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Congress@125: A chequered history

December 29, 2009 14:15 IST

The Congress might take pride from its apparent revival but unfortunately in the process it has further marginalised the poor and the oppressed of India, writes Seema Mustafa

"Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.

At the dawn of history India started on her unending quest, and trackless centuries are filled with her striving and the grandeur of her success and her failures. Through good and ill fortune alike she has never lost sight of that quest or forgotten the ideals which gave her strength. We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers herself again. The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?"

Jawaharlal Nehru addressing the nation towards midnight on August 14, 1947. A new nation was born and the question he asks still demands an answer. The future has become the past, the Congress has been in existence for 125 years, a movement, a commitment, a political party, a government and now also a confirmed Dynasty.

It is and has been the most important political party of India. It is the only party to have shared the history of the nation and her people. It has ruled for long uninterrupted decades. It has contributed greatly to the formation of a nation, her Constitution and her development. And it has given stalwarts like Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru to India, men and women of faith and commitment, dedicated to the development of the country as a secular and democratic nation.

Anniversaries always call for reflection. Introspection, words that seem to have become alien to the Congress party's thought process. Are we wise enough, brave enough? What do we believe in, what do we stand for? What is our politics, what is our vision? Has our tryst with destiny taken us forward, or are we stagnant and corrupt and scared? What is the Congress today, where is the Congress today?

Instead the anniversary, like others before it, will be just another celebration. Yet another occasion to reaffirm faith not in the ideals that shaped the party 125 years ago, but in the Nehru-Gandhi family that have been anointed by the party, or what remains of it, as the political managers. The crowds will dance outside Congress president Sonia Gandhi's residence, some speeches will be made by various politicians in the states, some redundant advice given, and yet another occasion will pass.

A column is not enough to write a book but if a cut off point in Congress history is taken to define and analyse its political trajectory, it can only be the Emergency. This was the beginning of the change where authoritarianism made a firm appearance, where dissent was muzzled and crushed, and where the poor were targeted and alienated with amazing ruthlessness.

Indira Gandhi, basking in the glory of 1971 and pro-reform measures such as the abolition of privy purses and nationalisation of banks, turned on the people she has once sworn to protect. Unable to tolerate dissent, under the influence of her son Sanjay Gandhi who became the weakest chink in her democratic armour, she imposed Emergency on a sleeping India and cracked down on the opposition, the media, the intellectuals and all those who dared oppose her and her family.

The Congress became secondary to the family, and many leaders who had walked alongside Gandhi and Nehru during the freedom struggle were shown the door. Indira Gandhi did not want to speak to them, and even if she did give an appointment she directed her father's contemporaries to "Sanjay, meet him." 

Disappointed and dejected the Congress leaders were marginalised as Sanjay and his friends took over while a benevolent mother watched quietly. The family planning programme sent shivers down India's spine as forcible sterilisation sent terrified villagers running and hiding from the very party that they had always identified with. For years after journalists walking into UP villages found the doors being slammed on their faces as they were mistaken for family planning workers. The media was crippled, the dissenters were jailed and democratic life suspended on the whim of individuals.

The Emergency was lifted as eventually there was no other option, the Congress was routed and Indira Gandhi herself defeated. To cut a long story short, she was arrested, the Janata Party government came to power and in a short span of less than three years the Congress and Indira Gandhi came back to power. This could have been a new beginning but it was not. Angry, humiliated, suspicious the Congress prime minister was determined to seek revenge.

She saw shadows in the opposition, even within her own party, and it was this post 1980 phase of her rule when the Congress was systematically purged of leaders she saw as too independent or popular for their own good. Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna was one such example, the Congress chief minister of Uttar Pradesh who was hounded by the party into oblivion.

Henchmen and yes men were installed in states, as Indira Gandhi gave shape to a servile organisation where inner party democracy was made subservient to her will, and where no one could breathe unless she sanctioned it. It was oppressive, and Congress leaders confided of this to journalists on the beat then in quiet whispers. Sanjay was by her side in the initial days, but after his death, she turned to her non-political pilot son Rajiv Gandhi. Reluctantly he was brought into politics by a mother who by then did not trust the Congress party itself, and needed her own immediate family around her for sustenance and even as some suspected, confidence.

Her big mistakes in the 1980s were Assam and Punjab. Both states were rocked by violence, with hundreds butchered and killed in Nellie and other massacres in Assam. The Congress did not even comprehend the extent of anger and alienation, and the decision to hold elections despite advice against it, was the trigger for the death and destruction that took hold of the north eastern state. In Punjab, Indira Gandhi played with politics of fire leading to militancy and violence that only ended in the destruction of the Akal Takht and the alienation of the Sikhs. Her death was tragic, as she was shot dead in her own home by Sikh guards, but the tragedy was overtaken by the killing of 3,000 Sikhs in Delhi and outskirts by crazed mobs led by senior Congress leaders.

Shock and horror engulfed the nation as her son Rajiv Gandhi presided over the massacre for three days before moving the army in to control the violence. And then the horror turned to anger when he justified the violence at a public meeting maintaining that when a big tree falls, the earth is bound to shake 'a little'.

Rajiv Gandhi appeared apolitical, and definitely not as ruthless as Indira Gandhi. But he made some blunders that cost the party and the nation a huge price. Three come immediately to mind. One that had far lasting impact was his government's decision to overrule the Supreme Court judgement on the Shah Bano case and bring in a regressive legislation seeking to deny maintenance rights to the divorced Muslim woman. The Supreme Court ruling that the Muslim man should maintain his divorced wife had the Muslim fundamentalists out on the streets.

Instead of standing up for secular law the Rajiv Gandhi government caved in to the pressure and passed a legislation overruling the apex court's verdict. This led to the second decision, taken under pressure now from the Hindu fundamentalists. Accusing the government of being soft to the minorities the RSS and BJP got far more than they expected. The Congress government decided to open the locks of the Babri Masjid site, leading to its demolition. In both cases the supposedly secular party worked to appease the fundamentalists, both Muslims and Hindus. The secular voice was completely ignored and weakened in the process.

The third decision was to intervene in the Sri Lankan crisis by sending supposedly peace keeping troops to the island country. The repercussions were huge and eventually Rajiv Gandhi himself was assassinated at the hands of the LTTE. A tragic end to a young leader who was too confused to get a grip on governance. Corruption too reared its head at the time with the Bofors case clouding Rajiv Gandhi and his wife Sonia Gandhi's credentials, even as her Italian friend and businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi became a major player during that time.

It was the first case of proven fraud, with the Swedish radio breaking the story, and the Indian media following with exposes linking several Rajiv Gandhi friends to the defence deal.

After his death, the Congress by then a party of individual leaders and factions began slowly disintegrating as not one single leader was really able to get on with the other. The clamour thus began for Rajiv Gandhi's Italian widow, Sonia Gandhi to replace him and take over as the Congress president. Even less political than him, Sonia Gandhi was eventually motivated to come out and take over the reins of the party. The drift away stopped, as Congressmen stayed back to see whether she would be able to succeed.

An effective coterie surrounded her, and slowly the Congress president managed to establish a hold and control the party organisation with a fairly strong hand. In the process the politics of dynasty was formalised, with the result that today the Congress does not act or breathe without sanction from the top.

Chief Ministers and senior Congress leaders were sent into political oblivion for being more independent than was allowed inside the party. Inner party democracy, or whatever little was left of it, went out of the window as Sonia Gandhi and her coterie worked to re-organise the Congress with individuals who were willing to accept her lead.

In the process many of the old Congress hands disappeared from view and slowly a group of leaders who had either not contested the elections, or contested and lost, came to occupy party and ministerial positions. Sonia Gandhi, from a hesitant start became confident and gained control over the party with chief ministers not being allowed a second term in office if she doubted their loyalty or was not too happy with their popularity.

Digvijay Singh and Sheila Dixit come immediately to mind. Ministers like Shivraj Patil were allowed to hold sway over important ministries like home even though their performance invited widespread criticism. Others like Mani Shankar Aiyar were shown the door just because they were too efficient.

The line of command was also established with Sonia Gandhi slowly introducing her son Rahul to politics. Unimpressive in the first years, he has now started taking more interest in at least youth politics and has been travelling extensively in what is seen as preparation for the next general elections where the Congress hopes to return with a full majority and install him as the prime minister. Even so his views seem unformed, and his lack of knowledge on major issues of domestic and foreign policy shines through interactions with the media.

The complete absence of an effective and informed opposition has contributed tremendously to what can be termed as a revival of the Congress. This is accepted by Congressmen themselves. In Maharashtra for instance, the Congress won the elections despite its coalition with the Nationalist Congress Party doing more harm than good to the state during its five years of power.

However, the politics of the Shiv Sena and the BJP that has led to their decline left the voter with no choice but to vote for the NCP and the Congress that were returned to power in the state. Again in the recent elections in Jharkhand a disillusioned electorate voted for a hung assembly in which the Congress improved its position slightly, and the BJP declined because of bad governance and worse politics.

To give her the due, Sonia Gandhi has managed to project the Congress as at least a stable organisation not riddled with problems of leadership. She has projected the second line of leadership through her son, and for those looking now for governments that at least last a term, it is proving to be a more attractive option than the crisis ridden BJP that is now suddenly confronted with questions of identity.

The Congress has moved into the right of centre space with its economic policies, its soft/hard Hindutva and its complete indifference to the poor. The BJP can only move further right and this its leaders are unwilling to do, despite the RSS pressure.

All in all a chequered 125 years where the party has lost its values and beliefs, and has happily sacrificed commitment and ideals at the altar of opportunism. It might take pride from its apparent revival but unfortunately in the process it has further marginalised the poor and the oppressed of India.

Seema Mustafa is a senior New Delhi-based journalist.

Seema Mustafa