On 15 February, 1948, Gandhiji’s weekly journal, “Harijan”, published what purported to be his last will and testament written on the day of his assassination, where he expressed his own ideas regarding the constitutional form the Indian National Congress must now assume. He wrote: “Though split into two, India having attained political independence through means devised by the Indian National Congress in its present shape and form, I.e. as a propaganda vehicle and parliamentary machine, has outlived its use.” He envisioned the emergence of the organisation as a vehicle to promote social, moral and economic independence. He went on to say, “It must be kept out of unhealthy competition with political parties and communal bodies. For these and similar other reasons, the AICC. resolves to disband the existing Congress organisation and flower into a Lok Sevak Sangh…” This organisation he envisaged as one to be built up from grass root level, from Panchayats, with members following a strict moral code and working continuously for the uplift of the rural masses.
These thoughts, however, died with him and the Congress emerged as a political party that, over the years, contributed a great deal to the growth and evolution of the country but now seems to be in a state of decline never before witnessed in the history of the country. The question really is whether it can revive itself or whether it is in its last gasp. There is no visible sign of concerted thinking to resuscitate the party and give it a new lease of life in a different form. On the other hand, it is showing signs of disintegration and is clearly fraying at the edges. While several Congressmen have migrated elsewhere, even senior leaders are expressing their own thoughts on issues on which the party line is different or unclear. These differences of opinion were quite evident when the present Government took their decisions on Kashmir. Leaders like Jyothiraditya Scindia and Amarinder Singh openly expressed their support for the decision and it took many hours of discussion to work out a common position. The former Congress Chief Minister of Haryana, Hooda, explicitly stated that the Congress had lost its way. Jairam Ramesh more recently said that ‘demonising’ Modi alone will not help. “It is time we recognize Modi's work and what he did between 2014 and 2019 due to which he was voted back to power by over 30 per cent of the electorate", he said. Congress leaders, therefore, are increasingly realising that the formula of mindless opposition to the NDA, which they followed in the 2019 election, is not working any more.
In the aftermath of their colossal defeat in the 2019 election, the leadership too appeared to have lost tits nerve. Rahul’s abrupt decision to resign from the presidency of the party without setting in motion a mechanism for providing firm and competent leadership left the party rudderless for too long. This was the period in which many Congressmen decided to look for other pastures resulting in collapse of a government in Karnataka and the mass migration of MLAs in Goa to the BJP. They are clinging on to a slender margin in Madhya Pradesh but this is probably because the government there is led by the politically astute Kamal Nath. The decision of Sonia Gandhi to temporarily lead the party will keep it intact for the time being. They would have done better to announce a roadmap for the future along with the decision to entrust interim Presidency to Sonia.
Where do they go from here? Are they capable of reinventing themselves? Perhaps they will have to look into their own past history, make a realistic assessment of their own strengths today and then seek a way forward. Considering the strength of the ruling parties, the willingness of its government to take hard decisions without fear of consequences, the much greater resources they command and their grassroots level contact with the people, particularly in the north of India, this is no easy task that can be achieved within a foreseeable time frame. Of course, serious mistakes in policy could shake the confidence of the people, as happened immediately after the Emergency or after UPA 2. However, a process of rebuilding cannot be premised on the hope of a serious enough mistake made by a ruling government.
The present position of the Congress reminds one of the fate of the Liberal Party in Britain. In the late nineteenth century, the Liberal Party was the main threat to the Tories in that country, particularly under the dominating leadership of Gladstone. In a paper written by William Clarke in 1901, he emphasised the ability of the Conservatives to absorb popular ideological positions of the Liberals and to rebuild themselves constantly. Free trade doctrines, for example, initially espoused by the Liberals were taken on board by the Tories. Gladstone’s reformist budget of 1853 held back the Tories for some years, but, again, when the issue of suffrage came up, a Liberal concept, the Tories upstaged them. As Clarke put it, “There is, in the first place, a vital difference between Toryism and Liberalism. The latter must advance; the former has only to defend and accept whatever is inevitable.” The rise of a radical element in the Liberal Party and the widening scope of suffrage, bringing in its fold working classes, inevitably led to the formation of the Labour Party and the growing marginalisation of the Liberals.
