The state of dysfunction in the Indian Congress Party

A series of news items appeared recently in relation to the Congress party of India. While the news reporting went largely without comment (or with usual snark from their political opponents), to me, they brought to sharp focus the extent of dysfunction and rot within the party.

First, leading up to a Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting, some senior party members wrote to the “interim” Congress President, Sonia Gandhi. (Remember, she became interim President after her son, Rahul Gandhi, resigned from the post. Before Rahul, the very same Sonia was President.) Here is the gist of the demands in the letter, including the following:

It calls for a “full time and effective leadership” which is both “visible” and “active” in the field; elections to the CWC; and the urgent establishment of an “institutional leadership mechanism” to “collectively” guide the party’s revival.

OK, so this is in effect a serious criticism, from senior members of the party, that some changes are required going forward. So, what happened next? Rahul Gandhi’s response was to criticize the timing of the letter, since this is a time of weakness for Congress and his mother was in hospital:

Early in the Congress Working Committee meeting that went on for seven hours, Rahul Gandhi questioned why the 23 top leaders had written a letter attacking the Congress when it was at its weakest, when it was battling crises in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and when the Congress president (his mother Sonia Gandhi) was in hospital.

If you’re wondering about the seriousness of this critique, it was serious enough for the conversation to completely pivot:

The veteran leader [senior Congress member Ghulam Nabi Azad], a Rajya Sabha member, said he had called and checked with Sonia Gandhi’s private secretary twice before sending the letter. “I was told that she is in hospital for a routine check-up. Still, we waited till she was back home before sending the letter,” Mr Azad told NDTV.

Sonia Gandhi, who was admitted to hospital late last month, was discharged in the beginning of August.

He [Azad] said the Congress chief called a few days later and said she could not respond to the letter because of her poor health.

I told Soniaji, your health is paramount, all else can wait,” said Mr Azad. He claimed that Rahul Gandhi heard him out and was “satisfied” with the response.

Two things. First, is Rahul suggesting that Sonia is too ill to discharge her duties as President? Then why is she still holding the post?! This is a professional organization, where office-holders have duties and responsibilities… such as dealing with grievances of senior members of the organization! Second, if Sonia’s illness was a temporary matter, why is there not a chain of command in place?! It is perfectly natural for any single individual to occasionally be “off-duty”, so to say, due to either illness, or personal commitments, or vacations, or myriad other reasons. Any coherent organization should have a command structure where such absences are planned for! If Sonia is ill and unavailable, that should NOT mean that normal operations cease; it should only mean that someone else accepts the letter and follows an established protocol.

Next, at the CWC meeting itself, this was quoted to Sonia Gandhi regarding the ‘dissenters’:

Sonia Gandhi reportedly said in her closing remarks that she held “no ill-will” towards anyone in the party, a remark intended at the dissent-letter writers. “I am hurt but they are my colleagues, bygones are bygones, let us work together,” she said, ending the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting on a note of conciliation.

Does this seem to come from an organization of equals? Or does this seem to originate from a king/queen ruling over his/her subjects? How does it matter if Sonia Gandhi holds ill-will for the letter? Why does it matter? Again, this is a professional organization, where senior members are suggesting changes going forward for what they think is the benefit of the party. Why is Sonia Gandhi “hurt”? Because she was criticized? Does she consider herself above criticism? “Let us work together? Bygones are bygones?” YOU, Sonia Gandhi, and your son, are the ones throwing a tantrum! Your senior members were the reasonable adults coming to you with proposed changes going forward that might benefit the party!

You know what I think the problem was? Maybe Sonia and Rahul were not entirely convinced that ‘benefit of the party’ and ‘benefit of the power dynamics of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’ were well aligned. At the CWC, it was decided that elections for the next “full time” president would be held within six months. Remember that the last president, Rahul Gandhi, resigned after the last election where their political opponents basically humiliated them. Already, quotes like this:

The Congress” Assam unit on Monday said that it wants senior leader Rahul Gandhi as the party”s national president as soon as the interim chief Sonia Gandhi demits the office.

and this:

[I]t is imperative that the party should be led by Gandhi family. I humbly request you to continue as the President of All India Congress Committee, and if you feel that your health may not permit for full-fledged dedication, I urge you to convince Shri Rahul Gandhi to take up the position.

have started to appear. Would you take a bet on Rahul Gandhi not being the next Congress President, again? I wouldn’t.

What I wrote in my post on India’s Independence Day, in criticism of the current government of India, applies equally well to the party in government opposition. If, instead of performing their duty of providing strong, thoughtful rebuttal of the government’s policies, the main opposition is worried about controlling their internal power dynamics, and especially about keeping power within a dynastic family, then that bodes terribly for the country as a whole.

Where are the Congress’ ideas for India? For all that we criticize the Indian government, if an election were to be held today, who is providing an alternative narrative that citizens can latch on to and organize around? What does Congress think India should do in the next 10, or 20, or 50 years? Does it have any opinion as an organization? The current Indian government came to power on the heels of 10 years of Congress led government— after massive corruption and malfeasance, but also with BJP fanning the flames of criticism, and equally importantly, providing an alternative vision and path forward. (This was, of course, in 2014. The 2019 campaign was a different matter.)

It seems to me like Congress today is missing vision, missing organization— and perhaps even missing a pulse. It seems to me like the senior Congress members are very, very right.


India’s Independence Day

Happy Independence Day, India. In addition to celebrating, maybe it’s time for some introspection too! Let’s not forget where we came from, but let’s focus on where we want to be going.

