On March 14 2008, Narendra Modi and Digvijaya Singh appeared together on a panel at the India Today Conclave in New Delhi. It was such a rare event, as top leaders of the two parties have seldom sparred with each other directly in public. It was also very civil and quite stirring. Both know their lines and politics. Neither is known to take any prisoners.
For once, however, Digvijaya, certainly the more experienced and bilingual of the two, was stumped. Modi asked him, how did he justify dynastic rule in his party. Digvijaya recovered quickly, though. This, he said, was common enough in democracies around the world. For evidence, he said, look at America and the Clintons. This is precisely when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were locked in a close battle for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination. Digvijaya’s short point was, if nobody is complaining about the Clintons in America, why should we keep complaining about the Gandhis in India.
This was a bit much even for a backbencher like me that day. So I grabbed a microphone and asked Digvijaya, “When was the last time someone challenged a member of the Gandhi family for leadership of the Congress and lived to tell the tale?” I added that we needn’t be judgemental because other parties in India were dynastic too. But let’s not indulge in hypocrisy and trivialise another country’s political system “because chances are that Hillary will lose”.
That exchange can be accessed on the internet (goo.gl/Uj7KHv). It came back to me now, thinking about what had gone so wrong with the Congress that a party which had already celebrated victory for 2014 in 2009 is now looking at its lowest mark ever next May, maybe even in two figures. That something is seriously wrong with the party is also publicly acknowledged by Rahul Gandhi. Hours after the rout in the latest state elections, he said he was going to change the Congress party in ways “you cannot even imagine”.
Now, you and I probably cannot imagine what we are told we cannot, or which is only in someone else’s mind. But we are at liberty to imagine what can work and what may not. Rahul’s essential thought is that there is no internal or grassroots democracy in the Congress, or in all of Indian politics. That is why it is neither meritocratic nor genuinely representative.
Nobody would argue with that, so let’s