In India, I see some parallels. The BJP, which started as a right wing Hindu nationalist party, has adopted social welfare measures of the Congress with some modifications. It has also expanded their scope and introduced new projects in the health and education sphere. Infrastructure development has been given greater momentum and the economic reforms of 1991 and the change in economic outlook that they portended, continues apace. Benefits for rural families and farmers have been given in new forms , new opportunities devised for micro and small industries and for start ups and the growth of digitalisation has resulted in direct transfers without middlemen. Thus, like the Liberals in UK, the Congress in India, found their agenda adopted and expanded by the NDA Government. The Congress was designed and has professed to remain as a left of centre party, which changed direction more towards the right in 1991. Today, the BJP straddles both the right and the left and also has further consolidated its majoritarian support base. The centrist space has shrunk for the Congress and it seems too lethargic, too uncaring, too traumatised at present to identify and appropriate new areas for growth.
There are, however, differences. Unlike in UK, where the Labour Party supplanted the Liberals, the Left parties have ceased to be a credible threat in the same manner as in the early part of this century. Instead, we find a plethora of regional parties, many of them offshoots of the Congress, gaining strength on the basis of regional needs. The Congress is no longer a strong centrifugal force and will have to necessarily shed its Delhi-centric ways if it is to to remain a force to reckon with in the political arena.
It can learn a great deal from its own past. The Indian National Congress, right from its inception, had an all-India dimension and met at different places all over the country even in smaller towns. The meetings were organised by local reception committees. Presidents and office bearers were elected. The organisation was allowed to evolve. Allan Octavian Hume was considered then by British officialdom to be a kind of maverick civil servant, with interests spanning a wide range of areas including ornithology and theosophy. When he organised the first Congress, he was drawn into this decision by what he perceived as the growing discontent in the rural areas. Initially, the Congress confined itself to the educated middle classes, but gradually brought within its fold vast sections of the rural population. Submissive in their representations to the British rulers in the beginning, it gradually became more vociferous, more demanding, with the likes of MG Ranade, GK Gokhale, Bal Gangadhar Tilak , Aurobindo Ghosh and others entering the fray. It succeeded also in forging links with the All India Muslim League. Finally came Mahatma Gandhi, who gave it weapons to carry on their fight in the form of civil disobedience and non-cooperation and new slogans and new philosophies to galvanise all sections of the people. Mistakes committed by the British, such as failure to deal with huge famines, the partition of Bengal, the Rowlatt Act, the authoritarian regime of Lord Chelmsford, Jallianwala Bagh and large scale incarceration of popular Indian leaders, all helped the Congress cause.
From the past, the lessons the Congress can learn are several. The most important one is obviously selflessness and fearlessness and willingness to suffer all consequences in pursuit of a cause, including jail terms and deportation; Second, the development of strong inner party democracy, which was a characteristic of the pre-Independence period. Gandhiji wanted such democracy to pervade all levels of the Party; Third, the Delhi centricity of the Party and the concept of a High Command that takes all decisions would have to be shed and local leadership has to grow. In the fifties, the Congress had a phalanx of powerful leaders willing to contradict and take on even the Prime Minister. Fourth, the presence of national level leadership has to be felt all over India and, for this, the device of annual AICC meetings in smaller towns could be revived.
The Party has also to learn from its rivals and from an understanding of the social and political ethos that prevails in different parts of the country with varying degrees of importance. The Congress still remains a competitive entity in Kerala because it is structurally more aligned to the homegrown United Democratic Front than to the Delhi based High Command and has learnt to find solutions to emerging political issues locally. Similar formations, in different forms with different partners would enable them to retain their presence in the provinces, provided they are created as continuing political structures, not ad hoc ones intended to fight particular elections as and when they are declared. From its rivals, it needs to learn how to keep their ears close to the ground and build connects with the grassroots. It also needs to carve out an independent space for itself with different ideological moorings and this requires thought and development of new ideas.
If it can reinvent itself, the Congress, at some time or the other, will be able to take advantage of mistakes in governance and re-assert itself. It may be better for it to look initially at strengthening itself at the State level. The gulf that separates BJP from the Congress at the national level is today too wide to be easily bridged. If it cannot find new space for itself, it could go the same way as the Liberal Party in UK. There is an urgent need for new energy, renewed intellectual effort.
The facts and ideas expressed in the article are those of the writer.