Can a 138-year-old Congress revitalise the idea of India from the grassroots?

The resounding success of the Nagpur mega rally, marking the grand old party's foundation day, was a heartening show of unity, creativity and confidence

The Indian National Congress marked its 139th anniversary in Nagpur, challenging critics who deemed the location too small or inappropriate (due to RSS claims on its history) (representative photo of Congress flag: National Herald archives)
The Indian National Congress marked its 139th anniversary in Nagpur, challenging critics who deemed the location too small or inappropriate (due to RSS claims on its history) (representative photo of Congress flag: National Herald archives)

Kumar Ketkar

It was surely a creative and bold political initiative to hold a magnificent mega rally in Nagpur to celebrate the 139th foundation day of the grand old party, the Indian National Congress. And it turned out to be a great success, demolishing detractors who had argued that Nagpur was an inappropriate choice. 

The party’s first ever convention when it was founded, in the year 1885, was held in Bombay (now Mumbai).

Its centenary celebrations too were held in Mumbai, a year after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. At the time, Rajiv Gandhi had made some historic observations and tried to change the course of Indian politics and of the party. He said that the party had been infiltrated by dalals (power brokers), contractors, wheeler-dealers and thugs—in sharp contrast to the Congress' proud legacy in the freedom movement, a departure from Gandhiji’s philosophy of austere living and selfless service.

Indeed, Rajiv Gandhi inaugurated the 21st century by saying that the party must prepare in the coming decades for a new era. As a follow-up to that future he visualised, he began to promote research in the sciences and sanctioned more funding towards such missions—a callback to the Nehruvian era in the early days of independent India as well. Rajiv Gandhi also created technology missions, of which Sam Pitroda would become the face.

Now, the Indian National Congress is 40 years older—and history stands on its head.

Under Narendra Modi, technology has been given a monstrous identity. In addition to the appropriation of various technological projects and visions of prior governments, now technology is used to persecute the people of India, from independent activists and NGOs to mediapersons and opposition party leaders whose very function is to balance the power of an elected government.

A totalitarian control of all institutions—from Parliament and police to electoral and broadcast media—with the help of technology has became the new face of fascism in India, under the RSS. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, its own headquarters also in Nagpur—a reason for some to doubt the wisdom of a Congress rally there—will celebrate its own centenary in 2025.

The inclusive and progressive values of the INC

The very term 'congress' connotes a coming together. Though most founders of the Congress party were upper-caste Hindus, two of the first three presidents of the party were non-Hindus—after Womesh Chunder Bonnerjee, the first president, came the Parsi leader (and first Indian MP in UK!) Dadabhai Naoroji; the third was Muslim, Badruddin Tyabji. Naoroji would go on to become not just the 2nd but also the 9th and the 22nd president of the party (1886–87, 1893–94 and 1906–07).  He was also, within that time, elected twice to the British Parliament, in 1892 and 1895!

The party’s inclusive nature can be seen also from the fact that a leading militant feminist and socialist in those days, Annie Besant, became president of the party in 1917. Besant was an associate of Lokmanya Tilak as well as of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Founder of the Home Rule for Ireland movement, she carried over the anti-colonial spirit of the Irish freedom struggle against the British to India.

The 138 years after its first foundation day now, the grand old Congress party stood again at the epicentre of Indian fascism, in Nagpur, and heralded a new era—an era of confrontation and reconstruction of the idea of India which has been threatened during the last decade.

It is not a difficult task to undertake and accomplish in 2024 if all the Congress frontal organisations get on the same page, pull together and work down from the grassroots to convince the minds and win the hearts of the now-indifferent Indians who have no resonance with the values of that Congress of yore.

Rahul Gandhi, who spiritually may have more in common with Mahatma Gandhi than with his own great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, today has the best chance of uniting the masses in a common goal.

At the Nagpur event, the crowds seemed receptive. But it is up to the local leaders, to party workers lower down the rung, to take that message down to the last home in the last village if INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) is to succeed at defeating the agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

This, at Nagpur, was a Congress show; but its partners in the INDIA bloc are not very different from the Congress in key aspects—and while this allows for coordination and coherence, it is also where lies the challenge. For they must all, including the Congress, shed their egos and short-term goals to save not just their own home turf but the larger one of the nation of India. If they don't, they and their values are staring down a barrel at complete annihilation.

Rahul Gandhi proved in 2018 with the Karnataka experiment that he is willing to accommodate and give up space to like-minded allies. But can other Congress leaders and those amongst its allies do the same as well?

Nagpur was a good beginning. The party must not allow this impetus to falter, if it to be successful in 2024.

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