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Congress marks its founding day with controversy


New Delhi: The Congress’s 130th birthday, which was observed by the party on Monday, could not have been a happy occasion. True, the party has lately shown faint signs of life after its humiliating drubbing in the 2014 general election.

It fared much better, for instance, in the Bihar assembly elections than it has done in recent years and has been able to establish itself in rural Gujarat for the time being at the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) expense.

The Congress also performed satisfactorily in an assembly by-election and in several local bodies in another BJP-ruled state – Madhya Pradesh.

But these few swallows do not make a summer. In Bihar, the “national” party came a poor third to the two major regional parties – the Janata Dal-United and the Rashtriya Janata Dal – and there is little chance that it will be able to move ahead in the near future.

Elsewhere in the Hindi belt, such as in Uttar Pradesh, it occupies the third or even fourth place behind the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the BJP.

Since the scenario is virtually the same from West Bengal to Tamil Nadu via Odisha, where the regional parties rule the roost, the Grand Old Party can hardly be regarded as a national party anymore.

It is not all that difficult, however, in its time of distress, to pinpoint the root cause and even the very day – of the Congress’s decline and fall. The fateful date was June 26, 1975 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended all civil rights by promulgating the emergency.

“Please do not destroy the foundation that the Father of the Nation, and your noble father, had laid down”, Sarvodaya leader Jayaprakash Narayan, told her. “You inherited a great tradition, noble values and a working democracy. Do not leave behind a miserable wreck of all that. It would take a long time to put all that together again.”

It did not take long, however, to put democracy back on track, for the people of India, in their great wisdom, evicted Indira Gandhi and the Congress from power in the general election of 1977.

Although the party and the mother-and-son duo of Indira and Sanjay Gandhi returned to the corridors of power three years later, the Congress was described as a party of “power brokers” by prime minister Rajiv Gandhi during the party’s centenary celebrations in 1985.

Unlike the present occasion, the party did have reasons to celebrate at the time, but the storm clouds were already gathering over its future. The Congress lost power in 1989 and despite occasional sojourns in office since then – between 1991 and 1996 and between 2004 and 2014 – it has become a pale shadow of its former self for having been unable to secure an absolute majority on the two occasions, let alone win 415 of the 543 elected Lok Sabha seats with a 48.1 percent vote share as in 1984.

Why had the downhill slide? Several reasons can be mentioned. One is apparently the belief among the voters because of their 1975 experience that the party cannot be entrusted with total power anymore.

It is not impossible that this belief has been strengthened by the admiration for Indira Gandhi expressed by her grandson, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi. “She is my role model”, he has said, adding that he would have acted like her as when she faced “severe assault” by “destabilizing forces”, which was the standard explanation for her draconian measures in 1975.

It is noteworthy that while other Congressmen have been mildly critical of the Emergency – Jairam Ramesh said it was a mistake because it enabled the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to enter the mainstream – the party’s first family has been largely silent.

A second reason why the Congress is stumbling is its familiar trust with corruption. It has lost power twice in recent years because of its association with sleaze – in 1989 when the Bofors howitzer scandal brought down the Rajiv Gandhi government and in 2014 when the plethora of scams led to the Manmohan Singh government’s ouster.

In addition to its authoritarian trait, as demonstrated in 1975, the party always had to continuously battle the perception of being corrupt.

The third and perhaps the most crucial reason is its pathetic dependence on the Nehru-Gandhis which has turned a “mass movement into a feudal oligarchy”, to quote from Rajiv Gandhi’s 1985 speech.

Rajiv Gandhi was referring to people outside his family, but it is the latter which has saddled the party with the burden of feudalism. What is worse, unlike the charismatic members of the family of the past who had wide acceptability despite their faults because of the party’s tradition of secularism and their role in building democratic institutions – till 1975 – the present generation lacks the earlier wide appeal.

And the reason is that they have shown neither the intellectual prowess of Jawaharlal Nehru nor the grit of Indira Gandhi, which was best demonstrated during the liberation of Bangladesh and the worst in 1975.

Instead, the present mother-and-son duo of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi resembles a decaying zamindar family surrounded by a band of servile courtiers who are out of touch with the outside world.(Amulya Ganguli,IANS)

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Indian Politics and Polity Shift to the Right and Away from Europe

India’s 2014 election was a clear rejection of the long serving Indian Congress Party and its soft socialism

Rahul Gandhi becomes president of Congress as mother Sonia Gandhi steps down
Rahul Gandhi steps in as President of Congress, Wikipedia

By Dr. Richard Benkin, Chicago

  • India is world’s largest democracy
  • Indian politics is always under international coverage
  • India is witnessing political shift due to its leaders and their transformation

The great democracy was electing its national leader.  It was a fight between the party in power with a leftist tinge; and the more conservative opposition with its upstart candidate. The media was rooting openly for the leftist candidate and would stop at almost nothing, even vilifying the conservative upstart as evil, not just wrong.  The candidate on the left seemed to feel entitled, that being head of state was all in the family.  And, as you probably have guessed, that candidate lost.  You might or might not have guessed that, despite the familiarity to American voters, this was not the United States.  It was India.

will also hold a meeting there with the Indian community. Wikimedia Commons
Narendra Modi’ win in 2014 elections stunned the whole nation. Wikimedia Commons

India’s 2014 election was a clear rejection of the long serving Indian Congress Party and its soft socialism.  Its candidate, then 43 year old, Rahul Gandhi, was the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Prime Ministers; and though India is the world’s largest democracy, not the world’s largest monarchy, it was “his turn” to take the nation’s top spot.

