Here's why Rahul is our insider in the system

Why we need to cut RaGa some slack and look closer at what he is trying to do within his party


BV Rao | January 8, 2014

At least in the matter of problems he discusses – internal party democracy and giving voice to the people – Rahul Gandhi has a track record to boast of that no politician, yes, not a single one, can.
At least in the matter of problems he discusses – internal party democracy and giving voice to the people – Rahul Gandhi has a track record to boast of that no politician, yes, not a single one, can.

(Editors's note: As Rahul Gandhi gets written off by most analysts with the 'emergence' of sister Priyanka, here's a contrarian view – written by our former editor BV Rao when the Congress vice-president was facing similar flak not long ago! The story appeared in the October 16-31, 2012 print issue. We revisit the article as the purported Rahul-Modi fight in the 2014 elections threatens to become a Modi-Kejriwal one – at least for the analysts.)

Of all the opprobria heaped on Rahul Gandhi for intervening in the ordinance to protect honourable criminal convict-legislators by an honourable prime minister’s honourable cabinet, the one by Devil’s Advocate Karan Thapar sticks in the mind. Karan’s job was made easy because everybody had already identified the Devil of the week: Rahul Gandhi. But since the closest thing you can do to interviewing Rahul is to speak to one of his cronies, he caught hold of Sachin Pilot. The poor dummy Devil was in for a surprise because his Advocate turned on him and when Pilot said “to make an omelette you have to break the egg”, Karan seized the moment: “Yes, but in this case the egg has ended up on his (Rahul’s) face, not on the pan,” he said with a triumphant I-rest-my-case look.

Rahul had to contend with much more than just egg on his face. Never before had any political leader been butchered for doing something that everybody agreed was the right thing to do. But apparently the standards of morality and rectitude in public life and office are very high these days. So high that while celebrating the death of the ordinance Rahul was scalded for the timing, manner and motive of his self-admittedly sudden and surprisingly vehement denouncement of the ordinance.

The charge on Rahul was rather serious. He had damaged, denigrated, dwarfed, diminished, dishonoured, disfigured, destroyed, demolished, defaced, defiled, devalued and —— (fill in your own “D” words here) the democratic institution of the prime minister of India and his hoary cabinet. It did not matter that his mother got there first nine-and-a-half years ago when she chose to be the super prime minister with a super cabinet and that there was nothing much left for Rahul to do on that score. What mattered was the institutional structure of our democracy was (another “D” word) distorted by Rahul because, as the 19th century French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville said (and brought to our notice by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his column, ‘Blunt hammer syndrome’, Indian Express, October 4), “all democratic government is sustained by form”.

Rahul, by this single impetuous act of defiance had deformed democracy so much beyond repair that no convicted criminal legislator can make a home for himself/herself in our venerable legislatures anymore. Where would these dis-housed destitutes of democracy go? But a more fundamental question was given the go-by: how did these guys enter parliament’s divine portals in the first place? Was not democracy already sullied way before Rahul rolled in the bulldozers on September 26?

We all know the answer to those questions. But the entire media and the die-hard institutionalists – those who would rather let the institution collapse under its own ill-weight than save it with help from extraneous sources – would have none of it. Rahul was not even an outsider, but it did not matter to them. It did not matter either that Lalu Yadav was given alternative accommodation in another democratic institution at the instance of a third democratic institution.

They trotted out all the regular righteous wise stuff about ‘means justifying ends’ and ‘doing the right thing the right way at the right time’.
The Congress party is never in the habit of explaining fully the guerrilla tactics of His Imperial Highness. Rahul himself emerges here and there and says this and that for which he is fashionably lampooned. Everything he says is quickly turned into “nonsense” even without him having to mention the word. So we will never know why he chose to do what he did when he did the way he did it. It is quite possible that he wanted to steal the thunder from president Pranab Mukherjee who had indicated that he might return the ordinance.

There are legitimate questions about Rahul’s timing that needed to be asked and they were. Rahul made no public statement against it when the bill was introduced in parliament in August or when the Congress core committee, of which he is a member, okayed the ordinance just a few days before his outburst. Obviously, he failed to convince that his conduct in the immediate past – spanning the birth and death of the bill and ordinance – was consistent with what he said at the press conference. But that was just about six weeks of convenient policy slumber. Was that all there was to Rahul? Was this enough to judge him on his views, beliefs, commitment and work on political reforms within his party? What about the six years he spent as general secretary in the party? What did he do?

