Congress at 125 - defied doomsayers to reach commanding heights (Comment)

January 2nd, 2010 - 12:59 pm ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata Party By Amulya Ganguli
In the Congress’s centenary year in 1985, Rajiv Gandhi delivered his famous “brokers of power” speech in Mumbai, castigating the party for converting a “mass movement into a feudal oligarchy”.

The self-criticism underlined a realisation that the party was riding on past glory and had done little in recent years to commend itself to the public. Although the admonitory tone was surprising in the aftermath of a massive electoral victory, it suggested both an element of nervousness about the future and a hope that the admission of its own flaws would ensure rectification.

In the event, the many imperfections which were increasingly in evidence in the following years led to the party’s electoral defeat in 1989. Although the Congress did recover its balance to rule for another five years from 1991, the aura of invincibility born of a moral dominance dating back to the days of Mahatma Gandhi was gone.

As it bowed out of power in 1996 after the disgraceful episode of buying support in parliament in 1993 from the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, few would have predicted its return with nearly the same invulnerability of its earlier years.

Yet, as the party celebrates its 125th anniversary, it can be said to have again attained the commanding heights of politics. True, its dominance is nowhere near what it was in the first two decades after independence when it had virtually no worthwhile challengers. The party also has little presence in vast swathes of territory in both the north and the south, including Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

However, the Congress’s two successive general election victories in 2004 and 2009 have demonstrated that age has not withered it. The party may have become old, but it is clearly not a spent force. In fact, it is still up and running. What is more, the disarray in the opposition ranks, mainly among its two main contenders, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left, suggests that the future is brighter for the Congress than for its adversaries.

It is almost as if the party’s defects, as noted by Rajiv Gandhi, persuaded the voters to give the others a chance. But the electorate returned to the Congress after discovering the inability of the other parties to govern. The reason for their failure probably even highlighted the Congress’s worthiness and indispensability.

Since the Hindu-oriented and proletarian ideologies respectively of the BJP and the Left blinded them to the multi-hued diversity of the Indian scene, the value of the Congress’s benign, accommodative, broad-church approach was appreciated yet again by the electorate. The party stood for all sections of society and not parts of it identified by religion or caste or class. Significantly, the BJP’s defeat in 2004 was ascribed by its own former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to the Gujarat riots, and its 2009 defeat followed the anti-Christian riots in Orissa where it was in power.

Apart from the Congress’s known adherence to multicultural tenets, what may have helped its rise was the presence at the helm of the Nehru-Gandhis, who have long been regarded as unremitting votaries of secularism. Right from the time of Motilal Nehru through Jawaharlal, Indira, Rajiv, Sonia and now Rahul, the family has been seen by the aam admi, or the common man, as the standard-bearers of the ideals of communal harmony championed by Mahatma Gandhi.

Although the urban middle class may scoff at the dynastic principle, such criticism seems to have had no adverse effect on the attitude of trust and loyalty towards the family by the ordinary people. As a result, even the BJP has had to give up its campaign of denigration against Sonia Gandhi for being a “foreigner”. To the aam admi, the label is of little consequence. Having married into an Indian family, she is regarded as an Indian by most Indians.

It is undoubtedly the basic secular commitments of the Nehru-Gandhis along with the undeniable charisma of this remarkably good-looking family which has kept the Congress in the forefront of national life from the pre-independence period down to the present day.

Not surprisingly, its setbacks have been due to deviations from its own ideals. The most devastating of them was in 1977 when it could not win a single seat from Uttar Pradesh, the home of the dynasty, because of Indira’s tryst with authoritarianism.

The dictatorial instincts which she exhibited during the Emergency of 1975-77 deepened the sense of mistrust which large sections of the intelligentsia have always had about the party and the family.

The other setback in 1989 may not have been as comprehensive as the one of 1977, but it followed the Bofors howitzer scandal which tarnished Rajiv Gandhi’s name and substantiated the almost constant allegations of corruption levelled against the party at the time and which Indira sought to dismiss by describing it as a worldwide phenomenon.

If authoritarianism and corruption made the party and the family (the two have become almost synonymous) stumble in the years after it had lost its hallowed reputation of the freedom struggle, the demolition of the Babri Masjid cast a shadow on their secular credentials as well.

Even if the party’s subsequent recovery has been the result of the failures of the opposition, the fact remains that in Sonia Gandhi, the electorate seems to have found someone who deserves greater support than, say, the BJP which is seen to be in the grip of the Hindu supremacist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Her presence at the helm of the party has also sent a reassuring message to the minorities, who deserted the party after the Babri Masjid demolition.

It was Sonia Gandhi’s refusal, however, to accept the prime minister’s post in 2004 which underlined her political acuity since it robbed the BJP of an explosive campaign point based on projecting her as an anti-national. Her choice of Manmohan Singh, who is known for his personal integrity, as prime minister also helped to erase the party’s taint of corruption.

There have been many doomsayers about the Congress. The most notable among them was Lord Curzon who prophesied in 1900 that the party was “tottering to its fall”. Eight years later, Rashbehari Ghose told the 23rd Congress session in Madras (now Chennai): “The fears which for months haunted the minds of some of us have proved groundless. The predictions of our enemies … have been falsified. For the Indian National Congress is not dead … It has been more than once doomed to death but, rely upon it, it bears a charmed life and is fated not to die”.

(02.01.2010-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)

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