The Congress, which was once a phenomenon, needs to understand how a political party declines from its once-hegemonic state to a party of vested interests and self-serving politicians. Early bouts of declines remain invisible and unaddressed because power either consumes or suppresses idealists. Ergo, any debate inside the party is shorn of any real criticism.
The seeds of Congress’ downfall were sown soon after it rode to power following Independence. Three lectures delivered by veteran Congressman Shankarrao Deo, in the month of July 1949, mirror the phenomenon of its decline. His speeches do not find any place in the documentation of the Congress. During my research, I have had the opportunity to go through Deo’s personal papers in the Nehru Memorial Museum Library at Teen Murti in New Delhi.
In his second speech on July 14, 1949, Deo unravelled that Gandhi was a mask for the vast majority of the Congressmen who accepted him essentially as political, not moral, leader. He added, “The moral and purificatory side of his programme was accepted by the generality of the Congressmen more as a price of his leadership than as a matter of inner conviction or acceptance of a higher spiritual and moral code of life.”
Deo further said, “When there is no moral or higher social motive, politics is sure to degenerate into power politics. In its turn, it is sure to become a cesspool of rivalries between individual and individual, group and group, and even community and community”.
Any party whose leadership slips into the hands of those who use symbolism to manipulate people and common workers at the cost of those who genuinely internalise values is not only bound to decline but also causes immense harm to the nation and humanity. Deo in his speech on July 14 warned Congressmen that their legacies could not guarantee their existence. It has a limited role to play in the life of a political party. He said “politics is not a respecter of personalities or parties. Therefore, it is disastrous if the Congress were to rely on its past glory and services”.
Power politics destroyed the well-cherished commitments of the top leadership of the Congress. It was not the common workers but the higher echelons who first abandoned any values and commitment, and presented a filthy example to their grassroots workers. Deo said, “It is said that Congress has an ideal, but that there is no idealism left in Congressmen.” He was further sceptical about Congressmen’s work culture and their moral or social worth. He said Congressmen themselves have to answer his sceptical question put upon them. Deo’s question, alas, remained unaddressed.
How power killed the quest for idealism is a tragic story of the party which fought for the country’s freedom. In the same speech, Deo elaborated, “Instead of unity, we have division among our ranks, and instead of identifying ourselves with the masses, there is a wide gulf separating us from them. As a result of acceptance of power, not only has a great chasm opened up between those in power and the people, there is also rift among Congressmen themselves, as if a new ruling class has sprung up, which has turned the Congress into a sort of organisation of haves and have-nots. The present malady is due to the wide discrepancy between our profession and practice.”
Nation-building became a programme of the power elite, while thousands of Congress workers trained by Gandhi became jobless. Cracks had begun appearing in the wall “even when the master builder (Gandhi) was alive”. Those cracks finally came down as debris in 2014. Deo’s three speeches may no longer be useful for the Congress, but certainly hold a dire warning for others.
Sinha is Hony.Director of India Policy Foundation