strap-In recent weeks, there is a renewed debate, within the Congress party and in the public sphere, about the urgency and direction of organisational changes, including the issue of its President. In that context, the following extracts from a speech in 1936 may provide some food for thought.
Comrades, ...We have great tasks ahead, great problems to solve both in India and in the international sphere. Who can face and solve these problems in India but this great organisation of ours, which has, through fifty years’ effort and sacrifice, established its unchallengeable right to speak for the millions of India?
Has it not become the mirror of their hopes and desires, their urge to freedom, and the strong arm that will wrest this freedom from unwilling and resisting hands? It started in a small way with a gallant band of pio- neers, but even then, it represented a historic force and it drew to itself the goodwill of the Indian people. From year to year it grew, faced inner con- flicts whenever it wanted to advance and was held back by some of its members. But the urge to go ahead was too great, the push from below increased, and though a few left us, unable to adjust themselves to changing conditions, vast numbers of others joined the Congress.
The coming of Gandhiji brought the peasant masses to the Congress, and the new constitution that was adopted at his instance in Nagpur in 1920 tightened up the organisation, limited the number of dele- gates according to population, and gave it strength and capacity for joint and effective action. That action followed soon after on a countrywide scale and was repeated in later years.
But the very success and prestige of the Congress often drew undesirable elements to its fold and accentuated the defects of the constitution. The organisation was becoming unwieldy and slow of movement and capable of being exploited in local areas by particular groups.
Two years ago, radical changes were made in the constitution again at Gandhiji’s instance. One of these was the fixation of the number of delegates according to membership, a change which has given a greater reality to our elections and strength- ened us organisationally. But still our organisational side lags far behind the great prestige of the Congress, and there is a tendency for our committees to function in the air, cut off from the rank and file....
The problem is a wider one... for it includes an overhauling of the Congress constitution Congress constitution with the object of making it a closer-knit body, capable of disciplined and effective action. That action to be effective must be mass action, and the essence of the strength of the Congress has been this mass basis and mass response to its calls. But though that mass basis is there, it is not reflected in the organisational side, and hence an inherent weakness in our activities.
We have seen the gradual trans- formation of the Congress from a small upper-class body to one representing the great body of the lower middle classes and later the masses of this country. As this drift to the mass- es continued, the political role of the organisation changed and is changing, for this political role is largely determined by the economic roots of the organisation.
We are already and inevitably committed to this mass basis for with- out it there is no power or strength in us. We have now to bring that into line with the organisation, so as to give our primary members greater powers of initiative and control, and opportunities for day to day activities. We have, in other words, to democratise the Congress still further....
The most urgent and vital need of India today is this united national front of all forces and elements that are ranged against imperialism.
Within the Congress itself most of these forces are represented, and in spite of their diversity and difference in outlook, they have cooperated and worked together for the common good. That is a healthy sign both of the vitality of our great movement and the unity that binds it together.
(The excerpts presented above are from Nehru’s Presidential Address, 27 December 1936, cited in Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Volume 7, pp 609-611.) Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library