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Millennium Post

Congress survival in a changing milieu

Once upon a time, the Congress party used to be considered a 'party of governance.' In the immediate aftermath of the independence, the party mobilised political power for its leaders. However much, a Jawaharlal Nehru towered over others, he still could not undertake land reforms in a wider scale without the party acquiescing with his project. It almost seemed that Nehru became an internationalist in frustration because his domestic agenda was going no where beyond a few gigantic industrial projects, inspirations of which had afflicted him after he visited the then Soviet Union.
 
But the political culture that the Congress party spawned at least since 1937 left only a few untouched. The exception was probably the communist party. All the others, the Jan Sanghs and the Praja Socialist Parties or even the extreme right Swatantra party followed the methods of their arch rival, Congress party in the way they conducted their politics. Hence, the eminent political scientist, Rajni Kothari was apt in naming the political system then prevalent, the 'Congress' system.
 
Even after Nehru's death, the culture did not shift. Lal Bahadur Shastri, though belonging to the rightist faction of the Congress party, subdued his natural instincts, and sought to emerge as a 'kisan' leader. Thus the slogan, 'Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan'. The only example of this kind of connection between the soldiers and their motherlode, the farmers is available in 18th century Germany.
 
He died too soon in Tashkent. So the early rightist experiment died young, along with him. But the fact that he had a strategist's mind was reflected in the way he expanded Pakistan's war in 1965 on Kashmir, to the west in Punjab. The famous journalist, Kuldip Nayar's ostensible mistake in writing a dispatch for the United News of India that 'Lahore has fallen' was not too far from the truth.
 
Young Indira was too callow and non-ideological, when she came to power in 1967. All that she understood by political power was that it had to be wielded. She was soon hijacked by leftist elites, who saw in her a clean slate on which they could write their dreams. The PN Haksars, Dhars et al did gave her sound advise about how to defeat the Congress Syndicate in Parliament and split the party by choosing a labour activist as a presidential nominee, VV Giri against Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, who was the Syndicate candidate.
 
She showed exceptional energy to defeat her opponents in the domestic political arena. After the victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war and Bangladesh's liberation, she realised that her popularity had soared, beyond the imagination of her advisers. She decided to walk her own furrow. She became autocratic, which is a natural destination of leaders who drew strength from the people at large. Those people are inchoate and inarticulate in a crowd.

But they knew their rights under the Indian system, supported by universal adult suffrage. When those rights were violated to the extent that they could not extend their families – by giving birth to a male progeny – as 'naasbandi' became prevalent, they were ready for a change from 'Indira amma.' That was the end of the 'Congress' system. Or was it?
 
Because when mal-governance of the Janata Party struck them, they sought shelter under the big tree again, that was Indira Gandhi. Democracy had set in India, but the democratic order had not been established.
 
Congress too changed after the split and the emergence of Indira Gandhi as the sole custodian of the party changed the paradigm. Gandhi had famously commented, as academic Achin Vanaik had recorded in 1985, after her death that, 'Where is the Congress party that I could reorganise, Why do I need the party? I can depend on the administrative machinery for managing the affairs of the country.' Thus Congress became an 'electoral party,' which congregated only when polls were to be contested. And the cult of the Nehru-Gandhi family was born at the expense of the party. They were the new royalty.

But the polity was also changing. It was shedding the notion of a magic potion curing all ills of the society and the economy. Thus even after the massive mandate of 1985, Rajiv Gandhi failed to hold on to power. But to be fair, he sought to inject newer ideas into the party and modernise it. But by then the party institutions had atrophied beyond repair.
 
The pelf and patronage system established by Indira Gandhi had calcified to the extent that Rajiv was not able to cope. After he was assassinated in 1991 in the midst of a general election campaign, the first non-Nehru-Gandhi leader was enthroned. This was after Rajiv's widow, Sonia Gandhi showed marked reluctance to inherit the mantle from her dead husband. So, Narasimha Rao became the prime minister of the country and the party president.
 
By that time, the liberal media had been consistently attacking the Congress for forging a dynasty. Rao tried to take advantage of that and de-Gandhise the party and the government. Yet, he did not have political heft to accomplish the task. Rao's political style was also too conspiratorial to be of any lasting value to the party. Very soon after his take-over, the party members began beseeching Sonia Gandhi to take charge.
 
Sonia waited for the right time to strike. That came with the electoral defeat of the Congress in 1996. Though Sonia too was non-ideological, she had learnt well more from her mother-in-law than her husband. She showed an apparent understanding that the Congress party would remain just a sign-board until she delivered to its members an election victory. That happened in 2004.
 
This time the Gandhi legatee decided to remain outside the purview of the government. Instead, she chose a loyal technocrat, Dr Manmohan Singh to become the head the government. Sonia Gandhi was not a reformer, who would try to change the party's style of functioning in any fundamental way.

The problem began when she sought to transfer the mantle of the party to her son, Rahul Gandhi. The younger Gandhi began his learning about the country and develop an ideology that could excite the imagination of the people – partymen and others alike. But for Rahul the task is proving insuperable as the polity has become too complex, beginning with the people's genuine faithlessness in politicians of all ilk.
 
But a look at the political firmament would show a crisis of ideas in all the Congress party challengers. Be it the Bharatiya Janata Party or the left and Communist parties, each of them are failing to catch the mood of the people in a fast changing milieu.
 
So, by all measures, the Congress will remain on the scene as a 'party by default.' What would happen in the next general election would matter little to the grand old party as it fights its natural decline.

Pinaki Bhattacharya is a senior journalist.

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