Politics

Congress in transition : From the frying, pan into the fire

Under the leadership of unworthy scions of family politics, a trio which has little or no understanding of its own family history, let alone that of the Indian National Congress, the grand old party finds itself staring into an abyss. It has to go back to its founding principles if it wants to be a player of some consequence on the national scene today. Namit Verma writes Namit Verma
Enter Vol.14 ISSUE 7-9 DECEMBER 2020

The crisis in the Congress Party is not a recent development; it has been in the making for 50 years. Very few people still recall the party’s functioning before Indira Gandhi, therefore they lack a proper understanding of what the Indian National Congress originally stood for. The late Indira Gandhi was a colossus who permitted no equal, not in her time, not for the future; consequently, inner party democracy gave way to the culture of yes-men and the spirit of Congress evaporated.

Increasing factionalism in the Congress saw prospective leadership inside the Congress party dissipating, the opportunistic mediocre ganging up to serve alien corporate interests and suborn the polity and the Congress Party. Some years after demitting office, Rao told me, “if only Arjun Singh had waited, he was my natural successor.”

The late Rajiv Gandhi learnt on the job and made great effort to provide the leadership necessary in the era following a colossus. He even tried to infuse the spirit of democratic decision making once again, but it was not to be. First, an opportunist democrat ran away with the people’s imagination and next, Rajiv paid with his life the price of all the baggage and angst that the colossus had left behind.

Narasimha Rao struggled to keep the nation intact and the party alive, that too in difficult times when the world was reshaping itself and the Soviet Bloc, that significant support system which had helped transform Indira into a colossus at home, was unravelling. Rao wanted to be rid of the baggage of the past, to be liberated from the contradictions which chained all manner of progress to the altar of anachronistic political propriety.

Sitaram Kesari at the helm of Congress affairs was an all too brief interlude and pre-emptorally ended at that, yet this Congress Presidency must be rated more democratic than any other in recent times. Is this evidence against the suitability of democracy in the present time? This is a debate we shall set aside for a fuller discussion at a later date.

Increasing factionalism in the Congress saw prospective leadership inside the Congress party dissipating, the opportunistic mediocre ganging up to serve alien corporate interests and suborn the polity and the Congress Party. Some years after demitting office, Rao told me, “if only Arjun Singh had waited, he was my natural successor.” Arjun Singh never became Congress President. As long as he appeared to be successfully mentoring Sonia Gandhi in the last years of the twentieth century, she showed promise and hope; but her gratitude ended abruptly and as early as 2000 she began speaking her mind. What emerged was alien to Indian ethos and Congress goals. What remained was the desperate hopeof revival of leadership by a colossus, the Indira model; proponent being primarily those who controlled physical access to the Congress President, assistants and orderlies who lacked political erudition.

Actor Navdeep, Co Founder C Space Along With Rakesh Rudravanka – CEO – C Space

Lip service in the decades and years following Indira had failed to revive the old character of the party: the Congress of minds and people; decision making has become top-heavy. After Rao, successive Congress party leaderships failed to balance national priorities with those of the party. The party stopped growing and a robust and energetic nation refused to wait for it. The youth of India, impatient in their march for greater goals, consigned the Congress party to history, a relic of an era past.

Increasing factionalism in the Congress saw prospective leadership inside the Congress party dissipating, theopportunistic mediocre ganging up to serve alien corporate interests and suborn the polity and the Congress Party. Some years after demitting office, Rao told me, “if only Arjun Singh had waited, he was my natural successor.”

The Indian voters’ rejection of the all noise and little delivery “India Shining” government of the BJP-led NDA enabled another opportunity for the Congress to govern India, albeit by coalition—the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). While much has been made of the sacrifice by the Congress President in not accepting the Prime Ministership of the country, discerning followers of Indian politics would not have missed the change in the timing of the interview at Rashtrapati Bhawan: between AB Bardhan’s statement to the media on the evening of May 17, 2004, from 10 Janpath about the Congress President and Parliamentary Party Leader receiving an “invitation to form the government” meeting with the President of India for 10 am on May 18, 2004, and the eventual 12:15 pm May 18 “interview” granted by the President, one where the letter of invitation to form the government, prepared by Rashtrapati Bhawan staff PM Nair, was never requisitioned by Kalam. The contradictions between the President and his Secretary’s published recollections of those three days have only underlined the significance of the decisions which the Congress Parliamentary Party was forced to accept and endorse that week.

…that week of May 16-22, 2004, was the watershed when the Congress threw in the towel and fully conceded the domination of all manner of forces. First, the handing over the reins of a Congress-led government to a rootless Manmohan Singh, criticism of whose policy of economic liberalisation had been one of the three main pillars of Sonia Gandhi’s formal entry into Indian politics

Indian supporters of Congress Party attend a rally addressed by Congress Party President Rahul Gandhi (not pictured) ahead of Phase VI of India’s general election in New Delhi on May 9, 2019. – The Delhi-NCR (National Capital Region) will go to the polls on May 12 during Phase VI of India’s general election. (Photo by Money SHARMA / AFP) (Photo credit should read MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)

To my mind, that week of May 16-22, 2004, was the watershed when the Congress threw in the towel and fully conceded the domination of all manner of forces. First, the handing over the reins of a Congress-led government to a rootless Manmohan Singh, criticism of whose policy of economic liberalisation had been one of the three main pillars of Sonia Gandhi’s formal entry into Indian politics; criticism muted since her meeting with Dick Cheney in 2000. Next, the balancing surrender to Left Front who now held a veto on all government decision making, a veritable guillotine suspended above the Congress Party.