There is enough evidence to show that Rahul’s position on decriminalisation of politics is a core belief and not just a flash-in-the-pan act of political opportunism. He has nearly six years of work to show for it. The media knows that but does not care to connect it with the ordinance row preferring to limit the discussion to how he undermined the prime minister and the union cabinet.

That is a suicidal position to take for any political writer so allow me a little detour to take the argument forward.

Structural deficiencies

If our constitution is the foundation of our democracy, universal adult suffrage is the first brick in the structure and public opinion the scaffolding that is erected around it, first to build the structure and then to re-emerge once in a while to keep it in place and in shape. This universal adult suffrage, this maturity of the mostly unlettered voter, is what gives us our bragging rights. We pride ourselves in the fact that we conduct the largest and the most complex electoral exercise of the world every five years just to give power to the voice of the people.

Our members of parliament carry this collective voice to parliament. Each MP represents, on average, about 15 lakh voices. Imagine the power of this voice. But see what has become of it. The voters are knocked out of the game the moment they cast their vote and the MPs are knocked out of the equation the moment they win it. The party takes complete control. MPs can’t open their mouth without the party’s express wish – representing the voter is not even on the table. They are herded in and herded out of parliament like sheep and any power to make, break and overthrow laws is concentrated in a handful of party bosses.

It is this atrocity that Rahul Gandhi was referring to when he spoke at the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) in June. “The legislative engine in India basically consists of 5,000 people. These 5,000 people –about 4,000-plus MLAs and 790 MPs – drive the country. And how many people do you think choose these 5,000 people? In my party, in the BJP, BSP and all parties put together, if you push very hard, about 200 to 300! How can we talk about anything if just 200 people are defining those vidhan sabhas and parliament? That is our problem,” he said with sincerity and honesty that makes us supremely suspicious of his intellect because that is not how politicians are supposed to be. Chicanery and double-speak is what we expect. The lack of it makes us uncomfortable.

So, his deep insights into India’s systemic problems during the impromptu question-answer session were drowned out by the mess that was his written speech. The whole event became an internet comic’s delight and the essence of what he was trying to communicate was totally lost.

That’s about Rahul’s talk. Does he talk the talk and walk the walk? At least in the matter of the problems he discussed above – internal party democracy and giving voice to the people, Rahul has a track record to boast of that no politician, yes, not a single one, can. They are not even trying to acquire one, by the way. The first thing Rahul did when he took charge of the party’s youth wings (the National Students Union of India, NSUI, and the Indian Youth Congress, IYC) in September 2007 was to introduce elections within these parties. Democracy in India is a strange contradiction. On the outside, general elections are the elixir of political parties. But on the inside these parties are petrified of elections. They preach democracy for the country and show a visceral hatred for it within. As a result leaders are not made through a democratic process of elections but anointed by the handful of supreme leaders Rahul referred to above.

In the last six years, while he was being caricatured in the media for running away from high office, Rahul has been at work to rectify this fundamental flaw in our democracy by introducing a strict regimen of elections to throw up elected leaders from the grassroots rather than para-drop them. Starting with pilot projects in one or two states around 2008-09, Rahul has successfully rolled out these elections across the country in NSUI and IYC. NSUI has completed three rounds of annual country-wide elections and IYC is in its third year.

These elections are conducted in all seriousness and exactly on the lines of the national elections, sometimes taking things a step or two ahead of the law and the model code of conduct of the election commission. Rahul Gandhi engaged an outside agency, the Foundation for Advanced Management of Elections (FAME), to professionalise the process and lend it credibility. FAME – headed by former chief election commissioner JM Lyngdoh and peers — was founded to propagate internal democracy in political parties among other things.

