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Keeping a fine balance

The shenanigans that accompanied the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha grabbed public attention, writes Suhit Sen.

india Updated: Mar 23, 2010 21:25 IST
Suhit Sen
Suhit Sen

The shenanigans that accompanied the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha grabbed public attention. Some of the television coverage also focused the limelight on the person being seen as the driving force behind it, Congress boss Sonia Gandhi. But this incident also sheds much light on something else: a new kind of relationship between party and government symbolised best by that between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Gandhi.

Before the Congress ascendancy in India crumbled decisively in the mid-1990s, the relationship between the Congress party organisation and Congress governments both at the Centre and in the states had been fraught. A little bit of that history must be recounted.

In the 1940s and 1950s, there had been a titanic struggle for power between the Congress party organisation represented by the All India Congress Committee (AICC) and the Pradesh Congress Committees (PCCs) and Congress governments both at the Centre and in the states. The former claimed that it should wield effective power as the organisation that had brought about independence and as the mass organisation that represented the people. The champions of the latter, however, repudiated this claim and upheld the position that the powers of the government were paramount and sovereign, even as the Constitution was being scripted. In the end, with the Congress ‘high command’ throwing itself behind the latter proposition, the paramountcy of the government’s power was sustained and the party organisation tamed, its claims to power circumscribed within constrained limits.

With the advent of Indira Gandhi, the rules of the game changed and remained in place, perhaps, with minor variations until the era of coalitions dawned. Indira Gandhi subverted most conventions and structures of democracy, bringing under her personal control both the party and the government, running both with the help of small, subservient coteries — one of which was the notorious ‘kitchen cabinet’. In a sense, the issue of party-government relations had been rendered irrelevant.

Since the UPA came to power in 2004, the issue of party-government relations has once again become germane. It appears, on the evidence of the past six years or so that the direction in which this relation is headed is healthy and bodes well for democracy. It is best exemplified by what we may designate as the Gandhi-Singh dialectic.

In the early years of the UPA government, there was a sense both in the media and the public that Sonia Gandhi held the whip hand and Singh deferred to her. That impression was dispelled, to some extent, when Singh held out, almost against his party, to get the Congress and Gandhi to back his nuclear deal with the US. But the impression had been wrong in the first place. It’s true that of the two the party president is the more powerful and was there to be a showdown, she would probably prevail. But Gandhi’s style is distinctly understated and it doesn’t appear that she seeks to wantonly impose herself on the prime minister on all matters. That does make for a fairly equal relationship.

But, of course, the issue is not mainly about Gandhi and Singh. It’s about party and government. It does appear that government is by and large left alone to run the country. But it does also appear that the party determines the broader direction of policy. That’s probably why we now have a welfarist policy framework of some kind instead of market fundamentalist liberalisation. This is clearly Gandhi’s contribution. An unrestrained Singh would probably have been more Washington Consensus-oriented.

And this model is right and balanced. The party makes the political choices that frames policy and the government makes and executes policy relatively unhindered.

Suhit Sen is a Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Mar 23, 2010 21:24 IST