50 years of a landmark split

17 Sep 2019


The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

SONIA Gandhi has at last called for agitational politics all the way to the villages and small towns. It is an excellent idea, but agitations do not usually flow from the leader’s command. They spring mostly from a suppressed and abused people’s angst.

It is not that agitations are not going on. The resolute people in Niyamgiri are doing what they can to save their sacred mountain and its resources from corporate depredation. Their success depends on the depth of political support they can muster. The frightened electronic media recently airbrushed the march of a million Dalits through Delhi. They were hiding from public view the image of a downtrodden people spiritedly reclaiming their democratic space. Farmers are marching, and laid off workers are regrouping.

Ordinary Kashmiris have been shut out to the world, but news filtering through the impervious lockdown, thanks to a handful of intrepid journalists, reveals a people who are up for the fight.

On the other hand, it is useful to also remember that when residents of a southern coastal village were agitating against the installation of a controversial nuclear plant in their midst, the Congress prime minister of the day had called them foreign agents. The same prime minister, when the world had abandoned George W. Bush as a liar who invaded Iraq over a manufactured ruse, revealed his abiding love for the US president.

It would require a collective effort of all Indian opposition groups to refloat the beached Congress.

The Congress cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds anymore. That time has passed. The baton it has coveted is now firmly in the clasp of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Ms Gandhi reminded her younger party members that together with their jostling on social media, a more real fight was also necessary. In making the call, the ailing leader offered many of her non-Congress supporters rare hope following the return of Narendra Modi in the May elections. She unambiguously accused the prime minister of misusing his mandate, which he has been doing by hollowing out state institutions and corroding the constitution.

However, an equally challenging malaise lurks within the Congress, which probably triggered Rahul Gandhi’s resignation as president of the party. This is a long-festering problem. It presents itself as right-wing lobbies that have swamped the Congress from its inception, before independence. These people share more with the fascist Hindutva worldview than with their own ties to Nehru, leave alone Mahatma Gandhi.

There was Vasant Sathe, for instance, who was a leading Hindutva fan within the Congress. He threatened to resign from the party if it opposed the installation of Savarkar’s portrait in parliament. Savarkar’s seminal views about Hindutva form the basis of right-wing Indian thought today. His prescriptions for Hindus to deal with Muslims evoke revulsion. Understandably, his pictures adorn official frames of senior ruling party personnel, particularly its president.

While the old guard is not entirely bereft of the Hindutva virus, more recently, several younger Congress leaders openly and loudly supported the smash-and-grab moves the government has made in Jammu & Kashmir.

The saving grace was Rahul Gandhi and a few others who at least tried to visit Srinagar in its hour of need. One saw, however, that Rahul’s sharp comments about the government’s eerie lockdown imposed on the Kashmiris against their will in their homeland were quickly edited by Congress spokespersons, as often happens in such cases. He too had to make some bland statements against Pakistan as a corrective.

What is the remedy? The answer lies to some extent in how one approaches the Indian reality. When the Hindus of Nepal did not like their reality, they changed it. When Muslims did not like the old order, they produced Ataturk.

Not long ago, Ms Gandhi almost complained that the Congress was increasingly seen as a pro-Muslim party. Would she have felt apologetic if the Congress were to be perceived as a pro-Dalit or a pro-Sikh party, which it is not? Therefore, there is some lurking guilt within the leadership or rank bad advice from status quo-hugging advisers who by habit are hesitant to rock the boat, in this case a potential gravy train. But the boat has been beached and it is time to accept it. It would require a collective effort of all Indian opposition groups to refloat the beached Congress.

Indira Gandhi grasped the need to change India’s reality, as did Nehru, under the circumstances that obtain even today. This year, on Nov 12, it would be 50 years since Indira Gandhi left the Congress, or better still, she was expelled. She had concluded that the Congress had been taken over by a pro-rich cabal of a distinctly reactionary disposition.

She saw how this frailty had delivered the victory to the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal state alliances that included, opportunistically, the communists and the Bharatiya Jan Sangh under one quilt. She outmanoeuvred her opponents, split the party, joined hands with pronouncedly progressive ideologues, and went on to win the 1971 elections with a thumping majority of 352 in a Lok Sabha of 518 seats.

As for Nehru’s brand of upright politics, a sample came in 1954. Congress MP Seth Govind Das moved a resolution in the Lok Sabha for a total ban on cow slaughter, which Nehru rejected. When Das claimed a “large majority of the party” was in favour of the resolution, Nehru’s response was characteristically upright: “I would rather resign than accept this nonsensical demand.”

In July 1949, Nehru said that “Kashmir is a world question”. And he said he was for mediation and against war. What is the problem with that statesman-like stand today? Would it not be better that the Congress stood by agreeable principles and lost power than to live with the ignominy of losing both? Better still for Sonia Gandhi, India’s reality can be changed as her political forebears showed with flourish.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.


Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2019