China’s Congress and India’s Congress: Not all princelings are the same
First, India’s Congress party met, then China’s party Congress met. Don’t see it as just a nice coincidence allowing a nice play on words. The twin events demonstrated yet again how we go in circles while others go forward. The party Congress was a reiteration of China’s capacity to impact the world. The Congress party reiterated its— and the country’s—incapacity to break free of one family’s stranglehold.
Scions of political families, “princelings”, are active in China too. New party chief Xi Jinping is himself the son of a former deputy prime minister. But he had to compete with other princelings since there is no dominant dynasty with a dominant princeling before whom others have no chance. In fact, Xi is an example of meritocracy in China. He was not the preferred choice of outgoing boss Hu Jintao. Hu would have liked Li Keqiang to succeed him. But he couldn’t persuade his colleagues in the caucus, and Li had to settle for prime ministership.
That merit and consensus were taken into account for the third succession in a row is a tribute to Deng Xiaoping, perhaps the most visionary leader in Chinese history, not excluding Mao Zedong. Deng’s commonsense (“The colour of the cat does not matter as long as it catches mice”) was a seachange from Mao’s follies such as the Great Leap Forward which triggered a famine. The economic prosperity he ushered in made headlines because it marked a departure from communism itself. His blueprint to eliminate Mao-style personality cult was based on two concepts: The president and prime minister should only have two five-year terms each, and leaders should not hold office after they were 68.
The leaders Deng nurtured imbibed his spirit. Jiang Zemin who succeeded Deng in 1992 was a powerful leader whose influence still counts. He could have manoeuvred to stay on in office, but he did not. Hu Jintao who succeeded Jiang in 2003 also followed the 10-year rule.
There must indeed be fierce internal wranglings in closed-door meetings of the party bigwigs. It is a corruption-ridden country and stakes are high for power-wielders. But the secret of their success is that they fight in private and unite in public. Once decisions are reached, a picture-perfect harmony emerges for the world to marvel at. All 2,268 delegates appear in identical black suits (fortunately different styles of neck-ties are allowed), all voting hands rise in unison, and all announcements are endorsed unanimously.
The choreography is all too evident and unconvincing. Like the verbal choreography we see at home when Sonia-Rahul’s role in the National Herald property is questioned or Robert Vadra’s real estate deals are publicised. The Surajkund conclave might have seen no sartorial uniformity but the leaders’ obeisance before the Supreme Leader was all too evident. And that, without prior fireworks; Congressmen would be as obsequious behind closed doors as in front of them.
The point is that we have the form without the substance. With power no less than Deng’s, Indira Gandhi could have established a healthy precedent or two, like a respectable retirement age for ministers. A two- or three-term limit for MPs would have helped bring up fresh talent. She had the power, but not the wisdom. So she went in the opposite direction. If Deng’s objective was to put the country above personalities and their cults, Indira ensured that her family would be above the country.
Things can of course change. There is no guarantee that Deng’s vision would live for decades to come. A leader may emerge who will see the enormous might of China and develop ambitions of his own. By the same token, the Congress party may realise that dependence on one family is not taking it anywhere while the country is slipping in its economic progress. India may yet discover its destiny. At the moment, however, what we see is an avowed democracy getting caught in the ways of dictatorship, while an avowed dictatorship benefits from the ways of democracy. Ironies never cease.