The Congress Was Once a Grand Old Party

A commitment to the party, and to the idea that it should take its rightful place in India’s democracy, has been reduced to a squabble between those who are loyal to the family, and those who would dare to question the leadership of Sonia Gandhi.

The proper definition of a man, famously wrote Lewis Carroll, is an animal who writes letters. We thought people had forgotten the fine art of letter writing, and that all we are fated to receive itelegraphic and cryptic WhatsApp messages, instead of masterpieces of literary and poetic endeavour. Letter writing, after all, requires patience, reflection, imagination and persistence.

And then came the letter written by 23 leaders of the Congress to the party president (hitherto ‘original letter’), a missive that provides us with a fine example of reflection and courage. The authors outline an ambitious but doable plan of action to regenerate a once grand old party. They recommend the setting up of a collective to plan and execute the revival of the party: elections from local bodies upwards to the All India Congress Committee to ensure representativeness, an active and accessible leadership at the central and local levels, and renewal of the Congress Parliamentary Party. It also includes the mandatory assurance that the Gandhi family will always find place in the party.

The response by other party members was predictable, and frankly completely un-needed. A commitment to the party, and to the idea that it should take its rightful place in India’s democracy, has been reduced to a squabble between those who are loyal to the family, and those who would dare to question the leadership of Sonia Gandhi.

Also read: As Letter to Sonia Gandhi Causes Upheaval, a Look at Congress’s Muddy Internal Democracy

What should have been a debate has been reduced to name calling. It is alleged that no one of proven mettle can take her place. Seriously? Did India know in 2004 that Sonia possessed two remarkable talents, one to forge a coalition between opposition parties, and two to mastermind her party’s electoral victory in two subsequent elections? After she declined the prime ministership with great dignity, her position in India’s firmament of leaders has been established. She does not need to be defended quite so vociferously, she has won universal admiration. Someone else might do so as well.

For as Sonia will herself admit, she is not the party. Political parties are larger. They can only be larger than individuals if they have a vision, if they have a cause, if they have an agenda, if they have internal democracy, and if they have commitment. What the party needs is to reinvent this vision, this cause, this commitment that will catch the imagination of younger generations.

It is a sad comment on the culture of sycophancy that has emerged in the party since the 1970s, that the writers of the original letter are accused of having benefited from favours dished out by the leadership; that they are ungrateful. The response has been hurried, intemperate, ill thought and ill advised, personalised and sometimes derogatory. It is quite unnecessary in any case, for there is nothing wrong with calls to reinvent the party, make way for younger people, tap talent and allow potential leaders to emerge as a collective immediately.

The other focus of attack is that the timing of the letter is unfortunate because India is in crisis. Perhaps the crisis would not have arisen if the Congress had performed its role as the opposition competently. Its leaders have been conspicuously silent when Kashmir was stripped of statehood, when civil liberty activists have been jailed, when young people were demonstrating on the streets across India against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and when riots burnt the capital city and 53 of its inhabitants to cinders.

In any case, as any political theorist will tell you, great theory always comes out of crisis. Plato wrote about the ideal state in the midst of instability and uncertainty in ancient Athens, and John Rawls published his theory of justice in 1971 at a time when social movements against the existing capitalist, racist, patriarchal and homophobic system had wracked the United States. Perhaps this is the exact time to reimagine the party.

Also read: The Gandhi Family Will Have a Hard Time Quelling Resistance Within the Congress

The pointless standoff, which has reduced a worthy agenda for the repair of a lapsed party to a face-off between Gandhi loyalists and putative opponents, is a matter for some regret. At one time it was precisely the ability of the Congress to represent and accommodate all class, caste and group interests within its party organisation that had been acclaimed by scholars.

The eminent sociologist Rajni Kothari conceptualised the Indian model of democracy as the ‘one party dominant system’ or the ‘Congress System’. For Kothari, the USP of the Congress system lay in the fact that groups and individuals carried on the rather complex activity of negotiating and bargaining with the leadership within the party organisation. This, Kothari seemed to imply, not only made the task of the parliamentary opposition redundant, it allowed various groups to represent the needs of their constituents and have their demands satisfied, within the framework provided by the party.

In 1967 Myron Weiner, exploring the reasons for the success of the Congress, suggested that the reason why the party could maintain its hegemony was that it could find a place for all. “The spirit of self-sacrifice and self-abnegation,” he wrote, “which had a long honourable tradition in Hinduism and which was reformulated by Gandhi has a place in the local Congress party.” But it could also provide a place for those who wanted status and power, for people who had specific grievances and demands, for those people who were looking for conviviality, and for those who were committed to national integration, economic development, secularism and representative government.

