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Congress@125: Six reasons why the party must not celebrate

Last updated on: December 28, 2009 23:50 IST

Sheela Bhatt says the Congress cannot have a celebratory party until it addresses the national issues demanding attention.

The Congress turned 125 on Monday. Every Indian is in one way or another been touched by the Congress or is linked to it -- directly or indirectly.

There are by moderate estimates, some 200 million active or passive but loyal Congress supporters and voters. It is equally true that an overwhelming number of Indians, in real numbers, are dead against it while millions of Indians remain passive or neutral about it, also.

But, Congress is here to stay, in the form of past, present or future, in our lives.

The Congress, cricket, the Indian Railways and people's faith in God are omnipresent in every nook and corner of India. It seems certain that the place of Congress in the Indian landscape will not change dramatically in the near future.

The only party in the sub-continent that has touched three centuries has been also compared to banyan tree under which nothing can grow but it surely shelters and imbibes all hues and shades of political opinions of the Indian society. Pundits to tribals and slum dwellers to former maharajas have found their political identity with Congress. Election after election has shown that its 124-year-old cosmopolitan character is still the Unique Selling Point of the party.

Since it has ruled this country for more than 48 years of independent India, it has to take, largely, credit for progress under its rule and absolute blame for lots of miseries that Indians are living with.

As Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress, kick-started the one-year long celebration of Congress party, the first question that arises in the mind is: Has the Congress enough reasons to be happy on its birthday?

The answer is clearly in the negative.

Here are some important reasons why Congress can not have a celebratory party until it addresses the national issues demanding attention.

One: Around 82 percent members of the Constituent Assembly consisted of Congressmen. The great Constitution of India, which has so far survived the test of time bears a clear Congress imprint. But, at the end of just three decades Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi circumvented it, muzzled its ethos and plunged the country into darkness by imposing Emergency.

Not enough has been said and regretted by Congress leaders who matter in the party. Indira did acknowledge that few excesses might have happened but, we saw recently that the party has no qualms in accommodating people who were responsible for the excesses committed against people during the Emergency. Democracy in India is a gift of the Congress. The Congress has to speak loudly for it, all the time.

Two: There is a fascinating book Nehru's Shadow by Jawaharlal Nehru's Chief Security officer K F Rustamji. It's edited by P V Rajgopal. It has some amazing minute observations on Nehru by Rustamji. The chapter called Nehrumania describes the mass-meeting methods of Nehru. It shows how poor women and girls would grab his garlands and how Nehru revelled in the adulation. In the same way, memories are fresh about Indira amma's visit to the countryside of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Orissa. Father and daughter both promised jobs, water, health and education.

I covered Rajiv Gandhi's visit to the poor people in Hamirpur in Uttar Pradesh in the 1980s. What we saw was the heart-wrenching poverty. Rather, Rajiv himself had narrated his "discovery of India' vividly in his historic speech on December 28, 1985. He said, 'When I started my political work, it was only with the motive of being by the side of my mother. She bore with stoic fortitude the irreparable loss of a son who had been a tower of strength. She gave me no directions, no formulate, no prescriptions. She just said, 'Understand the real India, its people, its problems.'

'So I have plunged into that work. Millions of faces in varying moods of joy and sorrow, of eager expectation, of triumph and defeat filled my being, till they merged into the face of mother India, proud, defiant, confident but also full of sad perplexity. Always, the unspoken question haunting her face: Whither India?

'After two years of incessant travelling, meeting people, reading and reflection, I felt I could go to her with my perceptions. Listening to me, she thought I had gained some understanding of the complexities of our society. And then she began to unburden herself. She spoke of India's enduring strength and of her hopes for India, but also of her apprehensions and anxieties. She analysed with clinical precision how the entire system had been weakened from within, how the party had once again been infiltrated by vested interests who would not allow us to move, how patronage and graft had affected the national institutional framework, how nationalism and patriotism had ebbed, how the pettiness and selfishness of persons in political positions had ruptured social fabric. She was clear that if India had to keep her 'tryst with destiny,' so much had to change.'

And, now, his son Rahul Gandhi is repeating the father's actions. He is sharing meals in Dalits homes (he insists on identifying them only as 'the poor') in Uttar Pradesh where he wants to revive the Congress. One need not call it 'drama', as Mayawati does, but the last 60 years of Congress history and Nehru to Rahul's innumerable visits to peep into the homes of the poor speaks volumes about the failure of the Nehru-Gandhi family in tackling poverty, the biggest issue in India.

We can forget that during Nehru's time Indira Gandhi became president of Congress in 1959 and dynasty was launched. But, someone has to answer how many generations of Nehru-Gandhis would visit poor people's homes?

Rahul's visit itself is a painful reminder of the failure of Congress's socio-economic vision, so far.

Three: We are told since the last four generations that the Congress is born to rule. Ramchandra Guha in his book India After Gandhi writes that, 'The 1980 elections, notes the editor Prabhash Joshi, marked the 'end of ideology' in Indian politics. Previous polls were fought and won on the planks of democracy, socialism, secularism and non-alignment. However, Mrs Gandhi spoke not of the abolition of poverty but of her ability to rule.'

The failure of the Janata Party government led by Morarji desai – and the failure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee to do something visibly to at least control the riots of 2002 in Gujarat – has made Congressmen sell this idea again to the people that they are destined to rule India. Union minister Kapil Sibal has said that Congress will rule for the coming 20 years.

We agree that the non-Congress leaderships in the country and the opposition parties have failed us, but that is a limited issue for the poor people who want governance, delivery of promises and secure future, no matter who can provide them.

This propagated myth that Congress knows how to govern India has harmed Congress as much as the people.

The Telangana fiasco is the latest example. If an alert government had taken note that the vacuum left by the death of YSR Reddy will be certainly filled by opportunists then, political leadership in Centre would have taken note of Telanagana Rashtriya Samiti leader K Chandrashekar Rao's fast on the very second day before it became a 'law and order' issue. Home Minister P Chidambaram should have advised CM K Rosaiah to insulate the Osmania University right at the outset. These ideas can only come where political sharpness is there to govern the country, says a Congressman who had warned the 'core group' of Congress on December 8, 2009.

Congress which claims to know governance better than others initiated the process of a new state without any preparation at all. It is amazing to see how, actually, history repeated itself.

Guha's book narrates how on December 12, 1952, Potti Sriramalu, the Telugu leader who died during his fast to press for the demand of carving out a separate Andhra state from Madras Presidency, caught Nehru unawares. After 58 days of fast he died. Guha writes, 'Now, all hell broke lose.' The damage to government property ran into millions of rupees when Andhra got engulfed in chaos. 'Nehru had once claimed that 'facts not fast' would decide the issue. Now, faced with possibility of widespread and possibly uncontrollable protest, the prime minister gave in. Two days after Sriramulu's death he made a statement saying that a state of Andhra would come into being.'

Congress leaders claim that Sonia Gandhi is furious for the manner in which the decision was taken by Chidambaram, who was backed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But there are scores of such decisions.

Four: The Congress's history is so stupendous that it cannot fade away with the troubled times it faces now and then. Here is a national institution that was touched, nurtured, pampered and educated by Mahatma Gandhi, which has the resilience to rise when faced with crisis. There are any number of examples when during a crisis the Congress had gone 'inward'. It takes unbearably long to churn the issue, change the parameters thrust upon itself by the crisis till the crisis takes a new form. The Congress party's mantra has been slow grinding.

But, now, this internalisation of issues and slow-motion politics do not work. There are more than 40 burning issues in present-day India but, Congress doesn't think it needs to take a stand. Just before the 2004 election Sonia Gandhi had promised reservation in the private sector but after the surprise win she never spoke about it.

