When the Grand Old Party’s leaders congregate at Jaipur, they will do well to remember their historic responsibility to adapt to changing aspirations
Jawaharlal Nehru took over as Congress president a few months before the first General Elections and led the Grand Old Party to a comprehensive victory, as the world watched in fascination a backward country’s revolutionary flirtation with universal adult franchise.
Soon after the votes got counted, Jayaprakash Narayan noted rather bitterly that “the Congress successes in certain States are mainly due to Mr. Nehru’s promise that he would clean up the organisation after the elections. I know from personal experience that a large number of people in the country were carried away by that promise. The time has come for Mr. Nehru’s to fulfil this promise.” The unstated lament was that Jawaharlal Nehru had hoodwinked the electorate into voting for the Congress. And, for good measure, JP noted, rather presciently, “that neither Mr. Nehru nor anyone else can clean up this organisation.” The Congressman-turned-socialist leader’s prognosis was to prove right.
Nehru’s benevolent presence
Apart from periodically lamenting unhealthy tendencies in the party over which he presided, and, often admonishing fellow-Congressmen for bad behaviour, Nehru did precious little to set the Congress house in order. Arguably he just did not have the requisite ruthlessness to purge the party of its impurities. He was too much of a liberal and too much of a gentleman to undertake the necessarily unpleasant task of cleansing a so settled an organisation as the Congress. Instead, the operative principle became that Nehru’s own overwhelmingly benevolent presence and wholesome leadership were more than enough to provide the corrective to whatever “badness” the party could cook up. Nehru was comfortable with this proposition and others were conceitedly comfortable in making Nehru feel comfortable in this self-delusion.
Contrary to JP’s 1953 prophesy that “the disintegration of the Congress will become an accomplished fact in the next few years,” the party in fact settled itself down to consolidating its political domination. It was better than anyone else in political power games; but it was obvious the party of the freedom movement had acquired an organisational personality that not only was decidedly at odds with Nehru’s own ethical standards but also prevented it from becoming a decisive transformative instrumentality of the Indian state. Soon New Delhi-based envoys were mentioning the party’s “corruption” and inefficiency in their dispatches back home. Nehru’s “socialist” agenda was filibustered. And, though Nehru could and did manufacture coherent national objectives and goals, the bureaucracy and the public sector — and, not the Congress party — became the preferred instruments of transformation. The only contribution the Congress could make was to deepen the Indian state’s representative legitimacy.
Once Nehru left the scene and the Indian state began its long muddle through a Hindu rate of growth, the Congress’s sterile stability increasingly proved a positive distraction. Sooner or later, things had to come to a head — and, did, rather dramatically in 1969. The Congress got split right down the middle. That split was premised on the understanding that there were too many reactionary, backward looking people in the Congress who were preventing the fulfilment of the nation’s historic role. People voted decisively for Indira Gandhi’s Congress because it was marketed as a new, sharper instrument of transformation. However, once it became clear that Indira Gandhi was batting on a winning wicket, the same less than attractive crowd of Congressmen moved over to her side.
Soon after the 1971 massive mandate, everyone bought into a working proposition that Indira Gandhi’s very presence and leadership would neutralise the baddies. She was too distracted with the absorbing and exacting affairs of state; there is only so much a prime minister can pile on her/his plate. Like her father, Indira Gandhi too could not undertake any comprehensive house-cleaning. The promise of purge never materialised. Instead, the party became “a dung-heap of defectors.” The inevitable denouement was the rise of Sanjay Gandhi and the Emergency.
Rajiv, symbol of change
When the baton got passed to Rajiv Gandhi, he symbolised change. He himself brilliantly dissected the ills of his own party at its 1985 centenary session, he too failed to make any headway in instilling any sense of direction, discipline and destiny in the organisation.
Then in 1998 the baton eventually passed on to Sonia Gandhi. To her credit, she never promised to clean up the party. All she promised was she would try to keep the warring Congressmen from getting at each other’s throat and to maintain some unity of purpose; and, as it turned out, she shepherded the party to a decade of uninterrupted rule at the Centre.
And, that success, in turn, has produced its own consequences. Unfortunately, there is only one yardstick for a party’s success — winning elections. But the quest for electoral majority is not to be sniggered at easily. Only those in power can make authoritative public choices. Thanks to the UPA policies and practices — and absurdities — the polity has witnessed the rise of new forces, full of passions and provocations. So much so, we are supposed to be on the cusp of a new politics.
And that is the context of the Jaipur congregation. It would, however, be instructive for the Congressmen to keep in mind that since JP’s days, one school of thought has always held that the Congress is the problem. But neither has the Congress disappeared nor have the non-Congress political forces and formations managed to keep it out for long from positions of power and authority. This history puts the Congressmen under a new obligation. The Jaipur Kumbh Mela will be useful only if the Congressmen understand that they have the primary responsibility to respond to the new political economy of up-market assertiveness and down-market deprivations.
This cannot be an easy undertaking in this age of coalitions and fractured polity. The Congress and, for that matter, any other party or a combination of parties that may come to have the opportunity in the near future to govern from New Delhi, will confront a conundrum: how to convert a technical mandate into an enlightened democratic authority? The task of the leadership, then, becomes adding value to that technical mandate by its competence, capacity and communications so as to secure the citizens’ joyful consent to its policies and politics.
It is possible that at Jaipur, the Congressmen could get down to discussing the nature and reason for new restlessness among important sections of society. It is also possible that the younger lot among the Congressmen will decide to familiarise themselves with new tools of new technology that are being used to create confusion, controversy and crises. That may not be enough.
Trapped as the party is in the Rahul Gandhi leadership syndrome, it still needs to craft a new profile for itself around the limits of his political persona; in other words, it has to undertake to try to answer the all too obvious craving among vast sections of our society for a cleaner, more decent, more open political process.
At stake is not just the future of the Congress or the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. The very usefulness of democratic politics has come into disrepute. As the oldest political formation in the country, it is for the Congress to restore our constitutional order’s moral respectability. Citizens need to see demonstratively for themselves that public choices are made for the larger good. While a semblance of order and control is the prerequisite for any civilised, democratic state order, it is nonetheless imperative that the Congress learns new songs, lyrics and music so as to communicate that the only rationale for democratic polity to exist is to make the citizens feel and believe that politics is for them, not against them. The Congressmen are good at tactical cleverness. It remains to be seen whether at Jaipur they will be able or be allowed to discover the path of wisdom.
(Harish Khare is a veteran commentator and political analyst. He was the Prime Minister’s media adviser from June 2009 to January 2012)
Keywords: Congress, Congress Core Group, Grand Old Party, Chintan Shivir, Delhi gangrape, law ienforcement, judicial reforms, Food security Bill, economic reforms, coalition politics, Indian politics, Rajiv Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru