Should there be elections to the Congress Working Committee?

February 10, 2023 12:15 am | Updated 01:15 am IST

Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge at the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Srinagar.

Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge at the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Srinagar. | Photo Credit: ANI

Last October, Mallikarjun Kharge was elected as the national president of the Congress party. The election was historic as the party’s top post was, from 1978, occupied by a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family (except for brief spells between 1992 and 1998). Officially, the party says it is now ready to hold a similar election to the Congress Working Committee (CWC), its highest decision-making body, but there are still internal debates going on. The last time the CWC had an election was in 1997, under the presidency of Sitaram Kesri. Should there be an election now to the CWC? Mridula Mukherjee and Praveen Chakravarthy discuss the question in a conversation moderated by Sandeep Phukan. Edited excerpts:

Should there be elections to the CWC?

Praveen Chakravarty: Before I start, I want to clarify that all my views are in my personal capacity. I think there should be no dogmatic doctrine about inner party democracy. Let us understand the context of today’s situation. We have general elections in 2024. The Congress has just elected a president who will have the responsibility of leading the party in the general elections. In this context, how should the highest decision-making body of the party be constituted?

Now, elections to the decision-making body can have its advantages in terms of bringing in new people. Or perhaps not, because they could also favour people who have been in the party for a long time. Nevertheless, it is important for the party president to be able to have a team that he can rely on to lead the party in the next elections. It was keeping in mind the elections that the Bharatiya Janata Party, in January, extended the tenure of its current president until June 2024. It was signaling that it did not want to disturb the current set-up until the elections. So, should the Congress enter into another experiment with the CWC elections, which could cause disturbances within the party? My answer is no, considering the context.

Second, the president himself has just been elected by a larger body, the electoral college, of nearly 10,000 members. Remember, the AICC [All-India Congress Committee] members will only be one-eighth of the electoral body that elected the president. So, when a larger body has elected that president, perhaps it is only appropriate that we let the president choose his team that he can rely on to lead the party.

Mridula Mukherjee: A certain process has been set in motion with the election of the Congress president and I think there’s a logic to that process. There’s also a process that has been set forth by the Bharat Jodo Yatra. There is a certain churning, a certain change, in the party, which needed to be introduced because the old system was not delivering in terms of electoral gains. This process of change is happening for the good. I don’t think we saw any disaster with the election of the Congress president; it went through quite smoothly. Half the members of the CWC are not elected. The president will anyway have an opportunity to appoint the rest. Allowing an election will be a positive sign. This process of rebuilding the party gives a good signal to people at all levels of the party structure that they have an opportunity for free contest. We have to assume that the party gets strengthened by electing different group representatives or different individuals representing different views or maybe even factions. That curbs dissidents. I appreciate Mr. Chakravarty’s argument about stability and elections coming up soon and all that. But there has been a commitment to holding elections at all levels for quite some time now. And going back on that will not send a very good signal.

Those who argue in favour of an elected CWC say it will ensure a sense of collective leadership that is essential for a political party. And, as Professor Mukherjee pointed out, it would allow room for different views. And what better platform than the CWC?

Praveen Chakravarty: I would actually contest the premise that elections will yield better representation in the decision-making body within the party than, say, a nominated body. In fact, I would argue that elections do not necessarily yield representation. As I said earlier, this doctrinaire approach that any election in any democracy is a good thing is not something I believe in. Everything has a context in which it is good or bad. The significant change from the past is that we have an elected Congress president today for the first time in more than two and a half decades. Allow the president to lead the party with a decision-making body that will have representations of every section within the party, rather than relying on a certain internal electoral outcome. When facing an election next year, it is perhaps not the time to experiment.

Since 1998, when Sonia Gandhi became party president, it has been a practice to nominate half the CWC members. Recently the change seekers under the banner of G-23 wanted elections at all levels.

Mridula Mukherjee: It’s precisely to prevent the emergence of dissidence of that kind that you need elections. When you have provided people place in the decision-making bodies through an open process, it becomes far more difficult for them to argue that their point of view is not being heard or that they’re not being given an adequate opportunity.

I am aware that often elections reproduce existing structures, because those who are entrenched in positions of power socially, politically and otherwise in society also have a capacity to win elections. Elections are not necessarily pure contests. Nevertheless, given what’s happened in the party in the last few years, it is necessary to provide that space within the party structure.

And look at the history of the Congress, especially before Independence. In much more difficult circumstances and with far more contentious issues at stake, with hugely popular leaders from all over the country, the election method worked. And differences did get resolved through open contests. Often, even at the AICC sessions, decisions as important as whether or not to go in for the Non-Cooperation Movement were taken through an open voting. There was no fear of people expressing their opinion, there was confidence that the better argument will win, that the Congress leadership would be able to persuade people from across the country to a point of view which the top leadership had. Gandhiji, for example, would often urge decisions that were not necessarily popular decisions and win, but it was all done in these open contests.

Today, we are facing a crisis in democracy. And one way that we argue in favour of democracy is by being democratic within.

Praveen Chakravarty: First, I appreciate Professor Mukherjee’s point about the history of the Congress. But I think it is a different context today. It is probably for the first time in recent decades that the Congress is facing an extremely competitive electoral marketplace. In that context, the first objective is to have a very strong party organisation to be able to compete in this marketplace. Second, the question of what was demanded earlier by a certain group of people and how applicable it is in today’s context... I think a lot of it is different now because there was a process to elect the Congress president. Today, there is an elected Congress president and someone from outside the Nehru-Gandhi family. Perhaps if there was no general elections, I would be in favour of holding elections to the CWC. Third, I want to make some empirical points. One, it is not coincidental that there is no political party in India that has a constitutional process to hold elections internally. There’s a reason for that. People, at least insiders, place party cohesion and stability at the top as an objective. Two, we have to see what happened to the Conservative Party in the U.K. It just disintegrated [as it was] largely driven by an internal election process. I’m not suggesting that should entirely be applicable here. But it is a lesson in the broader context of inner party democracy when faced with an election that we must consider.

Mridula Mukherjee: Well, I think the Conservative Party and the Labour Party have established mechanisms of functioning and they have served British politics in good stead. So, I don’t think it’s a very good argument in India that other parties don’t follow such practices. The only parties we can look at are the Left parties that follow democratic centralism and never really allow genuine internal democracy. The BJP isn’t a good example either. I think the Congress has a stellar record of internal democracy that has worked in Indian conditions. And I don’t think that’s a history and a record that should be thrown by the wayside.

Praveen Chakravarthy is Chairman of the Congress Data Analytics Department Mridula Mukherjee is a former Professor of History at JNU and former Director at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library

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