Congress's rhetoric on the issue of Hindutva, minority, security, reservations, US-centric policies, model of development of villages and towns are hindering the country from moving forward. In the absence of any real political competition Sonia Gandhi should shed her safe politics of 'status quo' and take decisions. Pranab Mukherjee who chairs two dozen committees has an entire list of issues that cry out for her urgent attention.

The Teleangana issue was one such issue that Congress refused to take up with guts and commitment. It is difficult to adopt the technique of 'delays' and 'fudging' for the sake of gaining political advantage when the media and people are becoming so visibly impatient.

Five: There is no doubt that secularism and the centrist approach in politics and economy is working well for the Congress and the country. Sonia appears before us deserving kudos but the ground reality is shockingly different. There is no matching action to Sonia's centrist politics. The Sacchar Committee report has shown that Muslims have suffered tremendous loss under the Congress rule in most states. Few months after independence Nehru wrote to the chief ministers saying, 'we have got to deal with this minority in a civilised manner. We must give them security and rights of citizens in a democratic state. If we fail to do so, we shall have a festering sore which will eventually poison the whole body politics and probably destroy it.'

Nehru was aiming at communalists but, it holds good for the Congress also. Muslims are returning to the Congress but, this time they would ask for more share in the Congress pie. The Congress has not found the language and action plan under which without appeasing minorities for narrow gains of votes it can bring them into the mainstream. This is the Congress's prime duty because BJP, the next party, is not even giving nominal representation to Muslims within the party or in the power structure where they are in power.

Six: Right now, 19-year-old Ruchika's molestation case is haunting us.  It is a national shame and painful to see how at every step corruption, nepotism and blackmail had worked within the system and the establishment. Some of the major culprits who supported guilty police officer Rathore are all Congressmen.

Ruchika was molested by a police officer and her parents could not file even an FIR. This is the manifestation of what in the 1980s we called 'Congress culture'. Salute to Rajiv Gandhi when he spoke in his 1985 speech that, 'Turn to the great institutions of our country and you will see that too often, behind, their imposing facades, the spirit and substance lack vitality. The work they do sometimes seem strangely irrelevant to the primary concerns of the masses. Attempts are made to taint the electoral process at its very source.

'Issues of crucial national importance are frequently subordinated to individual sectional and regional interests. Our legislatures do not set standards for other groups to follow; they magnify manifold the conspicuous lack of a social ethic. A convenient conscience compels individuals to meander from ideology, to ideology seeking power, influence and riches. Political parties twist their tenets, enticed by opportunism.

'And what of the iron frame of the system, the administrative and the technical services, the police and the myriad functionaries of the State? They have done so much and can do so much more, but as the proverb says there can be no protection if the fence starts eating the crop. We have government servants who do not serve but oppress the poor and the helpless, police who do not uphold the law but shield the guilty, tax collectors who do not collect taxes but connive with those who cheat the State and whole legions Whose only concern is their private welfare at the cost of society. They have no work, ethic, no feeling for the public cause, no involvement in the future of the nation, no comprehension of national goals, no commitment to the values of modern India. They have only a grasping, mercenary outlook, devoid of competence, integrity and commitment.'

He had angrily said: 'The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity."

It is not difficult to explain why the Congress is going strong in the electoral battlefield and the Congress government is enjoying power without any real opposition even as the national institutions are getting weaker and weaker. This is so because Congress doesn't have moral fibre to throw out of the system weak and corrupt leaders when they flout rules.

Congress has forsaken its role as the freedom fighter. Gandhiji had said Congress was a fighting machine. Now, for the young and the upwardly mobile, the Congress machinery is the passport to make money. One look at the first time elected young MPs background will tell you more.

It is a matter of national regret that every word that Rajiv Gandhi spoke in his greatest moment when Congress was 100 years old, is much more true and relevant today when the Congress is 125.

Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi