Thirty four years after this address was delivered by then Congress president Rajiv Gandhi at the AICC session in Bombay in December, 1985, it still remains relevant for both the country and the Congress. We reproduce excerpts of the historic address on the occasion of his 75th birth anniversary.
Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister for five years. And in that short period, he was credited with reviving ties with the US, initiating telecom revolution in the country, signing of peace accords in Punjab, Mizoram and Assam, launching panchayat reforms and taking ‘Festival of India’ and India’s artists and craftsmen to world capitals. This powerful speech, blunt and candid, is a reminder of his unfinished tasks:
“When I started my political work, it was only with the motive of being by the side of my mother. She bore with stoic fortitude the irreparable loss of a son who had been a tower of strength. She gave me no directions, no formulae, no prescriptions. She just said, “Understand the real India, its people, its problems.”
So, I plunged into work. Millions of faces in varying moods of joy and sorrow, of eager expectation, of triumph and defeat filled my being, till they merged into the face of Mother India, proud, defiant, confident but also full of sad perplexity. Always, the unspoken question haunting her face: Whither India?
I was exhilarated by what had been achieved in the short period since Independence. I was also saddened by what might have been but was not, because of weaknesses in government and in the party. I kept my counsel to myself as I was an apprentice in the great school of politics.
After two years of incessant travelling, meeting people, reading and reflection, I felt I could go to her with my perceptions. Listening to me, she thought I had gained some understanding of the complexities of our society. And then she began to unburden herself.
She spoke of India’s enduring strength and of her hopes for India, but also of her apprehensions and anxieties.
She analysed with clinical precision how the entire system had been weakened from within, how the party had once again been infiltrated by vested interests who would not allow us to move, how patronage and graft had affected the national institutional framework, how nationalism and patriotism had ebbed, how the pettiness and selfishness of persons in political positions had ruptured social fabric.
She was clear that if India had to keep her ‘tryst with destiny’, so much had to change. And then, suddenly, she left us. Indiraji’s thoughts and reflections on the state of the nation are an abiding influence.
We have cherished our democracy. Democracy is our strength. In 1984, the people of India gave our party its largest ever majority. Their eloquent verdict strengthened the unity and integrity of India.
A nation sorrowing over its beloved leader drew from its vast reserves of strength to protect the inheritance of its glorious freedom struggle. We applied the lessons of the 1984 elections to the complex and difficult problems in Punjab and Assam. Our basic concern was to end any sense of alienation in the larger interests of national unity. We carried forward the process to reach understanding and harmony, to dispel mistrust and suspicion and to seek the people’s mandate for progress through brotherhood. We had no narrow partisan considerations in view. The situation demanded that we rise above mere expediency. The Congress, with its century-old tradition of nationalism put India first.
We have no illusions that all problems have been resolved. But the democratic way of nation-building requires patience, perseverance and a spirit of conciliation. Those who have been entrusted with responsibility have to constantly keep in view the larger perspective of unity. They have to act in the same spirit in which we have acted, the spirit of nationalism. Enduring unity comes from the willing cooperation of all.
We proclaim and celebrate the unity of India. It is a fact of transcending significance. But is it not also a fact that most of us, in our daily lives, do not think of ourselves as Indians?
We see ourselves as Hindus, Muslims or Christians, or Malayalees, Maharashtrians, Bengalis. Worse, we think of ourselves as Brahmins, Thakurs, Jats, Yadavas and so on and so forth.
And we shed blood to uphold our narrow and selfish denominations. We are imprisoned by the narrow domestic walls of religion, language, caste and region, blocking out the clear view of a resurgent nation.
State Governments and social organisations promote policies, programmes and ideologies which divide brother from brother and sister from sister. Bonds of fraternity and solidarity yield to the onslaughts of meanness in mind and spirit. Is this the India for which Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi sacrificed their lives?
Turn to the great institutions of our country and you will see that too often, behind their imposing facades, the spirit and substance lack vitality.
The work they do sometimes seem strangely Irrelevant to the primary concerns of the masses.
Attempts are made to taint the electoral process at its very source. Issues of crucial national importance are frequently subordinated to individual, sectional and regional interests.
Our legislatures do not set standards for other groups to follow; they magnify manifold the conspicuous lack of a social ethic. A convenient conscience compels individuals to meander from ideology to ideology seeking power, influence and riches.
Political parties twist their tenets, enticed by opportunism. ‘The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
We are amongst the few to have the rule of law and an independent judiciary. But thousands wait for decades while an elaborate and arcane machinery grinds ever so slowly. The poor have little hope of timely redress.
We value our free Press. It made a magnificent contribution to our freedom struggle. After Independence, the national media have helped consolidate our unity and promote social and economic change. But the question the media need to put to themselves is: Does their contribution to nation building measure up to their role in the freedom struggle?
Our economy owes much to the enterprise of our industrialists. But there are some reputed business and industrial establishments which shelter battalions of law breakers and tax evaders. We have industrialists untouched by the thrusting spirit of the great risk-takers and innovators. The trader’s instinct for quick profits prevails. They flourish on sick industries. Many have not cared to learn the fundamental lesson that industrialisation springs from the development of indigenous technology, not from dependence on others.
Industrial empire built on the shaky foundations of excessive protection, social irresponsibility, import orientation and corruption may not last long.
The trade unions have a glorious heritage of nationalism and of socially relevant radicalism.
Today, they are a mere shadow of their past.They now protect the few who have, oblivious of millions who have not. They feel little concern for the creation of national wealth, only for a larger and larger share in it. Nothing is considered illegitimate if one marches under the right flag.
Power without responsibility, rights without duties have come to be their prerogative. Will productivity arise from such stony soil? Let us not forget that the poor and the unemployed have to sacrifice their development programmes to subsidise inefficient industry.
In the field of education, the nation has much to be proud of. Access to education has been widened immeasurably. Indian scholars are in the front rank of creative endeavour in the best institutions across the world. But the schools, the universities and the academies of the Republic, which should fill our minds with hope for tomorrow, cause us great concern. Teachers seldom teach and students seldom learn. Strikes, mass copying, agitations are more attractive alternatives. Where there should be experiment and innovation, there is obeisance to dead ritual and custom, smothering creativity and the quest for knowledge and truth.
Where there should be independence and integrity, there is the heavy hand of politics, caste and corruption. Where there should be a new integration between modern science and our heritage, there is a dull development recede into the background.
Instead, phoney issues, shrouded in medieval obscurantism, occupy the centre of the stage.
And what of the iron frame of the system, the administrative and the technical services, the police and the myriad functionaries of the State?
They have done so much and can do so much more, but as the proverb says there can be no protection if the fence starts eating the crop. This is what has happened. The fence has started eating the crop.
We have Government servants who do not serve but oppress the poor and the helpless, police who do not uphold the law but shield the guilty, tax collectors who do not collect taxes but connive with those who cheat the State, and whole legions whose only concern is their private welfare at the cost of society.
They have no work ethic, no feeling for the public cause, no involvement in the future of the nation, no comprehension of national goals, no commitment to the values of modern India. They have only a grasping, mercenary outlook, devoid of competence, integrity and commitment.
How have we come to this pass?
We have looked at others. Now let us look at ourselves. What has become of our great organisation? Instead of a party that fired the imagination of the masses throughout the length and breadth of India, we have shrunk, losing touch with the toiling millions.
It is not a question of victories and defeats in elections. For a democratic party, victories and defeats are part of its continuing political existence. But what does matter is whether or not we work among the masses, whether or not we are in tune with their struggles, their hopes and aspirations. We are a party of social transformation, but in our preoccupation with governance we are drifting away from the people. Thereby, we have weakened ourselves and fallen prey to the ills that the loss of invigorating mass contact brings.
Millions of ordinary Congress workers throughout the country are full of enthusiasm for the Congress policies and programmes. But they are handicapped, for on their backs ride the brokers of power and influence, who dispense patronage to convert a mass movement into a feudal oligarchy. They are self-perpetuating cliques who thrive by invoking the slogans of caste and religion and by enmeshing the living body of the Congress in their net of avarice.
For such persons, the masses do not count. Their life style, their thinking—or lack of it, their self-aggrandisement, their corrupt ways,their linkages with the vested interests in society and their sanctimonious posturing are wholly incompatible with work among the people. They are reducing the Congress organisation to a shell from which the spirit of service and sacrifice has been emptied.
As we have distanced ourselves from the masses, basic issues of national unity and integrity, social change and economic development recede into the background. Instead, phoney issues, shrouded in medieval obscurantism, occupy the centre of the stage.
Our Congress workers, who faced the bullets of British imperialism, run for shelter at the slightest manifestation of caste and communal tension. Is this the path that Gandhiji, Panditji and Indiraji showed to a secular, democratic India?
We talk of the high principles and lofty ideals needed to build a strong and prosperous India. But we obey no discipline, no rule, follow no principle of public morality, display no sense of social awareness,show no concern for the public weal.
Corruption is not only tolerated but even regarded as the hallmark of leadership. Flagrant contradiction between what we say and what we do has become our way of life. At every step, our aims and actions conflict. At every stage, our private self crushes our social commitment.
As action has diverged from precept, the ideology of the Congress has acquired the status of an heirloom, to be polished and brought out on special occasions. It must be a living force to animate the Congress workers in their day-to-day activity. Our ideology of nationalism, secularism, democracy and socialism is the only relevant ideology for our great country. But We are forgetting that we must take it to the masses, interpret its content in changing circumstances and defend it against the attacks of our opponents.
Mahatma Gandhi visualised the Congress as a fighting machine. Time and again we have demonstrated our fighting qualities—in the great non-cooperation movements of the ‘twenties’ and ‘thirties’, in the Quit India movement of 1942, in the ‘fifties’ and ‘sixties’ when we carried the message of socialism to every door, in 1969-71 when the vested interests had to be fought in Parliament, in the courts and in the streets and in 1977-79 when persecution and calumny were answered by thousands of brave satyagrahis throughout the country. This is our tradition. We have to revive this tradition to fight for the poor and the oppressed. Only by doing so shall we gain the strength to create the India of our dreams.
The revitalisation of our organisation is a historical necessity. At this critical juncture, there is no other political party capable of defending the unity and integrity of the country.
There is no other party capable of taking the country forward to progress and prosperity. All other parties are shot through and through with internal contradictions. The sorry, unedifying spectacle of their total incapacity, corruption, nepotism, hypocrisy has disfigured our political landscape. They have shown a cynical disregard for sensitive issues of national security. Some have not hesitated even to collude with anti-national elements. Their ideological roots are shallow, their political outlook circumscribed by region, caste and religion.
Wherever they have come to power, they have retarded social and economic progress. They have no sense of history. Those who campaign for a weak Centre, campaign against the unity and integrity of India. Their slogans are spurious because true welfare comes from growth, which they have been busy destroying. It is the responsibility of the Congress to ensure that India is not left to the mercy of such forces.
We must once more generate a mass movement based on Congress ideology to fulfil this momentous task.
Only with such a movement can we cleanse the party and the nation. The inner strength of our people, their unbounded patriotism, their unshakable commitment to social justice and their aspiration for a strong and prosperous India will destroy the ugliness and enrich the creative ground of India’s greatness.
How will this mass movement of epic proportions arise? What are the essentials of the Build India Movements?
The country needs a politics of service to the poor. The country needs a politics based on ideology and programmes. To bring this about, we must break the nexus between political parties and vested interests.
We will change the electoral laws to ensure cleaner elections. We will make political parties accountable for the funds they receive. We will wage an ideological war against those who exploit the poor in the name of caste and religion.
The Congress, the custodian of the national will and the sentinel of India’s freedom and unity, will be reorganised and revitalised. It will gather in its fold patriots of all sections and all communities. It will be the shield of the oppressed and the sword of the poor.
The war on corruption will go on without let or hindrance. The country needs a clean social and political environment, and the Congress is determined to give it.
Any denial of justice to the poor and the weak is in itself a crime. Our judicial institutions and legal systems have to be streamlined and strengthened; sooner rather than later. We shall put our best brains to work on this problem.
Our administrative machinery is cumbersome, archaic and alien to the needs and aspirations of the people. It has successfully resisted the imperative of change. It must learn to serve the people. It must become accountable for results. We need structural changes at all levels. We shall have them.
The India of the future is growing in her schools and universities. But our schools and universities do not relate to the vision of the future. They continue to function in the old grooves. A new blueprint for education is being designed. It will not come out of musty corridors of the educational establishments. It will only come from a movement involving teachers, students, parents, thinkers and philosophers. Not a movement to capture more privileges, but a movement that sees the future in relation to the present and the past, a movement that uses that vast untapped energy of millions to create a design suited to our needs.
As we look back on what we have achieved, one thought keeps coming back to mind. How much faster we would have developed had we succeeded in restricting the growth of our population.
Progress would have been greater not in material terms alone, but in the quality of human life. That makes the family planning programme so crucial to our future development. We need a better strategy to achieve the national goal of a stable population, healthier and better educated.
The time has come to infuse new life into the struggle against poverty. Our anti-poverty programmes, notably the 20-Point Programme, have to come out of the grip of bureaucratic sloth and inefficiency. They have to become people’s programmes. All the elements—education, health and nutrition, family planning, land reforms and co-operatives, communications, agriculture, animal husbandry, industrial and rural crafts—all have to come together in an integrated programme to wipe out the age-old curse of poverty.
The power to shape their own lives must lie with the people, not with bureaucrats and experts.
Experts must help the people. Vibrant village panchayats must discuss, deliberate and decide the choices to be made. This is a challenge to the Congress cadres. It is up to us, the workers of this great organisation, spread in every village and every hamlet of India, to mobilise the people, to guide them, to stand by their side when they are denied their due, to fight for them and to see that resources are properly utilised, not frittered away on unproductive projects. This will keep our organisation in touch with the masses and will help us to become the true vehicle of change in rural India.
We are building an independent, self-reliant economy. We have already achieved much. But more hard work is required from everyone—from scientists and technologists, from the public sector, from the private sector, from industrial workers, from farmers, from public servants, from traders, from housewives and from each one of us.
We have to work hard to accelerate our agriculture and industrial development on the basis of our own resources. We have to produce more than we are doing today to invest more in future progress and to support anti-poverty programmes.
We must remember that self-reliance and eradication of poverty demand, indeed compel, the present generation to bear hardship and make sacrifices.
Those who are employed have a duty to the future of India. They have to be more productive and consume less so that resources can be made available for investment and for programmes to help the poor. This is a national duty—a patriotic duty.
Our lifestyles must change. Vulgar, conspicuous consumption must go. Simplicity, efficiency and commitment to national goals hold the key to self-reliance. The Congress Ministers, Members of Parliament, Members of State Assemblies, party functionaries and leaders at all levels must set the example. Millions of people will follow them. Austerity and swadeshi will galvanise the masses to grow more, to produce more and to serve more.
Above all, we need to create a mass movement for strengthening India’s unity and integrity, for deepening our Indianness. The Congress which won freedom for India, the Congress which has brought India to the threshold of greatness, is pre-eminently the party of India’s resurgent nationalism. Our nationalism is based on our rich diversity of cultures, languages and religions. The Congress represents the multi-faceted splendour of India.
Today, communal, casteist and regional forces, sustained by external elements, are undermining our unity. We have to be on our guard. We have to carry the message of nationalism and unity to all. We have to overcome divisive forces.
Let the saga of our freedom struggle be our inspiration. Let thousands and thousands of Congress workers fan out into every village, every urban centre to revive the traditions of our glorious struggle for freedom in which all differences were transcended. We shall persuade. We shall educate. We shall bind people together.
But let the divisive forces understand quite clearly that the Congress, with the strength of the masses behind it, will crush with all its might the designs of anti-national elements.