Happy anniversary, Indian National Congress, and here's an idea (or 5): from a well-wisher

The foundation day of the Indian National Congress, formed on 28 December 1885, is a good time to look back—and to look forward with hope, a senior citizen writes

Representative image of the Congress' tricolour with open palm, surrounded by confetti. On its 139th foundation day, a supporter draws parallels between historical criticism of the party and contemporary sentiments (photo: National Herald archives)
Representative image of the Congress' tricolour with open palm, surrounded by confetti. On its 139th foundation day, a supporter draws parallels between historical criticism of the party and contemporary sentiments (photo: National Herald archives)

A.K. Ray

Almost a century ago in 1924, the Times of India was delighted to note the ‘end of the Gandhi Raj’ and observed that Gandhi should realise that he can no longer carry the country with him since huge sections of his followers had already deserted him. It advised Gandhi-ji to retire from politics altogether. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

As I reflect on the morning of 28 December 2023, 138 years after the foundation day of the Indian National Congress, I smile involuntarily looking at the newspapers, the TV, the chatter on social media. The tenor of the commentary in the media, on TV and in newspapers, has not changed much as far as the Congress and a Mr Gandhi are concerned, has it?

I smile also at the recollection of my first meeting with a visiting senior in my profession from a different part of the country. He shook my hands indulgently and quipped that I was doing a very good job. Amused, I sceptically asked what he knew about my work. He disarmingly said, “I do not know anything, but everybody I have met has been abusing you, so you must be doing something right to have pissed off so many people.”

By that token, I reflect, both Mr Narendra Modi and Mr Rahul Gandhi must be doing something right. Both of them have their fanboys and fangirls— and there is no dearth of detractors either. There can be no comparison, though, because one is a serving prime minister of a large country, the largest citizenry in the world, while the other is in the Opposition. Who compared Morarji Desai with Indira Gandhi in 1977, or V.P. Singh with Rajiv Gandhi in 1989?

I might as well confess at this point that I am a Congress supporter and I like Mr Gandhi’s gentler and more thoughtful kind of politics.

In a recent ‘revenge interview’, PR and brand manager Suhel Seth asked Karan Thapar why he hated Narendra Modi; and the latter replied that while Mr Modi was his prime minister, he wished Mr Modi weren’t for the othering of the Muslim community.

I, however, dislike my prime minister for a host of other reasons as well. Politicians perhaps cannot help but lie occasionally—diplomats do it for the country all the time, we are told—but I do not remember any other politician so adept at manipulating the truth. I may admire the skill, but I do not like it.

During the campaigning for the Uttar Pradesh assembly election, the prime minister told a gathering that he knew about the menace of stray cattle. The marauding herd of starving stray cattle were raiding crops waiting to be harvested at night, often maiming and even killing farmers keeping a vigil.

The prime minister said he also had the perfect solution. He was 'helpless', though, because the Model Code of Conduct was in place, he declared. Just wait for the election to get over and he would implement a dream scheme that would make farmers want to keep stray cattle at home. That was, of course, the last we have heard of the scheme.

Before the Chhattisgarh assembly election this year, however, the Model Code of Conduct did not come in the prime minister's way as he announced off-the-cuff that the free ration scheme was being extended for five years, till 2028.

Around an earlier election, he had told a gathering that he had heard the elderly say that they had to vote for Mr Modi because they could not be ungrateful (namakharam). "Modi ka namak khaya hai," they apparently said, referring to the prime minister’s image on the bags of grain and packets of salt distributed as part of the free ration.

I digress though. This was meant to be a reflection on the Congress.

Having opposed and criticised the party for the better part of my life—primarily because it was the ruling party (who else could you criticise before 2014?)—I was shocked at the sustained vilification of the Manmohan Singh government between 2009 and 2014.

So, in 2012, I became a 'Congress stooge' myself.

Being an armchair supporter of the party, I have little knowledge or expertise to tell the Congress what it should do to take on the monstrous election machine of the Bharatiya Janata Party. I do, however, have a few suggestions, for whatever they are worth.

1. The Congress should just stop reacting to everything being said in the media or by the BJP. Mahatma Gandhi’s Congress did that quite successfully. They had their say through Young India, the Harijan, Navjivan, and ignored the pundits.

2. If the Congress believes in not being an election-driven party like the BJP, it should concentrate on deliberating and prepare the people for alternative visions. The RSS and the BJP made in-roads among the youth by running UPSC coaching centres. The Congress could launch Gandhi Study Centres in villages to talk about key issues, including current affairs.

3. Even before Independence, there was differences and dissidence within the Congress. Mahatma Gandhi was sometimes opposed vigorously and several of his resolutions were carried only narrowly. The Congress was, however, ahead of its time and came up with transformative ideas that resonate till today. Internal dissidence and differences today should not bother the party either, therefore, given its history of prevailing despite.

4. The state Congress units will not be revived by miracles or a Mahatma. They need to hold their own sessions, reflect on current issues, deliberate on solutions and draft their own resolutions. When were the party’s central leaders seen together in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or Assam? To start with, they should meet once a month in a different state capital, hold discussions with state leaders, interact with the state’s intellectuals and activists and address the media there.

5. The Congress cannot convince the masses of the threats to democracy and federalism by crying themselves hoarse or by blaming the government for everything as the BJP had done before 2014. It must come up with an alternative vision for structural reforms of the police, Parliament, the administration and the panchayats. It must prepare its own cadre to think of solutions to unemployment, the farm crisis and inflation.

Above all, it has to walk the talk. It has to be seen to stand by the minorities of the nation, to stand for the academic freedom of our universities.

It has to speak too in the common, even colloquial tongue. Talk of ‘crony capitalism’ leaves people cold; they do not understand the concept. 'Profiteering' or ‘munafakhori’ are stronger and more easily understood terms to explain the phenomenon, I guess.

The grand old party, however, does not need pundits like yours truly to tell it what to do, of course. This 138-year-old party has to merely look up its own long history and the crises it has overcome in the past to show it the way forward.

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