The origins of the Congress party, founded in 1885 by Allan Octavian Hume, lay in forming an organisation to put the Indian point of view before the British, obtain redressal of grievances and persuade the government to increasingly associate Indian aspirations. It is in 1919, when General Dyer at Jallianwala Bagh fired mercilessly on unarmed Indians, killing scores and wounding even more, that one act of brutality revolutionalised our thinking and the Congress changed from being a low-key reformist group into the vanguard of the freedom movement.
The British tried to avoid the inevitable by measures such as the Morley-Minto Reforms and Montague-Chelmsford Reforms which sought to pass limited power at the local government level and partially in the provincial governments to elected representatives. Then came the Government of India Act, 1935, which transferred power in the provinces to elected governments. These measures were too little too late and when in 1942 Mahatma Gandhi launched the Quit India Movement the Congress refused to compromise at anything less than full independence. Two groups dissociated themselves—the first being the Communist party that called for support to the British because the Soviet Union had been invaded by Germany and the British were the allies of the Soviets. Because this ran contrary to the united Indian call for independence, the Communist party remained isolated from the mainstream and despite some regional success in Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura, the Communist Party in its various avatars is at best only on the margins. The second group was the Ambedkarites who feared an independent India would be dominated by the upper castes.
The Mahatma realised the struggle for freedom is what held disparate groups together in the Congress and that the party itself had no ideology that could bring it unity. Even in the matter of how to fight the British, Subhash Chandra Bose who favoured armed struggle had already separated from the Congress and had exiled to Germany and later Japan. Gandhiji, whose non-violent satyagraha proved the better weapon, had advised the Congress to dissolve itself after Independence and for different ideological groups to form their own parties. Unfortunately, the Congress did not heed his advice because power proved to be the cementing force and obviously it could not be enjoyed except as member of a party that had the majority in the legislature. Because Nehru was a giant, accompanied by stalwarts who were giants in their own capacity, the Congress remained a dominant force in Indian polity. But, despite the fact that Nehru was basically a democrat who was prepared to live quite amicably with his opponents, the personality of Nehru and his preeminent stature meant there was a loss of inner democracy within the party.
Indira Gandhi’s ascent completely changed the scenario. By her very nature she could not permit anyone to become her equal and the Congress rapidly sank into an organisation in which other than Indira no one else counted. In fact it is D K Baruah, the nominal president of the Congress, who coined the phrase, “India is Indira, Indira is India”. Systematically, she eliminated all the stalwarts who had stood by her father and instead surrounded herself by courtiers and sycophants. The party mattered little to her and when defections occurred in Madhya Pradesh through bribery, instead of listening to D P Mishra and causing the House to be dissolved, she allowed her dislike of Mishra to sacrifice the party and permit Govind Narain Singh to take over as chief minister, though it was he who led the revolt. From this day on politics became not a means of promoting welfare but a game of buying power, then subverting the government to make money to retain power and use power itself to perpetuate one’s power. The politics of honesty and ideology was replaced by that of corruption.
Formerly, the Congress had an elected hierarchy in which village units chose the mandal head, the mandals elected the district chief and district units recommended names for the presidentship of the Pradesh Congress. That all went by the board and from Indira’s days all office-bearers were nominated by the high command. From a democratic party the Congress degenerated into a coterie of sycophants. Unfortunately it further degenerated into becoming the personal fiefdom of Indira Gandhi’s family and apart from Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi there is virtually no leadership. This has given rise to extra-constitutional entities such as the National Advisory Council led by Sonia Gandhi, which has no accountability but dictates policy to government. It has weakened both the party and the government. In India expediency and populism have replaced ideology, policy, programmes and good government. Competitive populism has destroyed every institution and, unfortunately, the will to govern. In fact the desire for good governance has been replaced by the politics of expediency, which means a corrupt government.
We need the Congress as a middle of the road party. For this the Congress has to free itself from the clutches of a single family and go back to the position that existed in 1957-58, when village, mandal and district units democratically decided who would head the party at each level. The high command itself came from this route. Thus, for its own sake and for the sake of multi-party democracy, the Congress should restore internal democracy so that at whatever level there is leadership, it is backed by the support of party workers and is not superimposed from above. This must be accorded the highest priority if the Congress is to regain its former position. The importance of the middle of the road party is that it sets the benchmark and defines the perimeter of permissible political action, within which both the extreme left and the extreme right must function. That is what makes a democracy so vibrant and yet responsible. When moderate parties yield ground extreme elements rush in to occupy the space. That is how Naxalism prospers and extremism gains. To prevent this we need strong democratic institutions and parties confident of their own capability. That is why Congress must reinvent itself by democratising itself.
(M N Buch, a former civil servant, is chairman, National Centre for Human Settlements and Environment, Bhopal; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)