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Getting back its heroes

Image: Deepak Harichandan  

“Gandhi’s great role was to provide a canopy for different political persuasions fighting... to secure independence for India. Elections before independence in the Congress Working Committee (CWC) were hard-fought. At no stage did people of one persuasion exist at the top and there was no attempt to whip different opinions into one,” former Union Minister and Congress Rajya Sabha MP Mani Shankar Aiyar says. “It was well-recognised that all people had to be carried along.”

The Congress movement eventually consolidated into a party and those who stayed did so consciously, he continues. Those belonging to the Congress Socialist Party, the Muslim League and the >Hindu Mahasabha left — and they formed the bulk of the >opposition in independent India.

Within the Congress “different opinions were expressed and reconciled by the leadership,” Mr. Aiyar says. He points out that “whatever differences Patel and Nehru had, they were yoked together in consolidating the nationhood of India. These differences… cannot extinguish the fact that Patel rejected the opportunity of becoming Prime Minister. After the Liaquat-Nehru pact annoyed a large majority in the Congress Parliamentary Party, Nehru offered to resign; it was Patel who persuaded him not to.”

As the Narendra Modi government raids Congress history to locate those who were denied, according to it, their just place by the Nehru-Gandhi family, Mr. Aiyar stresses: “Patel’s differences with the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] were far greater… Patel and Nehru were comrades-in-arms who recognised each other’s right to differ. The BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] can try to make Patel a BJP icon but history cannot justify it.”

Protecting history

But as the rise of identity and communal politics over the last 30 years has seen the Congress floundering, the party is finding it increasingly hard to protect its history, the India created by the torchbearers of the freedom struggle, and the ideological bandwidth it once had. As a truncated Congress faces an existential crisis, the BJP’s assault has hit it hard. In its increasingly restive ranks, the doubt persists — without the glue of the Nehru-Gandhi family, the party will rapidly disintegrate.

It is appalled at the way in which the BJP is appropriating its leaders but, confused and in disarray, the Congress seems unable to fight back .

Publicly, the Congress has hit back, even if sporadically. It has pointed out that since the BJP; its predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS); and indeed the RSS played no role in the freedom struggle, this is the only way for the party to acquire a pantheon of leaders who worked to usher in Independence — and thus gain the political legitimacy it lacks.

“We should welcome (the BJP’s) acknowledgement of great Congress stalwarts, while strongly objecting to any distortion of their records,” says Congress MP and one of Nehru’s biographers Shashi Tharoor. He adds, “…reducing Sardar Patel to a Hindu icon is a travesty of his beliefs and his actions, including during the horrific Partition riots when he staunchly protected Muslims. Similarly, Lala Lajpat Rai and Madan Mohan Malaviya were far more complex political leaders than their identification as Hindus alone suggests.”

The Congress may be appalled at the way in which the BJP is distorting its history and seeking to delegitimise it but, confused and in disarray, it has done little to counter the moves.

Last year, shortly after the Congress was routed in the general elections, Congress veteran >A.K. Antony had said at a meeting in June in Thiruvananthapuram that “there is a doubt created by the party’s proximity towards minority communities… Congress policy is equally just to everyone; but people have doubts whether that policy is being implemented or not.”

The statement was made in the context of Kerala politics, as he made clear. “People have lost faith in the secular credentials of the party. They have a feeling that the Congress works for a few communities, especially minorities... Such a situation would open the door for the entry of communal forces into Kerala.” But Mr. Antony’s remarks resonated across the party.

In the closing months of 2014, the Congress held a series of meetings to analyse its defeat and to find ways to chart the party’s future. A key area of discussion was its failure to attract Hindu voters. The discussions on ideology, a former minister who attended one of the meetings told The Hindu, boiled down to the “need to be pluralistic without looking like a Muslim party, to retain the minority vote without annoying the liberal Hindu mainstream, and choosing a path so that we are not stigmatised as anti-upper caste in north India”— in short, ambivalence.

Almost 10 months after those discussions, as the BJP continues to appropriate Congress icons, organising celebrations, constructing memorials, and issuing postage stamps, the Congress is still looking for a way to be perceived once again as “an umbrella party” that can attract the votes of Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims alike.

The temple treks

Of late, of course, > Rahul Gandhi has been making publicised visits to temples: in April, he trekked to Kedarnath; last month it was the Kheer Bhawani temple in Ganderbal near Srinagar; more recently, it was the Banke Bihari temple in Mathura.

The Congress in many ways still contains within it, from the leadership level down to party workers, persons who represent a very wide spectrum of ideological opinion. But, as a senior party leader told The Hindu, “The Congress’s ideology has not changed. Nor does it need to be rearticulated. What we need is a credible leadership that can reflect the plurality of views that the Congress is; to reoccupy the liberal middle ground that we once did.”

Meanwhile, says former party MP Sandeep Dikshit, “The Congress needs to reclaim all its icons stridently and demonstrate that the core beliefs of these leaders were stridently anti-RSS and anti-Hindutva, whether Malaviya, Lajpat Rai, Bose or Patel. And we have enough public intellectuals in our ranks who can do this.”

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2022 3:26:50 AM |

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