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Indian National Congress then and now: The dominance of foreign masters

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By Rukma Singh

The birth of the Congress party in 1885 has been one of the most momentous events in the political history of India. It played a massive role in Indian independence by being the first embodiment of nationalism at an all-India level. As such, the Indian National Congress became synonymous to the nationalist processes in India. Indian historian Bipin Chandra rightly argues that the foundation of the Congress was the natural outcome of the political awareness and work done by various bodies in the years between 1850 and 1885.

The myth

A long-lasting myth surrounding the Indian National Congress is the myth of the “safety valve”. A.O. Hume and other Britishers believed that the educated Indians may become leaders of the Indian public and organize a rebellion against the government. To handle this, the British Government itself decided to provide a platform to people to channel their opposition. The myth, however, was later busted by researchers. It is important to note that even though the safety valve theory isn’t entirely correct, Gokhale recognized and accepted the contribution of British. “No Indian could have started the Indian National Congress…if an Indian had come forward to start such a movement embracing all Indians, the officials in India would not have allowed the movement to come into existence,” argued Gokhale.

Earliest nation­alists cooperated with Hume because they did not want to encourage official hostility at the onset itself.

The Post-Independence Congress

From 1951 until his death in 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru, the paramount leader of the Indian independence movement under the tutelage of Mahatma Gandhi dominated the Congress Party, which won overwhelming victories in the elections of 1951–52, 1957, and 1962. It was only in 1964 that the future of Congress came into question following the death of Nehru. Kamaraj, the President of the All India Congress Committee, brought Lal Bahadur Shastri to power, who eventually died under mysterious circumstances in 1966. The next Prime Minister was Indira Gandhi, appointed by the Syndicate (group of senior Congress partymembers) so that they could have an upper edge in the party by directing the young prime minister. However, that plan failed and Indira Gandhi’s lack of dependence on the Syndicate led to her expulsion from the party. Undeterred, she went ahead and created another party which won with a massive majority in 1971, due to the significant support from the lower strata of the society, behind the garb of progressive socialism.

Downfall

One of the first instances of the downfall of the Congress party came about in 1975, with complaints about increasing authoritarianism gaining impetus. What followed was the declaration of emergency, resulting in the party’s complete loss of support. The 19 months of emergency saw widespread oppression and abuse of power by Gandhi’s unelected younger son, Sanjay Gandhi and his close associates. This period of oppression ended when on 23 January 1977, Indira Gandhi called for fresh elections to the Lok Sabha and released all political prisoners. Not surprisingly, the new Congress with 153 seats lost to the Janata party that had a landslide victory with 295 seats. But Indira Gandhi continued the fight by forming a new faction called Congress I (Indira) to signify the independence of the party. Over the next year, her party attracted enough members to become a significant opposition party. In 1980, Congress (I) won with a massive majority and was declared as the real Indian National Congress by the National Election Commission.

In 1984,the whole country was in a state of shock when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards, expressing their anger over her decision to allow the Indian Army to establish control over the Golden Temple. The 1984 anti Sikh riots occurred after her death, marking the loss of over 30,000 lives.

The Rajiv Gandhi period

Following  the assassination, Rajiv Gandhi, upon being made the Prime Minister, led the party to a massive victory with 401 seats. Gandhi was regarded as a nonabrasive person who consulted other party members and refrained from hasty decisions.The Bofors Scam shattered his image as an honest politician; however he was posthumously cleared over this allegation in 2004. On 21 May 1991, Gandhi was killed by a suicide bomber associated with the Tamil Tigers.

The entry of Sonia Gandhi

Following the lowest ever seat tally of Congress in 1998, party members requested Sonia Gandhi-widow of Rajiv Gandhi, who had earlier refrained from participating in politics, to enter the party. Angered by the inclusion of a Non-Indian member, a group of members, led by Sharad Pawar went ahead and formed the National Congress Party (NCP). Sonia Gandhi’s leadership failed to have an impact initially. However, as time passed, the wise campaigning targeting social inclusion and common man’s benefit coupled with the formation of coalition government (forming the United Progressive Alliance), resulted in the massive victory of UPA government.

By the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, however, the party had lost much of its popular support, majorly because of several years of poor economic conditions in the country and growing concerns over a series of corruption scandals including 2G Spectrum Scam and Coal Scam.

The present

The Indian National Congress saw a massive defeat in the 2014 parliamentary election. For more than three-quarters of a century, it dominated the landscape of Indian politics. But this changed significantly after Congress managed to win just 44 of 543 Lok Sabha seats, accompanied by a lack of strong base in any part of the country. Political Scientist, Zoya Hassan analyzes the reasons behind the momentous downfall, and what comes across as the main influencing factor is the dominating organizational weaknesses. Under Indira Gandhi, Congress moved on from being a dominant democratic party with a formidable organization, distributing patronage in exchange of electoral support, to a family centred political organization. Another basic problem emerges from the lack of new, able and popular leaders. The huge dependence and trust put in the Gandhis might not necessarily work for the betterment of the party, till the time new voices aren’t given space.  An evidence has been given by Sanjay Baru in his book ‘The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh’, where points out that the Prime Minister let Rahul Gandhi take credit for NREGA and UPA winning a second term. When the idea of rural employment guarantee scheme was floated, it was Manmohan Singh who was in favour in implementing this programme at the national level but when the program started, there was a Gandhi family stooge who came up to Baru with a request to release a statement that said that it was Rahul Gandhi who urged Manmohan Singh to extend the scope of NREGA to all the 500-odd rural districts in the country.

For Congress to regain its credibility, the need of the hour is the re-structuring of social democratic values of welfare and pluralism. What is essential is to work on the adoption of a suitable platform of revival, one which does not depend only and entirely on the Gandhi family.