The similarities between the Indian Congress Party and the US Democrat Party stop, however, with how the two parties and their dynastic candidates reacted to their defeats.  While there is ample evidence that the Democrats are moving further to the left, India’s Congress, and especially its former candidate, seem to have taken the lessons of their defeat to heart.  Moreover, we too often gauge a polity’s position on the left-right spectrum by which major party dominates.  In the Indian case, however, we get a deeper understanding by examining changes in the out of power party.

Also Read: Rahul Gandhi Elected as President of Congress Amidst Celebration of Followers

The Indian National Congress Party was founded in 1885 and, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, was the principal leader of the movement that led to India’s independence from Great Britain in 1947.  It has ruled India for roughly 57.5 of its 70.5 years as a modern nation (81.6 percent of its entire existence).  Congress fashions itself left-center party with “democratic socialism” as one of the party’s guiding principles; and over the years, I have written a number of articles, criticizing what I believe to be weak Congress policies.  It has followed the lead of soft left European parties, in contrast with the Indian nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  Amitabh Tripathi is a well-known Indian political commentator.  I caught up with him in New Delhi in February and asked him about how the Congress Party was reacting to its crushing 2014 defeat.

RB:  So, was the 2014 election a strong statement about traditional Indian politics?

AT:  Definitely.  Till 1991, Indian politics was at a status quo with socialist, leftist, and communist stances prevalent.  After 1991, right wing politics emerged as a political force.  Since then, Indian politics has shifted to the right; and from time to time for more than two decades, left and right engaged in direct political confrontations.  Congress led the coalition of leftists; and the BJP emerged as the leader of the right.  The BJP ruled the country for six years (1998-2004) and its policies swung to the right, including a vocal and unapologetic relationship with Israel, moving forward strategically with the United States, and exploring India’s role in the Indian Ocean to contain China and its imperialistic ambitions. When the BJP lost power to a Congress led coalition in 2004, the Indian polity again shifted left; and Congress became a complete replica of its 1960s self—a totally leftist party.

Rahul Gandhi becomes the president of Congress as mother Sonia Gandhi Steps Down
Rahul Gandhi traveled to many Hindu temples during the campaign (something he avoided in his unsuccessful 2014 run). It is believed he also did not go to any Muslim places of worship, which was unusual for any top leader from the Congress Party.

In 2014, when elections occurred, the Indian polity moved on to the right on issues from economics to culture.  Before the election, Congress did not read the undercurrent of the people and moved even further left on those issues.  This has been widely acknowledged as the reason for its crushing defeat.

RB:  So it was a real shift to the right among Indians, which sounds a lot like our own experience in 2016.  In the US, the losing Democrat party has reacted by moving further left.  Has India’s Congress tried to understand the reasons behind its defeat?

AT:  The latter statement is correct.  Immediately after losing the elections, Congress realized it was not simply an electoral defeat.  Its ideological stagnation led to the historical loss.  And it tried to rectify that and re-invent itself.

RB:  How have they done that?

AT:  I observed it on three fronts, three major decisions.  First, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, the former party President and current head of the dynastic family, took an almost “voluntary” retirement.  She had become the face of hard left and anti-Hindu policies.

RB:  Sounds familiar.  Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi has become the same here, but she does not seem to be going anywhere.

AT:  Second, in ten years of Congress rule, they openly flaunted themselves as very pro-Muslim, which irritated the majority Hindus in India.  But last year, in prestigious elections in the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Gujarat), Sonia Gandhi did not address a single rally.  Plus, Congress Party Vice-President (now President) Rahul Gandhi traveled to many Hindu temples during the campaign (something he avoided in his unsuccessful 2014 run).  We believe he also did not go to any Muslim places of worship, which was unusual for any top leader from the Congress Party.  Some people might say it was an opportunistic political move, but I would say it was a well-calculated shift in the party to shed the tags of pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu.

Third, since the days of the freedom movement before independence, and during the rule of Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi (almost the entire period from independence to 1984); Congress followed the policy of demonizing the wealthy and glorifying the poor.  It seems, however, that Rahul Gandhi wants the population to know that he strongly favors the wealth generating middle class and capitalism; he opposes only crony capitalism.  He says the poor should aspire to become wealthy through greater opportunities and employment.

RB:  What about Rahul Gandhi himself?  Does he have a future in Indian politics?

AT:  Since 2014, we have watched his evolution from entitled politician to serious politician who understands the people’s aspirations and country’s need.  Perhaps most importantly has been his understanding of foreign policy and India’s role and responsibilities at a global level.  He has said that he’s ready to take the responsibility of the office of Prime Minister if elected, and he could make a formidable candidate.

Raul Maino
Rahul Gandhi can potentially cause a shift in Indian politics due to his transformation. Twitter

RB:  I’ve heard a lot of people talking positively about him and his growth in my time here.  I believe you also told me he has spent a lot of this time really listening to people from all classes and communities.  Thank you, Amitabh ji, it’s always a pleasure to hear your thoughts, and always a pleasure to be in India.

In a larger context, we have seen a reaction against decades of leftist overreach worldwide:  Donald Trump’s election; Brexit; and a number of elections in Europe rejecting the European Union and loss of national identity (most recently in Italy).  There has been little focus on Asia perhaps because it has not been in the orbit of traditional left-right equations in the West.  India, however, has become a major player on the world stage under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  It has historical conflicts with both Pakistan and China, and can be a major bulwark against Chinese expansion westward.  India also has strengthened its alliances with both the United States and Israel while maintaining relations with Iran.  The rightward movement there is highly significant in plotting future Indian geopolitical moves.

[Richard Benkin is a human rights activist and author with a strong concentration in South Asia.  Amitabh Tripathi appears often on Indian television and in other media.  He is also a contributor to What is Moderate Islam, edited by Richard Benkin.  This interview was conducted in New Delhi on February 27, 2018, while Benkin was there as part of a recently-concluded human rights mission.]