Reviving Congress

Published April 2, 2022
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

ON hearing of the fall of the Bastille in 1789, King Louis XVI asked “Is it a revolt?” The wise Rochefoucauld replied, “No, Sire. It’s a revolution.” In India, the Congress party which once enjoyed hegemony all over the country for decades has fallen on its own sword. For long it functioned on the ‘leadership’ principle. Now this very principle threatens to destroy it.

Defeat by the BJP, led by Narendra Modi, twice in the general elections was bad enough. What is disheartening is the defection of some Congress politicians to the BJP; the tacit and insane open acceptance of the BJP’s Hindutva ideology by some well-known Congress figures; Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s palpable failure to lead, coupled with the questionable promotion of her son Rahul Gandhi and daughter Priyanka Vadra —neither has shown a surfeit of talent or tact. Modi has not exactly helped by his threat to work for a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ (Congress-free India).

The wonder is not that 35 notable Congress leaders have demanded a democratic set-up in the party but that they took so long in doing so. Sonia Gandhi, almost systematically, sidelined men of experience and proven talent while promoting Rahul whom The Economist’s Delhi correspondent called a dud. Rahul has betrayed an appalling degree of ignorance and arrogance.

The principal offender is Sonia Gandhi herself. She faces a mix of revolt and revolution. It can be curbed. She saved the Congress from certain death at the hands of its then president, an incompetent operator. She led it to victory and had the good sense to anoint the incorruptible Manmohan Singh as prime minister — by far one of the very best leaders India has had. But Sonia Gandhi undermined him on crucial issues of policy, especially on Pakistan and Kashmir. In his second term, Singh, a person of integrity had to reckon with some corrupt cabinet colleagues some of whom had links to 10 Janpath, her residence.

The principal offender is Sonia Gandhi herself.

A political party’s reputation depends a lot on the performance of its members if they are in power, or their performance in parliament if they are in the opposition. Two other factors also matter. One is the state of the organisation. The Congress is in a poor state with its nominated bunch of functionaries, in keeping with the state of all political parties.

India’s then chief election commissioner, S.L. Shakdhar, publicly lamented as far back as September 1980: “Political parties make strong demands for the conduct of free and fair elections to legislative bodies, but choose to ignore the application of the same principles when it comes to the functioning of their own party organs. It has been revealed before me in various cases, that I had occasion to hear, that parties do not follow their own constitutions. They hold no party elections. They function for years on an ad hoc basis. Sometimes there has been a tyranny of the minority over the majority because of undemocratic functioning and other practices. …

“I, therefore, suggest that there should be parliamentary legislation making it obligatory on the part of every political organisation to register their body and regulate their functioning by laying down broad outlines and norms.”

That was over 40 years ago. Things have not improved since. They have deteriorated. Sonia Gandhi faces a revolt over internal party organisation. But the root of the cause is far deeper. She and her children are intimidated by the BJP’s Hindutva especially since Narendra Modi became prime minister and also chief propagator of Hindutva.

The stark reality is that, since 1980, the Congress began operating as a B team of the BJP. Indira Gandhi was miffed that Muslims did not support her during the 1979 elections because of the excesses of her regime during the Emergency. Son Sanjay Gandhi had no pretensions about secularism.

The BJP was furious that the Congress walked away with its saffron robes when it was having a refreshing bath in the Jamuna. “It was a cruel dilemma for the BJP. Neither the RSS line nor unity with opposition parties held any promise,” Atal Behari Vajpayee told James M. Markham of The New York Times shortly after Operation Blue Star. He said: “Mrs Gandhi is playing a very dangerous game. The long-term interests of the country are being sacrificed to short-term gains. But encouraging Hindu chauvinism is not going to pay. As the majority community, Hindus must be above parochial politics. … She wanted to take advantage of the Hindu backlash.” These words of wisdom can be applied to L.K. Advani’s rath yatra in 1990.

The Babri Masjid could not have been demolished on Dec 6, 1992, if Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao had not played a double game. Sonia Gandhi goes to Hindu temples. So does Rahul. This is the very point the dissenters meet — what precisely is the Congress’s ideological answer to the BJP’s Hindutva? It is openly afraid of losing the Hindu vote.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2022

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