In a candid interview, certainly impromptu, to a TV channel, Congress party president Rahul Gandhi spelt out what he considered his party’s strength and weakness. (https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/rahul-gandhis-first-tv-interview-in-election-2019-full-transcript-2032133 ).
While he held out the party’s strength to be its connect with the people and the process that marked the process of drafting its election manifesto, the journalist’s persistence that he answered what the party’s weakness was; and Rahul Gandhi fired, a parting shot indeed, that “weakness is we can be very disorganised.” He was, indeed, on the dot here insofar as the party’s state as it is now.
The Congress party Rahul Gandhi inherited from his mother as president is indeed in its most disorganised state in its long as much as its recent history. It is not that spontaneity has not been a part of the party’s history.
If the pre-independence Indian National Congress may be taken, albeit with a lot of qualification, there was the moment in August 1942, when the organisation decided to adopt the Quit India Resolution, at the AICC session at the Gowalia Tank grounds in Bombay on August 9, that year marking the start of the last of the anti-British campaign and until independence. The INC, then, had put the lid on the dilemma that marked its discourse as to whether it was politically correct to attack the rulers who were engaged in a battle against Fascism. This reservation had held beck the INC from launching another campaign and it resolved it by giving a call for the final push.
A similar stage was when the Congress party (as distinct from the INC) resolved to push for cooperative farming at its Nagpur session in 1959; and it led to one of its veterans, C.Rajagopalachari, set out to found the Swatantra Party. The Swatantra Party, in many ways, formed the nucleus of the Grand Alliance against the Congress in 1967 with the Socialists and many others rallying together to wrest power in seven states.
In many ways, one may read the Nagpur push for cooperative farming as something that failed to be realised and yet laid the ground for the Congress party’s decline. The fact that the Congress then was a rainbow coalition of forces was known to the then Congress chief, Jawaharlal Nehru; and it was a resolution that was based on an imagination and certainly not thought about or deliberated intensely. Yes. These were, among many others, signs of the “disorganised” nature of the Congress.
This tendency was rampant with Indira Gandhi’s arrival as the party’s leader, drawing her strength from being the prime minister, since January 1966. Indira Gandhi, in the couple of years since then devised the art of speaking to the people, over the heads of the apparatchiks in her own party, landing up in the December 1969 split and took this art to greater heights from then until she vanquished the Grand Alliance in the general elections early in 1971.
But then, she went about converting this advantage she had wrested into its opposite by way of turning the Congress into an organisation under her sole command. The command mode spelt the beginning of the party’s undoing. It led to centralisation of powers and the gaps left by leaders who dissented were filled by time-servers. Loyalty to the leader, as history elsewhere had taught, meant the organisation turning moribund and such loyalists ready to leave the ship, like rats, when the ship seemed sinking.
Recall Jagjiwan Ram and HN Bahuguna quitting the Congress party, in February 1977, to join the opposition Janata experiment; the two leaders were among the faithful lot throughout the Emergency and their departure dealt a big blow to the Congress in that general election. And in just about a year after the Janata had wrested power, many others – C Subramaniam and Karan Singh in particular – who had played ball through the 19 months of darkness and the latter even held charge of the ministry that pushed the brutal sterilisation programme during the Emergency went out to depose before the Shah Commission against their leader and her son.
The Congress party, indeed, remained far too removed from its own legacy of listening to the people (that Rahul Gandhi held as its strength) and condemned any sign of behaving in a “disorganised” manner (that he had identified its weakness) since then and the command mode only turned strong and its very nature. The Emergency and its facts remain the darkest moment of this transition.
Well. It is true that the party, as it is today, is “very disorganised” and it must be held, without doubt, that Rahul Gandhi was candid and bold in admitting it. The “high command” is hardly seen and the past few years have seen leaders from the various states asserting the party’s preference by way of alliances or going alone; it was Captain Amrinder Singh who decided against any alliance in Punjab as much as Kamal Nath who ensured that the BSP was not indulged in Madhya Pradesh for the assembly elections last year.
Meanwhile, the Congress president set the stage for a Congress-Janata Dal coalition in Karnataka, minutes before the final results of the elections to the assembly results were announced. And the president of the Delhi Pradesh Congress, Sheila Dikshit, being involved in the decision against an alliance with AAP for the seven Lok Sabha seats in Delhi. And this tendency peaked when Priyanka Gandhi played ball with a section in the media over her candidature against Narendra Modi in Varanasi.
Well. The point is that “to be very disorganised” need not necessarily be a weakness; this is particularly the case where the party had become moribund and its score in terms of its strength had hit an all-time low in its own history with its leader even denied the status of the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. A certain chaos, indeed, is necessary to shake off the lethargy and these are what one learns in elementary lessons in physics as much as from history.
The point, however, is to ensure that the party, whose revival seems imminent and will be evident on May 23, 2019 (when the party will certainly increase its score multi-fold from its small strength of 40 odd MPs in the House of 243 even if will fall short of forming its own government), will stay on with the business of listening to the people and also persist with “disorganised” functioning for good.
Both these are matters of strength. Weakness is to turn into the command mode and thus ending up destroying democracy within the party and by extension outside too.
Krishna Ananth is an associate professor at Department of History, Sikkim University