The Congress party, in 2019, is facing a crisis of its own existence. It is not as if the party lost elections for the first time now. It had lost elections and power in 1977; again in 1989; in 1996, 1998 and 1999. It lost power in 2014 too and as badly as now. The difference in 2019 is that the party president, for the first time, has decided to quit and asked for election/anointment of another leader in his place.
Neither did Indira Gandhi nor did Sonia Gandhi do this in 1977 or in 1999 or in 2014. PV Narasimha Rao, in fact, was removed and replaced by Sitaram Kesri after the debacle in 1996. Kesri, subsequently was ousted from office and his ‘office’ in the AICC headquarters was ‘emptied’ moments after Sonia Gandhi was anointed Congress president.
Rahul Gandhi, however, belongs to another time of the Congress party and seems aware of this. He, if reports on what transpired in the last Congress Working Committee meeting are true or closer to the truth, spoke his mind against many in the party. And if this is true, he has identified that the Congress in 2019 is moribund as an organisation and has more ‘power brokers’ than the time when his late father, Rajiv Gandhi, talked about that in the party’s centenary session in Bombay in December 1985.
The point is that the Congress party, in 2019, has won a lot more seats in the Lok Sabha than the mere couple of MPs the BJP had in 1984. The fact is the combined strength of the ruling NDA is less than the 415 MPs Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress party had won in 1984. The point is the late Atal Behari Vajpayee was defeated from Gwallior in that election by Madharao Scindia, and HN Bahuguna, who had commanded the political scene in Uttar Pradesh for many years until then was defeated by cine-star Amitabh Bachan from Allahabad in the general elections of 1984.
There is, however, a huge difference between the BJP and others from the Janata experiment of 1977-79 that lost the 1984 general elections in 1984 and the Congress party in 2019. And hence, not even a miracle will see the Congress party, whether under Rahul Gandhi or someone else, bounce back as did the BJP and the various other anti-Congress forces (including such Congressmen as VP Singh) gather mass in 1989.
The point to remember is that VP Singh, after being ousted as minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet and called names by Congressmen in parliament had chosen to hit the streets, gathering crowds wherever he went and arrived on the scene at the Allahabad by-elections that he fought from the front. He gathered support from the cadre of various anti-Congress formations in the couple of years he went about travelling across India; the forces that he gathered around him then were also active organising bandhs, getting beaten by the police on the streets, rendering the Bofors deal into a popular slogan. The 1989 elections were not won overnight by the anti-Congress forces.
The truth is the forces against the Congress, despite losing elections every now and then, consisted of ranks and local leaders who were masters in the art of gathering mass on agitational programmes on the streets on a continuous basis. They belonged to a generation that was young during the Emergency, spent months in jail and were not obsessed with receiving favours from their leaders who controlled the levers of the government machinery.
The Congress leaders, in most cases now, belong to a generation that were either controlling the government machinery at various levels and were for long used to an ‘organisational’ structure that depended on patronage. Such a clientele, in the name of an organisation, meant having a rank and file filled with men and women used to a comfort level that kept them away from the streets and the barricade. And such a rank and file can be least expected to take lathi blows or jail terms for leading or joining protests.
There are exceptions though. The Congress party in Kerala, for reasons that the party had never experienced the illusion of permanence, a phrase from the title of an excellent book by historian GF Hutchins on British colonial policies, because the Congress had lost power frequently to the Left parties in the state. Hence, the Congress leaders, at the various levels, are used to engage in street fights, drenched by water cannons the police use for dispersing crowds and a cadre that knows what lathi blows can do to their bodies.
The Left cadre too belong to this league in Kerala while in West Bengal, they do not know what it means to be confronted by lathi-wielding police standing behind barricades.
This reality, indeed, stares at the Congress today. It was not the same for the Congress party in 1977. Recall Indira Gandhi squatting on the road leading to Haryana from New Delhi with her lawyer, Frank Antony arguing with the police that the law forbid anyone arrested in one state being taken to another; this was when Charan Singh, as Union home minister, embarked upon an adventure to ‘teach Indira a lesson’ on October 3, 1977, only a few months after the humiliating defeat she suffered from Rae Bareli in March 1977. Indira, by then, was disowned by some of her colleagues in the Emergency cabinet deposing before the Shah Commission of Enquiry.
Soon as she was taken back to the barracks in Delhi and the magistrate there ordered her release on October 4. Indira left New Delhi the day after to Bombay and toured Gujarat in the next three days addressing public meetings across the state. She did not address press conferences; nor did her supporters in the party set out on foreign trips to be with their child on the day of their convocation. The point is we know of one of the Congress party’s general secretaries posing with his son, on his graduation day ceremony in one of the US universities on the last day of election campaign. Well. He lost his own elections from Guna!
Lest it is mistaken, Indira managed to salvage herself and the Congress party by enlisting a horde of young leaders who were trained in the art of politics by her son, Sanjay Gandhi. While some have remained in the party and one of them is now the chief minister of a state, the fact is many others who then came to be known as part of the Congress party’s shouting brigade have moved into the BJP. They are all older now and the Congress is left with only those who are there with hopes that they too will wield power and have their hands on the levers of power one day; and until then, they have the resources to live happily, dress up in starched and spotless white clothes.
They are not used to getting their clothes dirty mixing up with people who wear unclean clothes, not out of choice but because they cannot afford spotless white. Those who were willing to mix with the people and walk the roads, rain or shine, such as Jagan Reddy and Mamata Banerjee did not find their place in the Congress fold. It will not surprise if someone like Sachin Pilot too follows this path.
The Congress party, thus, is not the same that it was some four decades ago. Rahul Gandhi should have known this when he took over its reigns after having been in the thick of its affairs for at least a decade. His plain-speaking in the CWC, as reported in the media, seems to suggest he is aware of this reality. It remains to be seen if the Congress, for long embedded in the tradition of a member from the family leading it, will find someone to don the crown, a crown that is without doubt, one of thorns.
V Krishna Ananth teaches History at Sikkim University, Gangtok. Krishna Ananth's columns