Unquestionable authoritarianism at the helm may give the illusion of strong leadership, but it is definitively undesirable.
In the excitement of the five Assembly elections, and the build-up to the parliamentary elections next year, it seems that democracy in India is robust and thriving. It is, but in all the campaigning and wooing of voters, we seem to have happily accepted an unacceptable paradox — India must be one of the few democracies where the voter has free choice, but members of political parties have almost none. The lack of inner-party democracy has become a universal feature of our polity. There is a ubiquitous ‘high command’ whose writ is final, and any views to the contrary are neither welcome nor go unpunished. In the legislature there is a whip, in the party a fiat. The simultaneous presence of democracy and the absence of it is a glaring feature of the world’s largest democracy.
This was not always the case. During the freedom movement, and after, open dialogue and dissent was the norm within the Congress. Mahatma Gandhi’s views may have mostly prevailed, but it was not through diktat, but the moral pressure he legitimately exercised. Even after Independence, although Jawaharlal Nehru was the Prime Minister, there was scope for an uninhibited exchange of differences of opinion between him and Sardar Patel, and between other senior leaders, both in party forums and the Cabinet.
Alas, all of this ended with the ascendance of Indira Gandhi. That inaugurated a new era of absolute leadership, absolute adulation, and absolute conformity. Her undoubted leadership qualities were marred by a propensity for unqualified obeisance. If in the past, Congress leaders would have been annoyed, embarrassed or indifferent to a slogan like ‘India is Indira, Indira is India’, Mrs Gandhi welcomed it. In 1959, when Nehru was asked by the media if he is grooming Indira to succeed him, he said that he was “mentally opposed” to the idea of political dynasties in a democracy. Nevertheless, Indira, after the short interregnum of Lal Bahadur Shastri, became Prime Minister (PM), and after her untimely killing, her son, Rajiv Gandhi — a good man but complete outsider to politics — succeeded her. After Rajiv’s tragic assassination, his wife, Sonia Gandhi, remained the longest serving president of the Congress Party. Her son, Rahul, is now the de facto head of the party.
The example of the Congress has many emulators. Today, across India, an ugly rash of undemocratic political dynasties has proliferated. True, there is nothing wrong in the progeny of a political leader following in the footsteps of parents. What is undemocratic is that the child of the dynastic patriarch is automatically ordained to be the heir to the party ‘throne’.
Mature democracies, like the the US or the UK, have open and vigorous inner party elections. In America, both the Republican and Democratic parties have internal primaries, in which candidates for the leadership test their democratic support, and participate in public debates on what they stand for, giving voters a choice of whom they want to see as the leader of their party. In the UK, when an incumbent PM steps down — as happened most recently in the case of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss of the Conservative Party — transparent elections were held in which MPs could freely choose who the next incumbent should be. Rishi Sunak became PM through precisely such an election. Other real democracies have similar processes.
In India, however, intra-party elections are mostly a farce. The electing forums have already been handpicked to support only one candidate, legislators fear to stand against the ‘ordained’ leader or his or her choice, the successor is already chosen, and the party endorsement just a tokenistic formality. The Congress party recently had an election to choose its party president. Mallikarjun Kharge — an able man but an unabashed acolyte of the ‘family’ — was known to be the dynasty’s choice. Shashi Tharoor chose to stand for the elections in accordance with the party’s constitution. Although his loss was a foregone conclusion, he managed to get over a thousand votes, which was no mean achievement. But his temerity to stand against the chosen one had its consequences. He was, it appeared, ostracised for his audacity, and those who supported him were reportedly victimised. Only recently some balm has been applied to his bruised soul by making him a member of the Congress Working Committee (CWC).
Such a state of affairs seems to be true even for the BJP today, whereas earlier it was not only non-dynastic, but had a healthy collegium at the top — Atal Behari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and many others — to take decisions. Now an all-powerful high command is the unquestioned and final arbiter of chief ministers of the party, and democratic discussion and debate has transformed into a frozen peace in favour of only the leader.
Unquestionable authoritarianism at the helm may give the illusion of strong leadership, but it is definitively undesirable. Firstly, it affects policy making. When decisions that affect the lives of millions are taken without discussion and debate, they can often be arbitrary, whimsical and ill-informed; but the party supremo is hostile to dissenting views that could add the necessary balance and corrective. Secondly, it seriously devalues the development of a genuine meritocracy. The leader wants yes men, not necessarily those with talent and a mind of their own. Most importantly, the leader’s abilities are beyond interrogation. He may not even have passed school, or repeatedly shown political ineptitude, but there can be no challenge.
Thirdly, it leads to the empowerment of an unhealthy coterie, that even without merit, exercises disproportionate power and influence solely because of its obsequious proximity to the leader. This prevents the emergence of alternative rungs of leadership and future leaders, who are, in fact, considered a threat to the supremo. And, fourthly, it leads to a despicable and pervasive atmosphere of sycophancy. Praise of the party chief has to be emphatically effusive, his name should be endlessly invoked, and all credit must always be given to him. This is the test of loyalty, the passport to upward mobility, and there is no dearth of courtiers vying to outdo competitors.
For a dialogic civilisation, this undemocratic state of affairs among those supposed to protect democracy is a matter of deep concern.