Last week as I wrote in the magazine, Sonia Gandhi stands to transform Indian democracy if she does indeed make the women’s reservation a reality in the coming months. Some of the most perceptive commentators like Ashis Nandy praised her coming when I spoke to them. In a system where the media and public laps up the cult of personality, clearly she and son Rahul have had the opportunity to leave their imprint on India. History will judge them.
But the troubling question is not the kind of people or leaders Sonia and Rahul are. They may be very decent individuals who are doing their best given the demands of belonging to the Nehru-Gandhi family. They may see their roles in public life as an inevitability thrust on them by their family name. After all, Rajiv Gandhi simply wanted to lead a quiet family life and fly planes till events pushed him in a different direction.
Many sensible commentators and colleagues are now of the view that it is inevitable that India and/or the Congress would be led by a member of the dynasty. The alternatives they say are a BJP led regime or an unstable government made up of smaller parties and the Left. The Congress, they say, can only survive if it is run by one family that operates on the principle of inherited charisma.
This is a wrong and inherently undemocratic idea. It is a great shortcoming of our democracy that so much of leadership has vested in one family. It’s almost 15 years since I’ve been covering national politics. I remember the great rush of excitement in the atmosphere as Mandal changed the social profile of MPs and more and more individuals from the lower castes became MPs. Even the forces of Mandir internalized the principle of lower caste representation. Some of the most forceful leaders of the BJP, like Uma Bharati, actually represented the synergy of mandal and mandir.
Yes, the new MPs may not have been elegant speakers and most can only manage a smattering of English but they are more representative of real India with all its imperfections. The OBC MPs are now here to stay.
But there’s another parallel trend particularly visible since the Congress reclaimed its pre-eminent position in 2004. After the great tide of backward castes, we now have the suave young dynasts all too visible in parliament. Yes, many regional parties are also built around families but the problem of politics becoming the preserve of families is particularly acute in the Congress. Now that Sonia and Rahul have gained great acceptance after their bumbling starts, there is no ground on which sons and daughters can be denied opportunity.
So however benign the motives of the Nehru-Gandhis , the principle on which they operate makes the Congress a club of the privileged. It justifies the proliferation of political families and closes opportunity to outsiders. In the long run can this be good for the health of our democracy? This notion of privilege has spread from particular families to business houses who now want their foot in parliament and/or seek proximity to MPs. The logic of club privilege is this--if families use politics to promote their children, why shouldn’t business houses take this principle a step further and promote their interests?
We may not have social convulsions of the 90s and from a certain point of view India may look stable in comparison. But is democracy about privilege or about the participation of the common man who can indeed cause upheavals as opposed to maintaining the status quo?