsletter in your inbox every Friday.)
There is significant public interest in the organisational election of the Congress party. As the party has said tongue in cheek, no other party has anything comparable for the media or the public to take interest in. The Congress may be a home to all manner of intrigues and sabotages, but it remains a dynamic platform for varied views and personalities. All other parties have a far more controlled mechanism to decide who heads the party, and how affairs are managed. The BJP’s organisational matters are often decided by a handful of RSS leaders and supreme leaders of the party – A.B. Vajpayee and L.K. Advani in the previous era, and Narendra Modi and Amit Shah in the current. In the Left, a handful of party supremos decide, and in family parties it is all too clear who gets to decide. The YSR Congress Party recently elected Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy as “lifetime president” of the party, but the Election Commission of India thought it was an undemocratic move. The ECI asked the party to publicly deny that Mr. Reddy was lifetime president as if that makes a difference.
Internal democracy in the Congress is on steroid these days. In Rajasthan, the MLAs decided that they would not accept the wishes of the ‘high command.’ We can only guess that the ‘high command’ (read the Gandhis) wished to have Sachin Pilot succeed Ashok Gehlot as Chief Minister of Rajasthan. Mr. Pilot had the support of fewer than 20 MLAs while the Gehlot camp had more than 90. They battled it out in total defiance of the ‘high command’ and the end result is that Mr. Gehlot continues as CM.
If the Rajasthan episode was instructive of the limits of the high command’s command, the ongoing process to elect a new president for the party is a show of the absolute indispensability of the Nehru-Gandhi family for the Congress. To be precise, the complete collapse of the group of dissidents who called for ‘reforms’ in the party, and questioned the supremacy of the family is loud demonstration of that most elementary existential truth of the Congress party: that no leader of the party will accept another as a leader who is a not a Gandhi. Shashi Tharoor was among them who wrote to party president Sonia Gandhi calling for a full time president, among other reforms. Others who were signatories, and were critical of the family until recently, turned against Mr. Tharoor and rallied behind Mallikarjun Kharge, who is the chosen one for the post.
Kumari Selja, a senior party leader, did not leave anything to doubt. “I thank our leaders Sonia Ji and Rahul Ji for having chosen Kharge Ji to contest as Congress President,” she posted on Twitter and deleted it later. What is noteworthy in all this is the fact that the dissident group which claimed to have a purpose higher than their individual self-interests, could not agree on any candidate, and the only recourse they had was to blow their trumpets in favour of the ‘chosen’ one.
Herein lies the paradox of the authority of the Nehru-Gandhis. While the family’s wishes are supreme, these wishes have to be negotiated for acceptance. The Rajasthan episode turned chaotic because of the absence of prior consultations; the Kharge episode turned out to be confirmation of the family’s undying command over the party. Rahul Gandhi will be the moral force of the Congress now that he has decided to not take up a formal role. His key challenge will be in dealing with this paradox.
The AAP mirage
“In developed European countries, one sees Prime Ministers waiting at bus stops. This is the culture we have to introduce here. This is something we did the last time,” Aam Aadmi Party supremo Arvind Kejriwal had said in 2015 after winning the Delhi elections, for the second time.
The AAP was supposed to so upend politics in India that the country would be a paradise once it takes power. As it turns out, the more power it gets, the more ordinary it becomes. In Punjab, AAP Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann has no less than 42 vehicles attached to his convoy, which is more than former Chief Ministers including Parkash Singh Badal, Amarinder Singh and Charanjit Singh Channi. This, for a party that promised to end the VIP culture! Mr. Kejriwal also followed the same trajectory of throwing all promises of ending VIP culture out of the window once he became Chief Minister.
An aside. An auto driver who hosted Mr. Kejriwal for a meal now says he is actually a fan of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. AAP had run a campaign on its leader’s visit to the Aam Aadmi’s - ordinary person’s - home.
Putin as protector of free speech
Disregard for facts and fact-based journalism is widely considered to be a trait of authoritarian regimes, while democracies are supposed to respect facts. But the theory gets a bit complicated when conflicting national interests of different countries come into play. The latest demonstration of this conflict between facts and national interest is the granting of Russian citizenship to Edward Snowden, a former defence contractor who published classified documents that revealed illegal mass surveillance in the United States. There is very little support from the mainstream press in the U.S. for Mr. Snowden, who revealed what the state wanted to conceal. The fact that he ended up in the protection of the Putin regime in Russia underscores the rather ironical relationship between ‘facts’ and the state. The irony is also in the fact that when well-meaning people shout out for fact-based public discourse, they inadvertently call for adherence to facts as approved by the state, which has a vested interest in curating what goes out into the public.
Opposition unity and their divisions
Opposition parties want to unite, or that is what they say their aim is. But they are unable to unite because the moment they try something out, the contradictions come to the fore. We argue in this editorial that a better course for them is to give up multi-State or national level attempts at alliances, and see what is possible within the boundaries of individual States.
The Chola express
History of Indian empires as taught in schools focuses mostly on northern ones. New archaeological findings are bringing alive the history of the Cholas, whose expeditions northwards had once reached up to the Gangetic plains. There is considerable amount of Dravidian politics possible around this, of course.
The Kerala wall for the BJP
The BJP has been trying all tricks in its book to get a foothold in Kerala, but has met with little success so far. Here’s look at the BJP’s efforts in Kerala.
Language and borders
Mizoram shares a 510 km border with Myanmar. A majority of some 40,000 Myanmar refugees in the northeastern State belong to the Chin community, ethnically related to the dominant Mizo people of Mizoram. Now the Mizoram government is offering Burmese language in educational institutions.
Two Telugu speaking States, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, are battling it out over the Polvaram irrigation project.