In one fell stroke, Narendra Modi has jockeyed himself into becoming the sole contender for the prime minister’s job. By saying that the people of the country would compare the prime minister’s Independence day speech with only one other speech—which he made—Modi trumpeted that he’s the only man of consequence in the prime ministerial race. For now, the field seems clear for Modi. Rahul Gandhi shies from a slugfest with him. None in the Congress has the courage to project himself as the prime ministerial candidate. Regional party leaders have the ambition, not the appeal of Modi. Some such satraps remind one of notorious megalomaniacs of banana republics, who stop short of declaring, like Louis the XIV, “I am the State.”
In the cacophony of personality cults, we are missing the woods for the trees. Take the Congress. In the backdrop of Rahul’s efforts in the last few years to usher in elections at the grassroots level in the Youth Congress, his anointment by the party high command as ‘party supremo’ without an election at the last Jaipur conclave was comic. Party elections? Of course, yes—but the crown prince is exempt.
The BJP covered itself in ignominy when it shied away from discussing the Gadkari scandal in an open forum. When the people who control the party realised they could not push for Gadkari’s extension in the post of party chief, they appointed Rajnath Singh as compromise candidate. Again, without election. The rebels beat a hasty retreat. The best among them were more against Gadkari’s continuance than in favour of systemic changes for intra-party democracy. And when it came to projecting Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, of course, the BJP did not go about asking its cadres who they wanted for leader. Most likely, Modi would have won such an election anyway. But while he is an able administrator and may be unimpeachable in financial matters, he rules with an iron fist and has no use for dialogue or debate.
It is strange that all parties, when in opposition, demand free and fair elections to Parliament or state legislatures, hold Parliament to ransom, call for strikes and bandhs, swear by democracy, and are even ready to go to jail or resort to violence. But it is ironic that they do not seem to care for intra-party democracy and are reluctant to hold elections to find party leaders and office-bearers. Can we have democracy in the country without genuine democracy within the parties? If dissent and debate is stifled within a party, and members held in line on pain of expulsion, what sort of democracy could the party be fostering?
Our great heritage, predating all other civilisations, from Upanishadic times, is one of inquiry, debate and dialogue. The founding fathers of our Constitution knew the value of doubt and how it can catalyse the evolution of ideas and provide solutions to the problems of humankind. Therefore, they chose a system of government in which new ideas or ways can be developed and tried out and thrown away. The fact that you are not sure means that it is possible that there is another way, some day. The core premise is: doubt and discussion are essential to progress.
Democracy, whether in the west or in India, in that respect, is modern and scientific. Yes, it is also messed up and not perfect, but the admission of ignorance that no one has a perfect answer for societal issues in matters of governance or how to create equitable growth or a happy society is important because progress is possible only when there is freedom of thought.
It is not too late for our political parties to learn and emulate from the run-up to the elections to the offices of the president or prime minister in many western countries, where there is a fierce election within the parties first to elect and nominate a party candidate to contest for the highest office before the general elections. The real need and challenge for India is to find a way of dismantling the ‘high command’ in all political parties. Can we hope to see a day when the leader of the party who is designated to become prime minister is elected by a secret ballot? Which means Rahul, Chidambaram, A.K. Antony or Manmohan Singh, to name a few, should openly campaign within the party and seek election by secret ballot. And similarly, the BJP and its alter ego, the RSS, instead of manoeuvring from behind the scenes, should have asked Modi, Advani, Sushma Swaraj and others to contest and win an intra-party election to be declared the prime ministerial candidate. So Rahul or Modi, will it make any difference at all? We lose them to the high command and lose our voice after we vote them to power.
(The writer, an airline entrepreneur, had contested the 2009 general elections as an independent candidate from the Bangalore South constituency.)