Ten years ago, on May 18, 2004 to be precise, the Central Hall of the Indian parliament witnessed political theatrics of an exceptional variety. Two hundred Congress leaders extremely dejected, feeling almost orphaned, desperately pleading with Congress president Sonia Gandhi to reconsider her “renunciation”, sat on one side of the rectangular table.
Ten years is a long time in the history of a political party. Since memories have faded, it is instructive to recall. Mani Shankar Aiyar, on the verge of tears, said that voters had identified the party with her. “We have been saying that a vote for us is a vote for Sonia Gandhi. The inner voice of the people of India says that you have to be the prime minister of India. Can we move forward without you,” he asked.
Party spokesman and newly elected MP Kapil Sibal told Sonia: “We have faith in you and no one else.” But Gandhi remained steadfast. “I have listened to your views, your pain and anguish at the decision I have taken. I am aware that I am causing anguish to you also, but I think you should trust me, allow me to take my decision,” she said. Some MPs said they would rather resign than be not led by Gandhi.
“You cannot betray the people of India,” said Aiyar. “The inner voice of the people of India says that you have to become the prime minister of India.” Kapil Sibal said: “Unless you are there, our inspiration will not be there.”
At the height of the wail of the please-madam Soniaites, the constitution of the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) was amended. A post of a chairperson more powerful than the CPP leader was created. Gandhi was then elected to this post “ensuring that Manmohan Singh would take over as PM essentially as the CPP chairperson’s nominee”. For details, Rasheed Kidwai’s Sonia: A Biography is recommended.
Clause 5 of the CPP constitution was amended and sub-clause C added. The amended clause now reads: “The chairperson shall have the authority to name the leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party to head the Government, if necessary.” Following this, the chairperson proposed the name of Manmohan Singh as CPP leader, clearing the way for his appointment as prime minister. This amendment ensured that the CPP chairperson could nominate the prime minister. Another sui generis situation: It is not the lack of support from the Congress Parliamentary Party but loss of trust of the chairperson of the CPP that could have cost the incumbent prime minister his job in the last ten years.
Why is this significant? Two reasons at least. First, this embodies a new system, a political experiment of dyarchy, a nominated prime minister expected to run the government without having the political authority for hard decisions or the ability to challenge the chairperson. What is even more important, the person nominated under the chairperson’s powers after the amendment was selected precisely to serve at the pleasure of the chairperson. Other possible candidates with a much longer grounding and experience in the political life of the party and the country could be and were ignored.
The Nehru-Gandhi family presided over India’s destiny for 52 years, directly for 37 years (Jawaharlal Nehru – 1947-1964, Indira Gandhi 1966-77 and from 1980-84 and Rajiv Gandhi 1984-89) and indirectly for 17 years (Shastri 1964-66, Narasimha Rao 1991-96, Manmohan Singh 2004-2014). What distinguishes the last 10 years is that this political experimentation has brought India’s oldest political party to the point of an unprecedented crisis. This is the second point of significance.
In an interview with Times Now, Rahul Gandhi said, “…..The issue is basically how the prime minister in this country is chosen. The way the prime minister is chosen in this country is through the MPs. Our system chooses MPs & MPs elect the prime minister (emphasis added). I said pretty clearly in my speech in the AICC that if the Congress party so chooses and the Congress party wants me to do anything for it, I am happy to do that. It’s respect for the process. In fact announcing your PM prior to an election, announcing your PM without asking the members of parliament, is not actually written in the constitution….There is a process in the constitution and that process says, and it is clearly written in the constitution, and it says members of parliament are to be elected by the population and members of parliament are to elect the prime minister. (emphasis added) All I am doing is respecting that process….”
Is it not disingenuous to suggest that it is the Congress Parliamentary Party that elects its leader? Till such time as the amended Clause 5 and the new sub-clause C remain, it is the chairperson who will continue to nominate the leader of the CPP.
Ten years have lapsed since the CPP constitution was amended. Was it a case of fading memory, lack of homework or a combination of both that the Congress vice president claimed, both at the AICC and subsequently in a TV interview, that it is the MPs who elect the PM. Or, has the CPP constitution been amended again to restore the status quo ante, i.e. to restore the pre-May 2004 position?
In the interest of transparent and open political discourse, this would appear to call for a clarification.