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The Ingredients of a Revival
Ahead of the 2024 electoral battle, the BJP will inevitably raise the pitch of its hate campaign. The Congress better be ready
In the very first session of the Congress on 28 December 1885, speakers spoke of the need for unity. The session, which had to be shifted at the last moment from Pune because of the alarming spread of cholera there, did not deliberate on independence from British rule. That would come later.
But in her accounts of that first session in the book How India Fought for Freedom, Annie Besant recorded the emphasis placed on national unity and the need for people to rise above the divisive influence of religion, caste and provincialism. It is remarkable that 137 years later, Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra was fundamentally about a similar pitch for unity.
Although the first session of the Congress was not taken too seriously by the masses, there were many who sensed this was an important turning point in history. The session at Gokuldas Tejpal Sanskrit College auditorium in Bombay was attended, among others, by R. Raghunath Rao from Madras, judge Mahadev Govind Ranade from Bombay and Lala Baijnath from Agra. More importantly, the session was deemed significant enough for editors of newspapers like The Hindu, The Tribune, Maratha, Indian Mirror, Gyanprakash, Naseem Hindustani and others to attend and cover the proceedings themselves.
The clearly articulated objective of the new organisation was nation-building by patriotic people, who were expected to overcome differences of religion and sectarian identities.
The founders of the Congress were pragmatic people, happy to accept the support of enlightened Englishmen and women, ranging from Allan O. Hume to George Yule, who was the first Englishman to become the Congress president at the Allahabad session in 1888, and British socialist Annie Besant, who became the first woman president of the Congress in 1917.
In 1904, the Congress opposed the division of Bengal and passed a resolution against it. Poet and playwright Rabindranath Tagore wrote in Bangadarshan that the ‘divide and rule’ policy of the British was not acceptable to patriotic Indians.
In response to the draconian Rowlatt Act and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919, Tagore returned his knighthood. The Amritsar session of the Congress condemned the law and the repression and declared that a point of no return had been reached and that autonomy and freedom had become imperative.
Recalling how the likes of Tagore and Premchand engaged with the freedom struggle is both instructive and saddening, when you see how the supposedly progressive writers of our own time have capitulated to an oppressive regime. Possibly to save their own skin, they no longer dare stand with the people.
Tagore and other writers of his time and ilk were not intimidated by the British rulers, but today, a large section of Indian writers, poets and journalists have stopped raising issues of public concern or speaking truth to power. Directly or indirectly, they are aiding and abetting the powers that be.
The Raipur session of the Congress is taking place at a difficult time in our history, when not just mainstream media but also writers and poets and creative people of various persuasions have lost the stomach to even question, leave alone fight the establishment.
The fightback to regain its position as the truly representative national party should, therefore, begin in Raipur. A clear message must go out that the party will continue to push a welfarist agenda, that it is against monopolies but not against private capital, that it favours capital formation by thousands of people and not a handful of ‘national champions’.
Mercifully, Congress leaders have started acknowledging that it is not a party of saints; that as a political party, it aspires to seize power. The projection of Bharat Jodo Yatra as an apolitical enterprise, giving the impression that it was being steered by civil society, was, to my mind, a mistake.
The Congress cannot pretend to be an NGO and its leaders as detached philosophers. Whether the Congress likes it or not, the BJP will run a presidential-style campaign and seek a fresh mandate for Narendra Modi, and there is no getting away from the fact that Rahul Gandhi is the only Congress leader with a pan-India appeal who can give the BJP and Modi a run for their money.
At Raipur, the Congress leadership should also engage with party workers and supporters on the question of how to fight the BJP’s money power, its disinformation campaign, its brazenly divisive agenda. It’s an uphill political battle, and the Congress must fight it on two fronts.
The ideological fight must not be left to Rahul Gandhi alone; more national and regional Congress leaders must raise the same issues with the same vigour that Rahul Gandhi does.
ame vigour that Rahul Gandhi does. The Congress must also counter the sustained vilification campaign directed at Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, among others. This battle can no longer be left to civil society and well-meaning liberals and public intellectuals to fight. The party must understand that it cannot afford to lose the public perception battle.
The Prime Minister’s attempt to paint the UPA years (2004–2014) as the ‘lost decade’ also needs to be countered aggressively. The Congress must publicise its achievements; it won’t do to just mock the BJP as ‘event managers’. The Congress paid a very heavy price in 2014 for its inability to defend the UPA’s record and to counter the 2G smear campaign. The party must aggressively counter the BJP propaganda, which will get even more vicious in the runup to 2024.
Expect the BJP and the Modi-Shah duo to spring nasty surprises: they could advance the 2024 election; they will certainly sharpen their attacks on the Congress; they will try and engineer defections and plant Trojan horses; and the TV debates will become more toxic. But this time, the Congress cannot be caught unawares—the party must up the ante.