“The Congress is the service station of the life-giving ideology of the nation. The self-sustaining doctrines are pumped through the arteries of the government of the nation where they become somewhat sullied in
implementation and are returned to the Congress for purification .. ’’
Gandhiji wanted B P Sitaramayya to become the president of the Congress Party in 1939. Gandhi had preferred him over Subhash Chandra Bose. Despite Gandhiji’s support, Sitaramayya lost the election but
his prophetic words still resonate in my ears at a time when the Congress is struggling for its existence. Last Saturday, in a marathon meeting, the Congress tried to find an answer to its ailments. It seems Rahul Gandhi has finally given in to the pressure and sooner than later, will be the party president. But the larger question is what Sitaramayya had said 71 years ago: Will the party once again become the ‘service station of life-giving ideology of the nation?’
Attacks on dynasty
This question should be asked at a time when historians like Ramchandra Guha are advocating the ‘disappearance of the Gandhis’ from the party for the revival of the Congress. In Guha's opinion, the Congress
needs new leaders beyond the Nehru-Gandhi Family. He cites the example of the BJP and writes how men from the ordinary backgrounds, by their brilliance, have turned the party into a powerful winning
machine. Guha is not alone in his advocacy. There have been several attacks on the dynasty politics of Nehru-Gandhi Family by the BJP, RSS and some other intellectuals.
There is no denying the fact that the dynasty has turned Indian political parties into private limited companies, it is a new form of royalty. The Nehru-Gandhi family is the oldest dynasty in the country and in a way, is the torchbearer for the rest of the parties. But to imagine that the dynasty is the main reason for the demise of the Congress, is a lazy articulation of a deeper crisis, oversimplification of a complex problem and an attempt to gloss over the bigger issue.
India today is not the same as that of a few decades ago. It has changed beyond recognition. Secular polity has been replaced by communal polarisation. Identity politics has become the dominant theme. Caste and religious fault lines have widened. Macro and micro,
both kinds of identities, have become very assertive and are working at cross purposes. The old political ‘equilibrium’ has broken, and the centre of ‘social gravity’ has shifted.
India till 1991 i.e., in the pre-economic reform era, was more or less the same. It was a secular, modern, democratic society with a tinge of socialism. In today’s India, can it be assumed that the Prime Minister of the country will say something akin to what Nehru said in 1951 - “If any man raises his hand against another in the name of religion, I shall fight him till the last breath of my life, whether from within the government or outside.”
It can’t be a coincidence that three social forces of gigantic proportions were unleashed almost at the same time and as a result a ‘New Indian’ was born. P V Narasimha Rao broke the shackles of socialism in his first Budget without any noise. The Mandal Commission was implemented with a bang and Babri Masjid was demolished in full public view. All three history-defining incidents not only reshaped the polity of the country but also destroyed the age-old social structures.
If the market forces made the ‘New Indian’ more competitive, confident and combative, the social forces unsettled by the economic dynamism, made the New Indian more uncertain and insecure. Psyched and tormented by the new changes, at the macro-level they found solace in religion and at the micro-level, caste became a more solid abode for them.
If the BJP’s growth post-1990 is phenomenal, then caste-based parties also grew stronger. The problem with the Congress was that despite being the father of economic reforms, it could not keep pace with the
transformation. It was this period that witnessed the maximum disintegration of the party. Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri were at the helm of affairs in the Congress from 1991 to 1998. They did not belong to the Nehru-Gandhi Family. They should have moulded the party, but they did not. By the time Sonia was handed over the baton, much water had flown under that bridge. Caste and religious forces had consolidated their gains. The party was no longer in government.
The social coalition which the Congress had stitched together since Independence and which was the reason for its political hegemony, had switched sides. In North India, especially in UP and Bihar, once its
stronghold, the party found itself orphaned. Sonia made feeble attempts to begin with, when she said, “India is secular primarily because of Hindus, both as a philosophy and as a way of life based on what our ancients said, Ekam Satyam, Vipraha bahudha Vadanti.” She tried to steal a march on the BJP, but it was too late. Leaders like Arjun Singh and Digvijay Singh were too embedded in the past. Their more pronounced ‘minorityism’ did immense damage to the party and the BJP benefited the most.
Though there were leaders like V N Gadgil, who had the courage to say, “Muslims constitute 18 per cent of the vote share. Even if all of them vote for the Congress, the party will not return to power. We can’t go on ignoring the sentiments of the other 82 per cent”. The mistake that Sonia made was that she did not pursue the Gadgil line, and instead, secularists
in the party prevailed, for whom religion was anathema.
Paradoxically, they did not have any problem with Islam, rather in their myopic world view, in the Indian context, supporting Islam was a guarantee for their secular credentials. Liberal intellectuals also suffer from the same disease. Interestingly, Indian academia is still dominated by them and it is this class of intellectuals who have serious problems when Rahul Gandhi visits temples, blaming him for pursuing soft Hindutva.
Tragically, this was the party which was helmed by Gandhiji for three decades, who never hid his Hindu identity. He was a practising Hindu. With changing times, the party should have reinvented ‘Gandhian
secularism’ to counter the politics of rising Hindutva. Like any other politician, Rahul Gandhi also has his weaknesses but, in this matter, his prognosis is correct. Since the Gujarat assembly elections, he started flaunting his Hindu credentials and this has earned dividends for the party. The BJP finds it difficult to paint the Congress as a Muslim party to lure Hindu voters away from the Congress.
Since then the Congress has won MP, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh, collaborated with the Shiv Sena and other parties to form the government in Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Jharkhand, narrowly missed the bus in Bihar and has done relatively well in Haryana. Arvind Kejriwal, the Chief Minister of Delhi, pursued the same policy as Rahul Gandhi, embraced Lord Hanuman and the BJP was mauled in Delhi elections.
The problem with the Congress is that the party's old guard is still living in the pre-1991 era. Like Guha and others, they don’t see the difference between Gandhi's Hindu and the RSS’s Hindu. Gandhi was not communal; he did not hate Muslims. Love, not hate, was his
compelling idiom. A ‘religious’ Hindu should not be confused with the ‘fanatic’ Hindu. If Rahul Gandhi, after becoming the party president, could have his party walk his path, then half the battle will be won.
If he succeeds, then the Congress can move towards becoming the ‘service station’ that Sitaramayya talked about.
The writer is an author and Editor, Satyahindi.com