 

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Then It Was Emergency Now It Is Democracy

The Emergency happened 43 years ago and both, Mrs Gandhi and the Congress, lost power because of it in 1977

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Then It Was Emergency Now It Is Democracy
Then It Was Emergency Now It Is Democracy. Pixabay

An all-out war of words broke out last week between the BJP and the Congress on the 1975 Emergency. Observing June 26 as a ‘black day’, several BJP leaders targeted the Congress at events held across the country to highlight the Emergency’s excesses. Leading the charge with a sharp attack on the Congress was Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Addressing BJP workers in Mumbai last Tuesday, the prime minster said the country still refers to June 26 as a ‘dark period during which every institution was subverted and an atmosphere of fear was created’.

Without naming the Nehru-Gandhi family, Modi said the Constitution was misused at the behest of one family. He further went on to say that the mentality of the family had not changed even now after 43 years of the Emergency. ‘Whenever the family feared loss of power, it keeps shouting that the country is in crisis,’ the prime minister added. Expectedly, the Congress hit back with equally sharp criticism of the Modi government, equating Modi to Aurangzeb. It alleged that the prime minister was even crueller than the Mughal emperor as Modi has “enslaved democracy” in the country for the past 49 months with an “undeclared emergency”.

The 21-month period from 1975 to 1977, when the then prime minister Indira Gandhi had declared Emergency, was indeed a dark chapter in India’s democratic history. This was the third national Emergency – the first one was in 1962 when China invaded India and the second was in 1971 during the war with Pakistan – and the only one to be declared citing the “internal disturbances”.  During the 1975 Emergency, opposition leaders were arrested, civil rights curbed, elections postponed, anti-government protests crushed and press censored. It shook India to its core as the freedom to liberty, dissent and express ceased to exist. All this is well-known and in public domain. Therefore, what was so special about the 43rd anniversary of Emergency that the BJP observed as ‘black day’?

Bringing back memories of the Emergency days was clearly aimed at striking at the Congress’s weak spot. It was also meant to neutralise Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s frequent ‘murder of democracy’ gibes directed at the Modi government. This was not entirely unexpected in a pre-election year; neither was the Congress’s equally sharp response by likening Modi to Aurangzeb. As 2019 general elections approach, not only the political exchange between the two parties will gather momentum, but over the next 10 months, election-driven rhetoric, name-calling, inane allegations and historical debates will increase. Reminding Congress of the Emergency is just the beginning.

Congress on Friday promised to create one crore jobs across the southern state
Congress- wikimedia commons

While terming the Emergency as an ‘aberration’, the Congress has never expressed any remorse about the dark chapter in its history or condemned it. Claiming that during Emergency, Mrs Gandhi targeted the rich, black marketers, hoarders and zamindars is no justification for curbing civil liberties and press freedom and neutralising the opposition. The hesitation to admit Emergency as a major mistake has denied the Congress an opportunity to reassert its commitment to democratic values, though it was the primary builder of democracy in India after independence.

The Emergency happened 43 years ago and both, Mrs Gandhi and the Congress, lost power because of it in 1977. Since then, the Congress has ruled at the Centre several times without resorting to emergency measures. On the contrary, it has shown its commitment to democratic order and liberal values far better than the current BJP-led government. The Emergency of 1975 and the violations of civil liberties and press freedom were all real. But its parallels can be drawn with the contemporary situation, which is marked by erosion of institutional independence and integrity, rising intolerance and increasing mob violence which stems from the ideological support of the ruling party.

The right-wing assaults on constitutional institution and individuals’ democratic rights are for real, though there is no Emergency in force in India today. While conventional opposition leaders and parties have the liberty to become more than conventional Opposition and there is also the rising wave of resistance to right-wing assaults on individual rights and institutions, it is also true that there are whiffs of Emergency sentiments in the air and the strains of the Emergency doctrine and pulsations of fear are quite obvious. The Congress is not entirely off the mark when it accuses the Modi government of ‘undeclared emergency’ as the freedom of the media, people’s freedom of expression and their right to live without fear have come under new kinds of threats.

There is no overt press censorship but the government has tried to muzzle and manipulate the media through various means. A section of the media has either caved in to the fear of administrative power or fallen for the lure of money-power. Apart from the media, there have been sustained attempts to weaken and misuse other constitutional and non-constitutional institutions, including the judiciary. Interestingly, all this is happening when the BJP is in power and questioning the Congress’s commitment to the principles and practice of democracy, while the BJP has diluted its own commitment to the philosophy of parliamentary democracy, liberal values and press freedom.

This is quite surprising because while the taint of Emergency continues to haunt the Congress, the BJP, despite its proud status of a party whose leaders were at the forefront of the struggle against the Emergency 43 years ago, is not deterred to misuse the levers of power against its political opponents, ‘difficult’ sections of the media, and independent or ‘inconvenient’ voices that question the government on various issues. With scant regard for critical debate and plurality of views under the current ruling dispensation, what we are seeing now is some kind of a role reversal. Mrs Gandhi subverted institutions to retain power. The BJP is trying to do the same by weakening the same institutions.

Also read: India sends Emergency Fuel Supplies to Sri Lanka

The Emergency should serve as a warning to political parties: threats to democracy and people’s constitutional rights – either directly or indirectly – create resentment and negative public opinion against government. The Emergency created a unity among opposition parties that never existed before and became the cause of Mrs Gandhi’s defeat. It is too early to say whether the Modi government’s attempts to misuse democratic institutions for his party’s narrow interests and the right wing attacks on institutions and rights of citizens will help create similar kind of opposition unity, which will determine the outcome of 2019 elections. (IANS)