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Axe the different axes

With all available indicators pointing to a poor monsoon and overall, the Congress is turning the heat on the government. Party spokesman Janardhan Reddy has issued an advisory to the government to tackle its most important fallout — the rise in food prices. Suhit Sen writes.

india Updated: Aug 20, 2009 00:20 IST
Suhit Sen

With all available indicators pointing to a poor monsoon and overall, the Congress is turning the heat on the government. Party spokesman Janardhan Reddy has issued an advisory to the government to tackle its most important fallout — the rise in food prices.

Over the past month or so, relations between the Congress party and the government have been fraught over the joint declaration with Pakistan. Though there’s been no public criticism, it’s hardly a secret that there’s been dissatisfaction within the party organisation and pressure on the prime minister — the party-government equation is being reworked in the Congress context since the United Progressive Alliance came to power in 2004.

The significance of this change — and in many ways it’s a positive development — has to be seen in a historical context. At the time when the democratic republic of India was coming into being and in its early years — from the mid-1940s through the 1950s — there had been an intense contestation for power between the government and the party.

This actually meant a contest between the organisational wing of the party and its parliamentary wing. In this contest, the parliamentary wing gained ascendancy, which allowed it to insulate the government from the party. Though the party laid claim to a superordinate role in the making of policy and the conduct of government, it failed. This, to a large extent, made possible the establishment of democracy and the rule of law, however imperfectly.

After Nehru, the party organisation asserted itself to a limited extent under the Kamaraj presidency with the help of a clique of party bosses that came to be known as the ‘Syndicate’. Both played a decisive role in the ascension of Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi as prime minister.

The rules of the game changed dramatically after Gandhi took on the old guard, asserted her pre-eminence in the party and, finally, split it. In the 1970s, she established control both over the party and the government. This entailed a process of the de-institutionalisation of the party — the established hierarchy from the mandal up to the All-India Congress Committee was subverted along with elections to establish committees at various levels. Inner-party democracy was destroyed, as was, in effect, the organisation itself.

Similarly, the government came under the control of Gandhi and was run first by her ‘kitchen cabinet’ and a group of ‘committed’ bureaucrats and then by Sanjay Gandhi and his lumpen cohorts. Increasingly, government functioned through extra-constitutional channels and with the party organisation subverted the question of party-government relations became something of an irrelevance. Nothing much changed under Rajiv Gandhi.

Under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership, democratic processes have not been restored yet. It does appear though that there’s a new kind of partnership between the party and the government in which there is recognition of the separateness of their domains and their relative autonomy. The difference is that while the government is by and large free to run the affairs of State, there is a greater supervision by the party not only in laying down broad policy objectives but also in framing policy — the party now has a directive role.

Sonia Gandhi must be given substantial credit, as Congress president, in ensuring that, up until now, this has not led to undue interference in the functioning of the government or in the subversion of constitutional norms. That this is a coalition government has ensured this, but the Congress leadership must ensure — as Nehru and his colleagues did — that the party doesn’t impinge on the government to the extent that its autonomy is imperilled. It can look at the Left’s record in Bengal if it’s in need of a cautionary tale.