We are a relatively young democracy, still in our growing years. As such, let’s not allow the selfish, petulant adolescents amongst us to dictate our lives and our future. If we let the misguided and sinister make our decisions, we risk letting them destabilize a fine balance.

I am choosing to do X because some people I dislike did Y some time ago, and X will hurt those people” is middle school mentality, and should not be the basis for a government’s decision making. The answer to “why are we doing this?” has to be “this is how it helps us in the next 30 years”, not “this is what our opponents did in the last 30 years”. (Yes, people outside the government will engage in all manner of shenanigans. That’s the privilege of not being in power.)

It is petulant, selfish behavior to pursue short term gratification at the cost of harm to self and others, even more so in times of a pandemic. It cannot be acceptable for the leader of the central and a state government to ignore social distancing and in fact hold an event with people all around. If that’s the example they set, what message do they send to their constituents looking for leadership? This is callous and outrageous.

It is also outrageous for the head of a government to participate in any religious ceremony in their official capacity. Of course, if they want to take a day off, and pursue their religion as private citizens, that is agreeable, whatever religion they want to pursue. As official government representatives, they can and should attend all manner of ceremonies, from all communities, not just their own.

Patriotism Comic

Comic by @SanitaryPanels.

We are as yet a young democracy. It hasn’t been long enough for us as a country to forget what it took to gain independence. It hasn’t been long enough for us to forget, or worse—ignore, the principles and ideas on which India was founded. We are a unique, complex, multi-cultural, blended pool of humanity, requiring active effort to build and keep harmony. If we are to be united, we have to refrain from being communal, we have to resist our entrenched judgments of our neighbors, we have to rise up in support of those who cannot speak for themselves.

Usually, we are supposed to look to our government, as our representatives, to uphold these values, and hold us together as a nation. If — when — they fail to do so, it is up to us to unite, resist, and rise up against the government too.


Democracy brings discontent’ in peaceful Bhutan

From Joanna Slater at the Washington Post is this excellent piece about emerging democracy in Bhutan:

A small Himalayan nation wedged between India and China, Bhutan is famed for its isolated location, its stunning scenery and its devotion to the principle of “Gross National Happiness,” which seeks to balance economic growth with other forms of contentment.

Now Bhutan’s young democracy, only a decade old, just received a heady dose of the unhappiness that comes with electoral politics. In the months leading up to Thursday’s national elections, the first in five years, politicians traded insults and made extravagant promises. Social media networks lit up with unproved allegations and fearmongering about Bhutan’s role in the world.

It is enough to make some voters express a longing for the previous system — absolute monarchy under a beloved king. “I would love to go back,” said Karma Tenzin, 58, sitting in his apartment in the picturesque capital, Thimphu. “We would be more than happy.”

Interesting tidbit:

The way elections are structured here is atypical, too. Buddhist monks, nuns and other clergy are not allowed to vote, on the logic that they should remain outside politics. No campaigning is allowed after 6 p.m. And candidates found “defaming” their opponents or straying into certain sensitive topics — such as Bhutan’s oppressively close relationship with India — face fines or reprimands.

Fines have been levied for describing political opponents as “anti-national” and “all talk and no substance”. This is such a stark contrast in tone and expectations from election campaigns in both India and USA that it almost seems quaint and anachronistic. Here’s to Bhutan maintaining its peacefulness and innocence as its democracy matures.

Bhutan went to the polls for its third parliamentary elections on 18 October, the day that the Washington Post piece was published.

(Well, perhaps democracy can also broach the topic of the expulsion, deportation, ethnic cleansing of its Nepali-origin citizens. Can’t imagine that having a good bearing on the Gross National Happiness.)


UK Election: Interesting logistics of the Queen’s speech

In light of the recent election in the UK, the Queen, of course, is supposed to make a speech regarding forming the government by the party that has won majority. Now, however, after the interesting results of the election, the Queen’s speech is delayed, and the reason for it is very interesting.

The Telegraph UK reports:

The Queen’s Speech is going to be delayed because it has to be written on goatskin paper and the ink takes days to dry.

Apparently, the British monarchy are more concerned than others would be about the archival qualities of the paper that they use.

[…] goatskin paper is not actually made from goatskin.

The material is in fact high-quality archival paper which is guaranteed to last for at least 500 years.

Well, okay, but still, why the delay?

Well, ink on this special paper takes a few days to dry. And the monarchy had “ready to go” versions of the speech for (a) a Conservative party majority, and (b) a Labour party majority. But the results of the election, that resulted in a hung parliament, has put all pre-made plans into disarray. Since the political parties themselves don’t know yet how the government will be formed, the Queen’s speech isn’t finalized yet either.

Once the details are set in stone they can be committed to the goatskin paper and sent away for binding before being presented to the Queen.

I love how even the most apparently mundane things become fascinating just by being associated with the British monarchy.


☛ Britain has voted to leave the European Union

Britain has voted to leave the European Union, a historic decision sure to reshape the nation’s place in the world, rattle the Continent and rock political establishments throughout the West.

With 309 of 382 of the country’s cities and towns reporting early on Friday, the Leave campaign held a 52 percent to 48 percent lead. The BBC called the race for the Leave campaign shortly before 4:45 a.m., with 13.1 million votes having been counted in favor of leaving and 12.2 million in favor of remaining.

The value of the British pound plummeted as financial markets absorbed the news.

This is historic. Only time will tell whether the net effects will be good or bad — for Britain and for the European Union. (I haven’t followed the intricate details of the pros and cons, but I understand that the full effects and implications are hard to predict if only because the interactions and agreements between countries are so intertwined.)

P.S. The following are required viewing: