Congress Party: A safe house for every Indian

That’s what the Congress used to be back in the day, but can it again be something for everyone?

Then PM Jawaharlal Nehru inspecting the Bhilai steel plant in March 1963. Nehru’s vision of a ‘commanding heights’ perch for the public sector did not prompt him to nationalise any big business group
Then PM Jawaharlal Nehru inspecting the Bhilai steel plant in March 1963. Nehru’s vision of a ‘commanding heights’ perch for the public sector did not prompt him to nationalise any big business group

Kumar Ketkar

When a well-known political sociologist coined the term ‘The Congress System’ way back in 1970, said ‘system’ was under tremendous strain and disintegrating. The threat came not from the outside but from a centrifugal force within, for newer kinds of political assertion.

In 1967, the Congress was defeated in as many as eight states. The Congress split in 1969, apparently over policy questions: whether banks should be nationalised, privy purses abolished, land reforms taken further. The party’s right-leaning elements opposed Indira Gandhi’s initiatives on these issues and that is how the Left-Right fault line in the party became a feature of its inner tussle. There was now a visible tear in the ‘umbrella organisation’ of old. The notion of ‘one nation, one election’ had not yet surfaced, but simultaneous elections were held to the state assemblies and the Lok Sabha in 1967. Even in the Lok Sabha, the supposedly dominant party managed a very thin majority. The defeats were not at the hands of some big, alternative national political force, but from multiple new, even contradictory, political formations.

The DMK in Tamil Nadu had nothing in common with the CPI(M) in West Bengal and the Akali Dal in Punjab had nothing in common with the Hindutva-based Jan Sangh in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan (though it hadn’t come to power). It was in the same year, 1967, that the socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia gave a call to create a strong multi-party ‘anti-Congress front’, which lent some shape and heft to anti-Congress politics in India. Ironically, though, the biggest beneficiaries of that opportunist thesis were not the Socialists but the Hindutva forces, even though they were chalk and cheese. Jayaprakash Narayan gave these forces another leg-up by creating the Janata Party in 1977 and even Narendra Modi’s BJP has lived off the same anti-Congress hate campaign.

Indira Gandhi in conversation with K. Kamraj and Dwarka Prasad Mishra, chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, at the Jabalpur 
Congress session, October 1967
Indira Gandhi in conversation with K. Kamraj and Dwarka Prasad Mishra, chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, at the Jabalpur Congress session, October 1967

Although Indira Gandhi won the 1971 ‘Garibi Hatao’ election hands down, and again in 1980 (after her defeat in the post-Emergency election), the Rajni Kothari thesis of a ‘Congress System’ survived in the political discourse, as indeed did its anti-thesis. The party has been variously described as an ‘umbrella party’, a ‘hold-all organisation’, a ‘confederation of factions’ etc. But just as the ‘Idea of India’ is an abstraction, so is the Congress more an idea and a political construct than a monolithic political party. Indeed the ‘Idea of India’ is very closely linked with the ‘Idea of Congress’.

What is this idea of India or the idea of Congress? Where is its beating heart? The roots lie in the freedom movement and ideas Gandhi and his openly proclaimed “heir and successor” Nehru felt had to be kneaded into the dough—of the party and the young nation, when it was born—the idea of India as a secular democracy committed to social justice; the idea of a modern nation with a scientific temper; of a nation non-aligned in the international sphere; a party and a nation broadly in sync with the Gandhian value system. True, these have not been strictly followed all the time, but that is the ideological foundation, what is often loosely described as ‘left of centre’. It means very little, except that the Congress is not a ‘rightist’ party, but let’s set aside the hair-splitting semantics.

Calling the Congress a ‘centrist’ party is still an attempt to place it somewhere on a Left-Right continuum, and not a great way to get to that beating heart. For the party has gone both ways from the putative centre—to the far Left, under Indira Gandhi, when she nationalised banks and insurance companies, coal mines and for a while, even the food grain trade, and to the right, under Narsimha Rao-Manmohan Singh, when the economy was liberalised, and the party exposed itself to the criticism of “burying Nehruvian socialism”.

Pandit Nehru himself was berated by some Communists as a “running dog of capitalism” and hated by the Swatantra Party, which described him as “a Communist to the core”. For the Socialists and Communists, Panditji’s embrace of a ‘mixed economy’ model was barely disguised capitalism and the Swatantra party saw the Mahalanobis formula of planning as Soviet-style socialism through the backdoor. Nehru’s vision of a ‘commanding heights’ perch for the public sector did not prompt him to nationalise any big business group. In fact, even the word ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ were added in the Preamble of the Constitution in Indira Gandhi’s time.

The Congress’s so-called ‘centrism’ was essentially a pragmatic, accommodative stance that made room for diverse social groups and varied economic interests. Its policies struck a balance between public purpose and private interest. Its social welfare schemes assured the underprivileged and quiet encouragement to small and medium businesses and private traders befriended the middle class. The big business families, like the Birlas and Tatas, also saw an ally in the Congress. None of the other parties, not the Swatantra Party nor the communists nor socialists, had this kind of broad-based support—and hence the sour-grapes references to a ‘hold-all organisation’ and other such terms of endearment.

The Congress does not even have cadre like the RSS, which works for the BJP. Or like the Communists, whose activists are trained in the trade union movement or in peasant organisations. A card-carrying member of the Communist Party must have his name cleared by the member selection board. Likewise, you cannot be in the RSS unless you are accepted. Trespassers may be welcome in the BJP, but not the RSS. Even caste-based parties screen their members, but the Congress is open literally to all. It’s an open house, and people are free to walk in or out, become members or desert the party, eulogise or criticise their leaders, wage battles against governments run by their own party, create factions and fratricidal groups… and the caravan goes on.

Pandit Nehru was surrounded by people who strongly believed in the Hindutva ideology and yet all of them accepted his leadership. Indira Gandhi was hemmed in by the party’s right-wing leadership, a.k.a. as ‘the Syndicate’ but her so called ‘kitchen cabinet’ was Marxist or had clear leanings towards the Soviet Union. There were Gandhians too, like Morarjee Desai, who were part of both Nehru’s and later Indira Gandhi’s cabinet.

Often the top leadership did not see eye to eye, but the party kept winning elections, till the 1967 shock introduced doubt and the possibility of political alternatives. Up until 1967, regional parties had no real presence. The DMK came to power in 1967. It did later split, giving rise to the AIADMK and other splinter groups, but the state has never come back to the Congress.

Its existential dilemmas have also possibly contributed to the Congress’s ideological vacillation, forcing it to shuffle and reposition itself for traction. There are elements in the party who want to practice ‘soft Hindutva’ to regain the conservative upper caste/ class Hindu vote, there are others who want it to more strongly represent the poor and underprivileged, the backward and marginalised. Indian society seems hopelessly splintered, with apparently no single go-to party that can reassure them all, and there is no way of telling whether the Congress can inspire that confidence again

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