KJ Rao, the former deputy election commissioner who shot to fame in 2005 for conducting the first fair elections in Bihar and a key functionary of FAME, recalls Rahul’s fierce commitment to inner-party elections. “Once FAME came into being we wrote to all political parties offering to help them conduct elections. Only the CPI acknowledged the letter but no party asked for help. But one year later we got a call from Rahul. He said he wanted to hold elections in NSUI and IYC. We said we would take it up only if we could apply the strictest rules of fairness and transparency and that FAME would have the last word on all matters. Rahul agreed. And from that day to today, he has not interfered in the decisions of FAME or the IYC and NSUI election commissions (manned by party activists) even though there must have been immense pressure on him.”

“Internal democracy is the key to the vision of the Indian Youth Congress”

That is the opening line of the election handbook for candidates who are then subjected to the highest standards of poll conduct. A sample (available on

* …those persons who have been convicted for any offence/offences as detailed in Section 8 of Representation of People’s Act 1951 will not be eligible to contest the election. If any person feels that the case is politically motivated, they may appeal to FAME, whose decision will be final.

This was the Section in the Representation of People’s Act (RPA) that the ordinance sought to nullify and caused all the brouhaha but look at the next one:

* Any person who has been charged with an offence punishable with imprisonment of 5 years or more will not be eligible to contest the election either if he/she has been convicted; or if the court has taken cognizance of the case and if a charge sheet has been filed in the case.

This is a far stricter rule than what is available in the RPA wherein disqualification of elected members kicks in only after conviction. In the IYC (and NSUI) you cannot even contest an election if a charge sheet has been filed against you and the court has taken cognizance of it, forget about conviction. The crux of all civil society movements to decriminalise politics is to introduce this same condition in our national laws. But in spite of recommendations from law commissions, election commissioners and others, we have not moved an inch in that direction in decades.

The next one is even more interesting:

* Any person charged with a large number of criminal or other serious offences may be debarred from contesting the elections at the discretion of FAME.
Not all serious crimes attract five-year imprisonment. So candidates with a string of serious cases with lesser punishment might sneak through. This condition takes care of that. If a candidate has a track record of serious crimes, he may be debarred from contesting and the decision vests with FAME!

Polling Venue Rules:

Even these rules are way stricter than the EC’s code of conduct for national elections. Sample these:

  • No posters, handbills and banners within 200 metres of the polling venue. Posters can be displayed only in authorised places; defacement of public property will be viewed seriously. Paper and television advertising is strictly prohibited.
  • Only election officials and voters are allowed to enter the polling stations. There is no provision for polling agents.
  • Candidates will be allowed to enter the polling station only to cast their vote.
  • Indiscipline or misbehaviour of any sort with the returning officer or at the polling station will not be tolerated no matter what the provocation. Any breach of discipline will be punished with debarment from the election, expulsion from the organisation and/or possible legal action.

These are not on the rulebook to make Rahul look good. In enforcing and interpreting these rules FAME and the IYC election commission follow the straight and the narrow and brook no interference. In the last three years, at least four very prominent Youth Congress leaders have been debarred for electoral malpractices, two of them were stripped off the presidentship of their state units after winning the election. In 2011 Vikramaditya Singh, son of Virbhadra Singh (then a union cabinet minister and now chief minister of Himachal Pradesh) lost his post for spoiling the level-playing-field condition because he used resources of his father for electioneering. He was barred from contesting the re-election.

The same year, Valanka Alemao was thrown out of the election to the Goa unit for benefiting from her father Churchil Alemao and uncle Joaquim Alemao, both influential ministers in the Goa cabinet. Early this year, Sanjeev Singh was dethroned when it came to light, after his election to the Bihar unit, that he had faced a CBI probe for securing an engineering seat in 1996 through fraud. He had failed to disclose this and invited the disqualification.

Major Genral (Retd) SP Jhingon of FAME is closely associated with overseeing IYC elections. He is full of admiration for Rahul’s commitment to internal democracy. “Each time we have taken disciplinary action, there was immense pressure on Rahul to intervene. But Rahul has always stood by his word never to intervene. When we announced Valanka’s disqualification, her father and uncle resigned from the cabinet and threatened to bring down the government. We were told Rahul said ‘so be it’. But he did not call us to even enquire what the matter was about.”

He recalls another instance during the election to the Madhya Pradesh unit in 2012. “On the morning of the election the FAME team reached Bhopal. To our consternation we saw posters of candidates of all four major groupings all along the route. This was a serious violation of the code. So we ordered that the polls would be called off if all the posters were not pulled down before 1 pm. We wanted to intimate Rahul aware that he would soon be inundated with calls. He backed us unquestioningly.”

Rahul’s six-week slumber pales against this background of commitment to weeding out criminals from the party. And, perhaps, it was the frustration that the national party was undoing his work of six years led to the outburst?

However, the most important feature of this exercise is the cultural change that Rahul is attempting to bring in. Anybody who wants to become a leader in the IYC has to win elections beginning from the base of the unit. Elections are held at four levels in every state: booth, vidhan sabha, parliament and state in that ascending order. Every leader has to begin his career by winning at the booth level first and only those who have won election at one level can vote in the next level. So, by the time the candidates reach the top level, they would have had to fight three elections, thus, automatically eliminating para-droppers and family retainers.

“Neta bano, neta chuno” is the internal party slogan for this new regime of elected leaders. For a party that has been brought up on sycophancy and servitude to the Gandhi family as the only condition for career ascendancy, this is a different planet. Used to collecting frequent flier miles rather than logging them on the road, this rootless old guard (most if not all) sees what Rahul is doing as nothing short of political subterfuge.

Every month, round the year, the election process is on in some state or the other. (See map on previous page for IYC schedule). It would be foolish to dismiss this elaborate electoral exercise as an eyewash or the indulgence of a political greenhorn. This might not be a blemish-less system. After serving her ban Valanka has this year won the election and Vikramaditya is tipped to take over as president in November when elections are held. So people of influence will keep beating the system. But since the effort is to ensure leadership through election and not to deny leadership to anybody, it is par for the course. The jury is still out on whether Rahul can engrave this in the DNA of the Youth Congress and then push it to the next level of the mother party which will be the actual challenge.

Prof. Jagdeep Chhokar is a founding member of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) which has been the single biggest votary of internal party democracy. Prof. Chhokar, no fan of Rahul’s ordinance tandav, recounted a meeting with him some time ago. “We spoke to him about internal democracy. Rahul told us about the work he is doing in the NSUI and IYC. We asked him why not the Congress party itself. He said his party would implode if he rushed it. We asked him how long this experiment would take. He said he was giving himself ten years. We asked him what happens if you fail. Then, he said, ‘I will walk away and somebody else will have to do it’.”

Rahul’s experiment is reaching its mid-life. He has now spent his entire tenure as political administrator trying to devise means to bring the voice of the people into the political system. Substantial though that effort is, it is nowhere near sufficient to redeem him and his party in 2014. The instances of mis-governance and misdemeanour are too many and too recent to tide over with one good, consistent track of work. But this much can be said as of now. What Rahul Gandhi is doing to democratise his party has the potential to return democracy to a form that has some semblance with what our forefathers imagined for it. From the entire galaxy of political parties and politicians he is the only one committed to restoring it to some original form. And since democracy is about “form” we need to cut Rahul some slack and understand his larger mission. (“The reason why people have not appreciated what we are doing in the IYC is because they have not fully understood what we are doing,” Rahul said at the CII conference. But, as Prof. Chhokar asks, “Whose failing is that?”)

For decades, civil society has been pushing for exactly the kind of changes that Rahul has undertaken to bring. Public opinion is a necessary force to drive change in this moribund system. Civil society will have to channelise that force but both are not sufficient to actually effect change. Actual change to this vexed, self-serving setting of party politics can be effected only from the inside. Rahul is our insider in the system, the only insider. This system has become alien to us and is in the hands of a privileged few (including Rahul Gandhi and he has to live with the apparent contradiction of what he is – a silver-spooned paratrooper – and what he is trying to do). This system is unresponsive, utterly exclusive, clannish, closed and has shut the doors on us forever.

So, let us fill more wind in Rahul’s wings. If he abandons this experiment and walks away mid-way, it may do nothing to his political career – because he has the easier, assured, tried and tested sycophancy route to power – but we will lose a comrade within the political system.

Then, the egg will be on our face, not Rahul’s.

(This article appeared in the October 16-31, 2012 issue of Governance Now)



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