Imagine a situation where a group within the BJP criticises the functioning of the top leadership including the prime minister and the party president. Or, for that matter, within the Congress or any other political party.
Recently, a group of 23 in the Congress party attempted something along these lines. They wrote a polite letter to the interim president Sonia Gandhi asking for a reorganisation in the leadership of the party. Not only were the 23 ignored they were also stripped off important positions within the party.
All the 23, except maybe Kapil Sibal who attempted to defend their move, took the beating and went silent. This included a veteran Congressman like Ghulam Nabi Azad, ex-chief minister M Veerappa Moily and the voluble Shashi Tharoor.
So, how would Indian politicians react if they are told that in the United States there is a group – the Lincoln Project – within the Republican Party that is openly criticising the functioning of President Donald Trump? The group doesn’t stop at mere criticism. The dissidents have collected funds which they use to advertise against Trump across the nation. They exhort Republicans to vote for rival Joe Biden of the Democratic Party.
They made their presence known publicly via an Op-Ed in the New York Times in December 2019 titled, “We are Republicans, and We Want Trump Defeated”. Their aim: To stem the perceived damage Trump and his followers were doing to the rule of law, the Constitution and the American character. The group is named after legendary U S president Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, who fought for a united nation among other things.
The dissenters have made it clear they remain very much Republican, they are conservative and continue to ideologically align with the party.
No show-cause notices have been issued to them and they have not been expelled for “anti-party” activities as would have happened in India. The dissenting members are veteran Republicans, many of whom like Steve Schmidt and John Weaver served in previous administrations including that of George W Bush and Senator John McCain. Trump has criticised the group for working against him but that’s about it.
Or, for that matter, take the United Kingdom. Leaders, both in the Conservative and Labour parties, need to get elected from among their members. If a certain percentage in the party feels unhappy over a particular leader they can bring in a vote of no-confidence and get an alternative individual elected. In other words, intra-party democracy is robust. Individuals count for much less than the party as an institution.
On the issue of Brexit, a section of ruling Conservative party members including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove freely canvassed for “leave the European Union” against the leadership of the then leader and prime minister David Cameron who stood for “stay with the EU”. Neither of these were expelled for “anti-party” activities and Johnson, in fact, went on to become prime minister.
The US and the UK are liberal democracies, so too is India. But why is dissent frowned upon in India, dealt with severely and those who go against the grain treated like criminals?
During the recent Hathras rape episode, which left the nation aghast, only a constipated squeak of dissent came through from the ruling BJP when party general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya said of his colleague, “In Yogi’s Uttar Pradesh, vehicles can turn anytime,” referring to the suspected encounter death of don Vikas Dubey, after his vehicle allegedly overturned when on the way to custody. Vijayvarghiya was probably alluding to the collapse of law and order in UP, but as indirectly as possible.
Senior politicians and former union ministers like Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha who were once with the BJP have been unceremoniously discarded for daring to challenge the Modi-led leadership of the party. Their experience and advice count for nothing in the present dispensation.
The BJP, in the name of the Margdarshak Mandal, has completely sidelined party co-founder and former deputy prime minister L K Advani, and other seniors like Murli Manohar Joshi. Despite being household names for several decades, neither of them has attempted to make their presence felt on any issue of import, leave alone critiquing the current leadership. Is it just old age, or the fear of angering the Modi-Shah duo?
The Congress, being much older, has a longer list with top leaders like K Kamaraj, Nijalingappa, and N Sanjiva Reddy in the past shoved to the sidelines and later politicians like Rajesh Pilot and Madhavrao Scindia and now youngsters like Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia (who shifted to the BJP). The point is fairly simple: if one has to remain in the party they had to kow-tow to the leadership, else quit or be banished into political wilderness.
If the bane of the Congress has been a single family that has dominated its politics for seven decades, the BJP’s problem is the control wielded over it by an NGO, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In both cases, the opinions and perceptions of their members including elected representatives don’t matter. What is expected is total and absolute loyalty, the likes of which one finds in secretive societies like the Freemasons.
Unfortunately, this anti-democratic culture has seeped into almost all mainstream political parties in India.
Even the newest kid on the block, the Aam Aadmi Party, in the aftermath of a spectacular win in the Delhi Assembly in 2015 expelled two high-profile members – Yogendra Yadav and Prashanth Bhushan – just because they dared suggest to the chief Arvind Kejriwal that there must be a collective leadership. So much for democracy in a party that had come to power riding the anti-corruption movement and was expected to be a trailblazer in Indian politics.
The absence of intra-party democracy has become so normalized that it ceased to be an issue for the media long ago. Party chiefs routinely refer to their outfits as family, which again is a trap. The strict hierarchy of the family and the unquestioned power of the householder simply gets transposed into political parties.
It would not be wrong to say that in India democracy ends where political parties begin. If it remained within the confines of a political party, that would be one thing. But today that stifling culture is percolating into the larger society, something that should have everyone worried.