The consequences of this surrender became immediately visible; the new cabinet’s hurried decision to concede the scandal-tainted and bankrupt Enron’s ridiculous claims and enable transfers in support of the US financial market. This trend was to continue with the then illegal Market Stabilisation Scheme which saw billions of dollars worth of Indian savings transferred to the United States to help defer the sub-prime crisis by almost four years; all at a cost of over Rs 8,000 crore average annual interest subsidy from the RBI to the US Treasury ever since; not to mention the opportunity cost by way of missed investment opportunities and earnings! The emaciation of the Congress was complete.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had learnt from his previous failed attempt at cover-up through post-facto ratification in the Kribhco, National Housing Bank, Harshad Mehta scandal where the frontline perpetrators had been brought to justice. This time the Prime Minister and his overseas back-office had everything covered: before demitting office they had amended the RBI Act itself to remove all manner of limitations on Market Borrowing, Speculation and Bond Issues by the Reserve Bank of India. Parliamentary Standing Committees, which had harped on the illegality of post-facto sanctions to demand and enforce action against Harshad Mehta, now quietly passed legalisation to legalise the loot of lakhs of crore of rupees of Indian savings to bail out the US Treasury. As a key member of the High Command later shared with me, the government had bluffed and misled the party that the MSS borrowings were necessary to finance the pro-poor schemes launched at home.

The man on the street may not have understood what the Congress-led UPA was doing, but they felt its impact: lack of delivery on promised government schemes. The base of the electoral pyramid did not need to be persuaded that the government was hostile to the common Indian, it merely needed an explanation. This circumstance was used by the BJP to garner support for its outrageous claims of corruption in every sector of the domestic economy. In the public perception, lack of delivery by government meant money was going missing through corruption.

The volume of missed opportunities for India on the domestic front, on account of the UPA government’s support to the US Treasury between 2004 and 2014 were reverse calculated by the redoubtable Messers Vinod Rai and company and assigned to the corruption head in the non-rigorous domain of public discourse: allegations of thousands of crore of corruption in telecom, coal, mining, et al, fictitious charges based on back of the hand reverse calculation which could never be established in a court of law because it was a figment of imagination. But perception is the very basis of parliamentary democracy. The damage was done; the Indian National Congress party was reduced to 44 seats in the Lok Sabha!

Duped by its own Prime Minister, unable to control its own ministers and undermined by combative coalition partners hungry for the same political ground-space which the Congress once occupied, an absolutely clueless and inept party leadership ran the Congress ship aground. Little did they realise that the Congress was under attack by myriad global forces who saw it as a competitor. This lack of perception comes as no surprise given that none in the leadership had any idea of what the Congress represented and why it had been conceived.

The leadership would eventually realise that they were being short-changed; even then they found themselves trapped, unable to do anything beyond publicly tearing up some papers, only to be cowed down once again thereafter. In its desperation to maintain the veneer of being in control over the government, a projection was necessary for an internally weak leadership to retain its hold on the party and its parliamentarians, at a time when it was being upstaged by that very government. Little wonder then that whom they appointed their most trusted chief intelligence officer, the Director of Intelligence Bureau in 2004, shortly after forming the government, went on to become one of the three chief architects of fictitious corruption propaganda against them in 2013-14; even less surprising that this same entity is now the be-all end-all of a hostile government which talks of a Congress Mukt Bharat.

Even the older generation leaders were inhibited by their inability to perceive or identify the many challenges and threats faced by the party. After all, even the oldest amongst them were products of the Indira Gandhi school of Congress politics. The few who had any idea of older Congress traditions and commitments, those with history of either personal political activism or political lineage predating the late Indira Gandhi, had already been shown the door or cut to size. Prominent among them were PV Narasimha Rao and G Venkatswamy in the first category and Arjun Singh in the second.

Absence of debate has become the bane of the party today. Just as the dark side is necessarily a part of the whole, so also contrary thoughts, persuasions and philosophies must necessarily get their space and debate; that is why this party was named the Congress at its birth.

Navigating through blunders in two successive Lok Sabha elections, not to mention losing elected state governments in legislative assemblies where people had reposed faith in local Congress leaderships, the reality of political mismanagement and consequent decline stares the Congress in its face. The disconnect with myriad aspects of the present-day world has come to define the party’s organisational structure and leadership; incompetence has become synonymous with present Congress leadership. Rare exceptions toiled hard to keep appearances intact; yet even these loyalists were targeted by some faction or the other in the family which chose to interpret its own lack of suitability and acceptance as a fallout of greater respect for those who performed; perhaps they also saw this as a threat. The late Ahmed Patel was the last link between the party leadership and the party’s heartbeat. He was the last of old school Congressmen who dignified the post they held, an observation no longer relevant to the Congress leadership today.