That was the primary reason why the Congress was voted into power in the first three elections after independence with a substantial majority. In the first elections held 1951-52, the party polled 45% of the total votes that had been cast, and secured 74.44% of the seats in the popular house in parliament: the Lok Sabha. In the second election held in 1957, the Congress obtained almost 48% of the total vote share and 75.1% of the seats in the Lok Sabha. And in 1962, the vote share of the Congress remained at 45% and it secured 73% of the seats in the popular house of parliament. Though the hegemony of the party was broken in the state legislatures in 1967, it was only in 1977 that the Congress lost power at the Centre. The party came back to power at the Centre in 1980, in 1984, in 1991, in 2004 and 2009 but its vote share diminished considerably.

The role of the Congress as a representative and as a mediator of public interest ebbed after 1967 in state politics, and in the 1970s during Indira Gandhi’s regime. It never recovered its monopoly of power after 1967. The reasons have been detailed by scholars. For one, from 1971 the party was marked by organisational degeneration. It became a pool of aspirant power seekers defining themselves in relation to the leader more, and to the people of India less. Even as under the leadership of Indira, and later Rajiv Gandhi, power came to be centralised in the person of the leader, the ability of the Congress to address and negotiate popular demands dwindled greatly.

In other words, the same Congress that had specialised in addressing, negotiating and resolving demands of different groups within the framework of its own organisation became the captive of the leader. This expectedly proved disastrous for the capacity of the party to represent interests and meet demands adequately. It lost touch with its own constituency.

Two, in the years following independence the Congress was considered legitimate by a majority of the people, simply because the party and its leadership were associated with the freedom struggle, even though the promises that the leaders had made had remained unrealised. By the turn of the 1970s, an entirely new generation had grown to maturity in post-independence India, a generation that had little memory of the freedom struggle, and a generation that measured the achievements of a party in terms of its ability to meet the aspirations of the people.

Also read: When Entitled Dynasts Take on a Dynasty

The rhetoric of Nehruvian socialism and the idea of planning for development had generated enormous hopes of the government and a sense of entitlement. Indians came to expect that the state and the party in power would deliver primary education and subsidise higher education, guarantee health, remove poverty, generate jobs and incomes, institutionalise inter-group equalities, remove inequalities within the group, and protect the needy, the vulnerable and the poor. But the Congress, which at that time controlled both power and resources, had not only failed to emancipate the country from poverty, illiteracy and unemployment, it had under Indira’s leadership become authoritarian in the garb of populism. And this led to restlessness in major parts of the country.

By the late 1960s, simmering discontent came to pervade large parts of the country as groups mobilised to target an unresponsive state and an equally unresponsive party system. Since the Congress had lost its capacity to represent interests and resolve conflict, it just could not contain the explosion of political discontent through democratic means. Given the inability of the party to meet aspirations and resolve problems, new groups entering the political arena resorted to agitation and violence to press their demands upon the state. This was more than evident when in 1973 and 1974, political discontent spilled outside the channels provided by the party system and people, particularly students in Gujarat and Bihar, took to the streets. The Congress remained in thrall to the leader. It had become moribund.

The Congress party had been inventive in the past because its ideology was forged in the heat of the freedom struggle. Pluralism, secularism, tolerance, citizenship, fundamental and minority rights, cosmopolitanism, non-violence and anti-imperialism were thrown up in the course of the movement. On these planks the Congress was able to mobilise vast masses of people against colonialism. It could lead the mainstream freedom struggle because it had a robust organisation, both decentralised and democratic.

The party formed a coalition of what has been called ‘big men’: heads of caste groups, peasantry, industry, religious formations and workers organisations. When the party initiated or called off a movement, it relied upon second rung leaders. The central leadership left state politics, for example the conflict over linguistic states, to regional bosses. Diversity of opinions and interests in the party encouraged members to engage in dialogue and persuasion. They negotiated and accommodated all within the ambit of the organisation. The Congress found place for most demands, from interest groups, from individuals desirous of social reform, and from individuals stirred by the desire for power and prestige. The Congress was accommodative and dialogical. It practiced democracy. No more. These are some of the lessons of history the party needs to learn and unlearn.

All is not lost. Moments of crisis can lead to reinvention. The party must reinvent itself, simply because it is synonymous with the history of our freedom struggle, and with enlightened leaders like Nehru. Remember that Nehru’s vision inspired great literature, poetry, films, art, theatre and architecture. What do we have today except mediocre hagiography? A ruling class which cannot inspire cultural creativity can only rule by coercion. In modern politics, this is counted as a failure. But there is no opposition because the Congress has forgotten its legacy. We need a national party to provide substantive opposition to the government. But the Congress flaps, it flails.

It is our duty to remind the Congress that it owes the people of India. What else can we say? We can only repeat Mark Anthony’s words in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth/Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech/To stir men’s blood/ I only speak right on/ l tell you that which you yourselves do know.” If the party does not respond, India might as well accept that in the absence of a robust opposition, its future is doomed.

Neera Chandhoke is former professor of political science, Delhi University.