1The G-23 letter: A Missed Opportunity
By Prof. D.K. Giri
The letter written by 23 senior members of the Congress stirred a hornet’s nest in the 135-year old Party. Trees of articles and commentaries have appeared in the Press, largely supporting the Group of 23 and a few riling the leadership of the party. Hardly any commentator touched on the bright side of this episode, which could mean well for reforming our political parties.
The idea of the ‘famous’ letter seems to have originated in a dinner thrown by the mercurial Congress Member of the Parliament, Shri Shashi Tharoor. Not everyone attending the dinner signed the letter, notably P. Chidambaram and Mani Shankar Aiyar. The intent of the letter was to urge upon the Party President to revitalize the party by conducting certain intra-party activities, like the organizational elections. The letter writers were concerned about the lack of vibrant leadership at the top, and the consequent decline of the party in terms of image, promise and electoral performance.
The reaction from the leadership and the so-called loyalists was swift and sharp. They construed the letter to be an act of rebellion, betrayal and insensitiveness. Rebellion is smelt in the challenging tone of the letter about the visibility, efficiency and durability of the leadership, namely the President. Betrayal relates to those old-timers questioning and damaging the leadership. The timing of the letter when the President was recuperating from her illness reeked of insensitivity.
The letter was placed in parts in the top decision-making body, the Central Working Committee Meeting of the Congress. The meeting reportedly lasted for seven hours that was marked by the loyalists, hurling counterallegations and slinging mud on those who dared write such a letter. Some were furious that the contents of the letter were deliberately leaked to the media.
Furthermore, following the CWC Meeting, the loyalists have resorted to vindictive retaliation. They persuaded the leadership to bypass the seniority and popularity of certain members of G-23 in the appointments recently made, after the CWC meeting. There were also nasty rumours of collusion with BJP. Rahul Gandhi had to personally call certain leaders to squelch any rumour and cool the tempers. Sensing a rift in the biggest opposition party, the media had a field day in reporting the skirmishes. It is still talking to so-called rebels and giving them publicity. For the party, this episode has left a bad taste in the mouth. For political commentators and analysts, the Congress Party, shackled by the family is incapable of managing differences within the party.
What is missing in the party political discourse vis-a-vis the letter is pointing out the inability of parties to turn a dissenting note into their advantage, contributing to their democratic credentials. I would call it a missed opportunity for Congress. The party is not used to accommodating dissenting voices. But one would expect innovative thinking and fresh organizational principles as Rahul Gandhi has been trying hard to refurbish the image of the party.
Alas! Rahul Gandhi despite good intentions and hard work lacks appropriate and timely advice from his team. The party should have welcomed the letter, acknowledged the concerns and anxieties of those who wrote it, placed it in full before the CWC, discussed the suggestions threadbare, and replied to the letter. All this should have happened in the knowledge of the media for wider dissemination to the public.
The foregoing method of reaction would have elevated the Congress above any other party, as democratic, transparent, tolerant and accommodative. Of course, it could wrap on the knuckles of those having a vested interest in creating conflict in the party. But surely, those in G23 should have been acknowledged and appreciated. It is not being generous, or large-hearted; it is a strategy that makes a party truly democratic, inter-personal tensions and emotions notwithstanding.
Look at the practice in the United States, ‘the greatest democracy’ of the world, India is the largest. But it should also be the strongest. In USA, in both major parties, there is an intra-party contest for nomination of presidential candidate in a no-holds-barred campaign in the primaries. The contest could be so bitter and belligerent that it could leave an unending animosity. But that is not the case. Obama, having been elected as the President, appointed Hillary Clinton, his opponent in the nomination race, as the Secretary of State. Likewise, Joe Biden, the current Presidential nominee of the Democratic Party chose Kamala Harris as his Vice Presidential candidate. Kamala Harris fought bitterly against Joe Bidden for the presidential nomination.
Political analysts, as well as students of comparative politics, may argue, it is not possible for one political culture to emulate another. But one is not talking about replicating the structures, or the processes one is simply alluding to an organizing party principle in a democracy. That is, allowing dissent to exist in a party, not to snuff it out. If dissent is expressed in public domain, better.
It is true that the Congress Party is demonized for its domination by the dynasty. Frankly, it need not be apologetic about it, as dynasties in political parties have proliferated across the country, from Kashmir to Kerala. In fact, family continuum is noticed in most other sectors, business, legal and medical professions, and even in filmdom, where natural talents and beauty matter. So, family, as an institution, per se, is not detrimental to public life. But it becomes a matter of concern when incompetent and undeserving people are foisted on public institutions, including political parties, as such leaders weaken the institutions.
Alternately, a member of a family acts like a glue to a political party, as the Congress Party claims. That is how are Abdullahs in Kashmir, Badals in Punjab, Chautalas in Haryana, Yadavs in U.P. and Bihar, Karunanidhis in Tamil Nadu, Reddys in Andhra and Raos in Telangana, and the list of families in power goes on. All the family members are elected into legislatures by voters. Should it be a surprise? Why voters prefer family members, not others toil hard on the ground. This begs a separate discussion about the socio-cultural preferences of people, in this case, voters in a democracy. Suffice to say that they vote for leaders and their nominees, including from their families. That is how Mamta Banerjee and Mayawati, who have no immediate families, can get their nephews on to the leadership.
Finally, it is not just the family that is an obstacle to democratization of a party. It is the members of the parties, who are responsible for the behaviour and perception of the party. It is equally important that the family leadership should adopt an enlightened and egoless approach, or else it could drive everyone in the party into the abyss. Viewed against such premise the recent episode is a missed opportunity for the Congress.