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The search for a Chakrayya: on hunt for a new Congress President

Led by a new dynamic leader, the Congress party must redeem the nation’s trust which it has not lost, only let go awhile

Resignations are not an intention. Nor are they something to be offered, like an explanation or an apology. There is no such thing as “I am resigning”. You either resign or do not resign.

When, immediately after the Indian National Congress’s comprehensive defeat in the general election, 2019, Rahul Gandhi announced his resignation from the office of President of the Congress, he did something that was politically responsible. His mother’s instinctive declining of the Prime Ministership of India in 2004 was from the crest of victory. It bore the moral carat of instinct. It was universally hailed.

Rahul Gandhi’s relinquishing of his high and historic position 15 years later was from the hollow of defeat. It carried the ethical grammage of principle. It was applauded by democrats across the country.

The family factor

But the ideationally null and valuationally empty in the Grand Old Party were a-tremble. They feared that their entries in the Gandhi-Nehru family’s ledgers of loyalty would go up in the air. They resisted the idea. Tacticians of power play in the party also were unsure, to the point of panic, about who or what could replace ‘the family’ as the Congress’s selling-point. These individuals may not be judged too hastily, for they have never known their party without the Nehru-Gandhis. True, as Congress President, K. Kamaraj’s was a self-powering position. But even then, the fact of Indira Gandhi being Prime Minister made the party (as Kamaraj himself soon realised) as much her field of action as it was that of the party chief and his Working Committee. So, barring the atypical interlude when P.V. Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister and when the quizzical Sitaram Kesri headed it, the Congress has been dependent on descendants of Jawaharlal Nehru.

 

Four generations of them have done the thinking, planning, strategising, campaigning, defending, leading for them. They have been the party, the party them. And it has to be said, not just in fairness to the Gandhi-Nehrus but in fairness to modern Indian history, that they have played this role through the most trying periods in the party’s history, facing the fusillades of India’s growing disenchantment with dynastic politics. They have done this from the loneliness and vulnerability that is the lot of any pinnacle.

Stepping down

Seen against this backdrop, Rahul Gandhi’s announcing of his resignation was as cathartic for his party as it was natural for democracy. It was as incredible for the Congress as it was admirable for conscientious politics, as unacceptable to hangers-on as it was admirable to the disinterestedly interested. After four weeks and more of uncertainty about the seriousness of his intention, he has had to re-assert, as he did on July 4, that he has resigned, that he is not Congress President any longer, that the party must now find another leader. The interval of doubt has certainly dullened the shine of his initial announcement and reduced its impact. But late is better than never. He has relinquished status, he has retrieved stature. He has been brave, he has been wise.

And now that his resignation is ‘official’, will he be that which is about more than being wise? Will he be humble? Not in the theatricality of formal self-diminution which Golda Meir put down in one of her Ministers with, “Oh don’t be so humble-humble; you are not that great!” No, not in the sense of an obligatory humility but of genuine preparedness for another person being effective and better than oneself as the party’s sentinel and captain. Will he move to the side, not to maintain a side-view of things, not to prompt from the wings, not allowing anyone to tell him to be the power behind the throne, but to actually be just a plain billeted soldier of the party? If he does he will reap a harvest of genuine goodwill which is different from fawning deference. And, freed from the compulsion of functioning as an alternative Prime Minister and of out-doing Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he will bring to his new leader, his Congress President, the dividend of a new reading of the public pulse, a new understanding of the popular will from the real-world’s pitted ground rather than the distancing plinth of a hyped rostrum.

 

The humility that he could do with, has a very hard, practical side to it as well. It is about the process of the identification of the new Congress President. Those who are loath to part from the family’s apron strings will say to him and, even worse, nudge the part towards the appointment of a person who is ‘a tried and trusted family loyalist’. That way lies the party’s interment.

Change and how

Rahul Gandhi must discourage that emphatically. His statement that the party needs to change fundamentally is most reassuring. It is in fact, redemptive. As much as his earlier statement that the new President should not be from the Nehru-Gandhi family. The question that needs to be asked, therefore, is: Should not that change mean that the party President is elected as openly and as seriously as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was elected, in 1938 and 1939? Netaji, it will be recalled, defeated Gandhiji’s chosen candidate Pattabhi Sitaramayya. In that election and its aftermath lies another lesson for today’s Congress. The party’s new President should be elected as ‘grandly’ as Netaji was but she or he should not be treated as Netaji was, by the Gandhi-loyal Working Committee of the day. The new President should be left completely free to form the Working Committee, from out of persons whose service-mindedness not boss-mindfulness, is manifest.

 

On May 31, 1947, Gandhiji lamented the dying of a young Congressman, Chakrayya, with these words: “The time is fast approaching when India will have to elect the first President of the Republic. I would have proposed the name of Chakrayya had he been alive…” Not many had heard of Chakrayya then, hardly anyone knows of him today. Chakrayya was a Dalit from Andhra Pradesh. Now he is a metaphor, the unknown Congressman from a deprived background, uncompromised by power, unspoilt by flattery, untempted by office, who, if entrusted with the responsibility and left free to wield it, can startle us. Such a Congressman or Congresswoman is impossible to name. But is not non-existent. An election, openly announced and freely conducted, can yet surprise us. No leader will be found if the attempt is to find a dummy, not a leader. A dummy President will make a dummy of the party.

Word of advice

A final word for and to what I would like to see as the New Congress. In 1923, the Congress gave of itself the Congress’s Swaraj Party. Headed by Deshabandhu C.R. Das, with Pandit Motilal Nehru as its General Secretary, it functioned as the party’s legislative wing, opposing the Raj’s unjust raj, while the main Congress Party functioned outside legislatures as a mass movement led by Gandhiji. The Congress MPs and MLAs of today and the Congress Ministries where they exist, should see themselves as the Swaraj Party of today, leading the charge in legislatures, legislatively. The Congress Party outside, led by a new dynamic leader, the Chakrayya equivalent, should galvanise its popular base programmatically, addressing life and death issues on our natural resources, our farms and mines, and with a zero-corruption, zero-cronyism, zero-communalism plural ethic, redeem the nation’s trust which it has not lost, only let go awhile.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 9:08:29 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-search-for-a-chakrayya/article28313331.ece

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