Some semblance of political due process was maintained by so-called Congress stalwarts; yet, their very situation rendered them misfits in the present environment. The practice of humiliating volunteer political activists through direction by supercilious staff cadres recruited to serve the party is an attack on the spirit of inner party democracy. It bespeaks a disconnect between the party and its leadership which threatens to undermine and destroy everything the Congress has stood for. The organisation, manner and functioning of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) has devoured the parent party. It is time to review its present day functioning and restore it to its original purpose.

The All India Congress Committee was founded in 1925 following the exponential growth in the number of delegates attending the annual convention of the Indian National Congress, a trend which began with the Nagpur session. The AICC began its journey primarily as an electoral college to elect the Congress leadership, a role which stands negated given the absence of free and fair elections after the Calcutta Session of 1998. The practice of nominations to the AICC making up its entire membership is untenable; it has reduced the Indian National Congress to an instrument of a hereditary leadership entitlement, a tradition alien to democracy and unacceptable to India.

The AICC has journeyed from being an electoral college to becoming a command performance rubber-stamping farcical authority, invoked by the diktat of the Election Commission of India rules rather than in expression and exercise of the will of the rank and file Congress worker.

Restoring party elections is necessary, ensuring their credibility even more so. The first step, obviously, is having a partywide election to elect and constitute acceptable State and Central Election Authorities. The sale of voting rights in the party through the regime of active workers and absentee active worker votes being cast by whosoever holds their membership books must be stopped. This is the primary pitfall which inhibits citizen association and participation in Congress affairs.

The AICC has journeyed from being an electoral college to becoming a command performance rubber-stamping farcical authority, invoked by the diktat of the Election Commission of India rules rather than in expression and exercise ofthe will of the rank and file Congress worker.

The AICC’s journey from accepting responsibility in the fight for Independence, to the responsibility for expanding the organisation, appears to have overridden its responsibility to bring feedback from the citizens of the country. Every single Organisational Office Bearer unashamedly talks of his “gratitude” to a family; this negation of democracy must end. This is in stark contrast to private discussions where demoralised Congressmen and women are heard saying that the price of saving the leadership’s skin has been the growing irrelevance of Congress party itself. The loyalists insist that during the last six years staying out of power, the leadership has learnt from adversity; it has begun to identify foe and friend. Great advance indeed, from knowing neither itself nor the enemy between 2000 and 2014 to getting to possibly identify, hopefully even understand, the enemies within and outside—albeit, even now unable to do anything about it. Much as Sun Tzu would have it, “if you know the enemy but not yourself, for every victory you must pay a price”; in the present instance a price greater than the victory itself, if Goa, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh are anything to go by. This has become the fate of the Congress under he leadership of the unworthy scions of family politics, a trio which has little or no understanding of its own family history, let alone that of the Indian National Congress party.

Despite the lessons learnt, fear prevails and gratitude remains the basis of party governance and appointments, duly acknowledged as favours by those cognizant of their own undeserving existence in the hierarchy.

One recalls how ingratitude was the charge levelled at incumbent Congress Working Committee member, the late G Venkatswamy, when he demanded the Congress President’s resignation on February 1, 2011, prophetically observing: “I have serious doubts of the Congress coming back to power under Ms Gandhi’s leadership in the next elections. Out of 28 States, the Congress is in power in only a handful. This number may become zero if she continues to be at the helm. Congress leaders have won elections based on the Congress party’s symbol and not because of Ms Gandhi.”

I have had the experience of even the most senior party office bearers telling me privately that they would go along with the present Congress President’s agenda and policies, which they themselves neither believed in nor agreed with, because they were burdened by gratitude for support from or favours done by her late husband. One is certain that personal gratitude was never an indispensable value for determining political conduct in the Congress scheme of things as conceived and propounded by the founding fathers of the party. No gratitude was sought by Sawab Chand who introduced Motilal Nehru into the Congress party and two decades later negotiated Jawahar’s political inheritance in lieu of the voluntary subsuming of Motilal’s politics by that of Gandhi’s strategy of non-violent confrontation which so successfully defined the Indian freedom struggle. Gandhi himself would be aghast at the idea of truth being overwhelmed by considerations of personal gratitude in the political discourse.

The guiding principles that the Congress is irrevocably wedded to are truth and humanism; these must prevail over all else. The Congress was conceived within the world view of the Theosophist framework. It never needed an officialdom or a cadre to reach out to the masses because its theosophist roots made it indistinguishable from humanity itself. It was never the perceived leadership, but the right set of principles and a demonstrated commitment to uphold them that made the Indian National Congress the pre-eminent vehicle of democratic empowerment in the first half of the last century.That is the commitment which the grand old party needs to revive. g

(The contents of this article are the personal views of the writer.)

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