Election by selection

Party Presidentship


By Dr S. Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)

The importance of party leadership position must have been realised by every citizen watching the process of finding the next Congress President after the resignation of Rahul Gandhi. This 150 year-old party has of course got a written Constitution, rules and procedure governing organization and functioning of the party. It has also got conventions, traditions, and practices in accordance with and in spite of the written law.
The situation is in many respects similar in many political parties. The internal matters of the Congress are naturally more widely discussed and criticised than of other parties because of people’s high expectations from the national party that is oldest by age and which has ruled the country for the longest period after independence.
Rahul Gandhi resigned as Congress President on this July 3, and his mother and previous President, Sonia Gandhi was appointed as Interim President on 10 August. The intervening period was spent in persuading the outgoing President to change his decision and also in finding a suitable successor to the post. Top Congress leaders met on 9 August with the State unit chiefs, leaders of state legislature parties, and general secretaries when the outgoing president told them, according to some press reports, that a new party chief would be appointed in a few days after wider consultations.
A senior leader is reported to have said that the CWC should immediately appoint an interim president and then hold election for the post. In his words, “a leader elected by workers will be empowered and have more credibility”. At the same time, some names were floated for appointment.
The AICC is the central decision-making body of the Congress which is composed of elected members of State-level Pradesh Congress Committees, which have members elected or nominated from district and panchayat-level party units. Members of the AICC and Pradesh Congress Committees elect the party president and members of the CWC, according to party Constitution.
It is reported that there is no unanimity within the Congress to leave the selection of next Party President in the hands of 53 members of the CWC comprising 24 members, 19 permanent invitees, and 10 special invitees. There was even a suggestion to disband the CWC and invite over 10,000 PCC delegates to join the process of election of the party President. Informal consultations with the State units do not satisfy them as equivalent to direct election.
Evidently, there were internal differences over the method of selection of the chief – most probably between election as per the party constitution and appointment by power holders after informal consultations – a controversy between selection by election or election by selection!
As per CWC’s decision, Sonia Gandhi will presently hold the post of president till the AICC elections are held to select a full-time president.
Congress Party’s long stay as the ruling party seems to have led to a type of government-party relationship not found in other parties that have not tasted fully governmental power. The relationship has reshaped the role of party leadership and various functionaries.
2004 election provided Congress-led coalition with a mandate to govern after a gap of eight years, and also afforded the party an opportunity and a reason to revitalise and renew the role of the Congress Party in determining the government-party relationship. The mandate to govern achieved by the Congress as leader of the coalition of parties was not just a return to power of the old guards, but a significant stage in strengthening its role in the government. The focus of the insiders as well as outsiders was on the party as much as on the government during 2004-14. It was reversal of the party position in the 1950s and 1960s when the government was supreme and the party less visible.
Noteworthy in this political change is the formal bifurcation of leadership in government and leadership of the party breaking the practice set by Indira Gandhi in 1978 to unite the two leadership positions in the same hands. Rajiv Gandhi and P.V.Narasimha Rao also held dual posts.
This development was partly due to the decline of Congress President Sonia Gandhi to be the Prime Minister in 2004 despite being instrumental in the victory of the party against a very popular BJP Prime Minister Vajpayee and preference to head a pre-poll and post-poll alliance of multiple parties.
Significantly, the bifurcation resulted in the elevation of the Party President as the most important person, in fact more than the Prime Minister from the party who had to manage a complex coalition amidst pressures from party members, alliance partners, party coordination committees, the National Advisory Council, and commitment to the National Common Minimum Programme and also face parliamentary opposition.
No wonder, Party President acquired enormous power and influence and became the focus of everyone from top to bottom in the party and in the government. The post of the President thus became worth aspiring for especially when out of power when there is no governmental power in the hands of the Congress to compete.
Experience of many regional parties confirms that successful leaders are those who capture the party leadership from the elevation of Karunanidhi in 1969 to Jayalalitha in 1987 and Akhilesh Yadav in 2012.
For registration of political parties, the Election Commission requires certain documents like the organisational structure and powers and functions of the organs of the party, method of appointment of various office-bearers of the party, the process of their election, etc. There is no express requirement regarding internal democratic regulations of parties which suits the actual functioning of parties.
In the BJP, party president should be a party member for at least 15 years. He/she is nominally elected by an electoral college composed of members drawn from party’s national and State councils. In practice, however, a consensus choice of senior party members has worked well. Presidentship is a three-year term and cannot extend to more than two consecutive terms. The president does not normally hold a post in the government and Amit Shah’s current two posts is said to be a temporary arrangement in view of some State elections due in a few months. There has not been so far any case of pre-fixing the President.
With no constitutional restriction on the length of the term, the Congress was able to run its show with the same president for 19 years from 1998 to 2017. The tenure of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi lasted six years each. Long tenure of the same person in any organisation is reason enough to weaken the democratic thinking of the organisation leading to some kind of lethargy in conducting party elections. Whether this will forever suit new and younger elements coming with fresh ideas and enthusiasm or even veterans to resign to the fate of playing second fiddle to top leadership remains to be seen particularly when the party is going through adverse fortune.
In a national party like the Indian National Congress, leadership election cannot be deemed an internal party matter that does not concern ordinary citizens. In the final election or selection of the leader lies the future of the party.—INFA