The rebirth of the Congress

Over the 60-odd years in power, the Congress had lost its real mojo, but it seems to have found it again, writes Apoorvanand

Jubilation among Congress supporters on election results day, 4 June
Jubilation among Congress supporters on election results day, 4 June


One of the major gains of the recently concluded Lok Sabha election is the return of the idea of the Congress. When I say Congress, I mean the party as a force of opposition and resistance. Not the Congress nourished by power but the Congress that drew its life and strength from resistance to injustice and fear.

That is how the Congress was born and through opposition and resistance to the British, it grew. The battle against the British was essentially premised on the idea of equality. The Congress party’s first demand was equal treatment for Indians in the British colony. It realised after a while that an essential pre-condition of equality is independence. The right to equality cannot depend on the magnanimity or benevolence of a master who decides what rights you might enjoy and when. Thus ‘Swaraj is my birthright’ became the battle cry of the Congress.

Upon his return from South Africa, Gandhi delivered his first big public address at the opening of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU). It is a stinging indictment of the obscenity of inequality: “What did we witness in the great pandal in which the foundation ceremony was performed by the Viceroy? Certainly a most gorgeous show, an exhibition of jewellery, which made a splendid feast for the eyes of the greatest jeweller who [came] from Paris. I compare with the richly bedecked noblemen the millions of the poor. And I feel like saying to these noblemen: ‘There is no salvation for India unless you strip yourselves of this jewellery and hold it in trust for your countrymen in India'."

Gandhi’s words were so unpleasant to the high and mighty present on the occasion that Annie Besant, who was in the chair, had to ask him to stop. There were walkouts and Gandhi couldn’t even finish his speech. But resistance had arrived. The spirit to disobey, to refuse to cooperate with unjust laws and unjust power, had landed.

It was this spirit of resistance to the British that drew the millions to the Congress. That is how it became the party of the masses — pivoting on Gandhi’s idea of opposition entwined with the idea of non-hatred for anyone, even the people one is fighting. It is love, Gandhi said, you have to cultivate as the driving force of resistance, of opposition to domination.

What Gandhi demonstrated through his non-cooperation and civil disobedience movements is that everyone, the most ordinary folk, can resist. To do that, you do not have to be extraordinary like the revolutionaries who have the capacity to use violence; all you have to do is to shed fear.

The other thing Gandhi did with his colleagues was to build a social coalition, a social compact that made space for everyone. A new solidarity had to be built, and the very idea of supremacy had to go. This was the bedrock of Gandhi’s battle against untouchability, which later evolved into a campaign against majoritarianism and to end caste itself.

Gandhi’s Congress was the Congress of resistance. It made the idea of Congress very attractive, even romantic. But Congressmen also formed ministries even when this struggle was on. There was contradiction inherent in being the principal opposition to British colonialism while also being a party in power.

With power came all the trappings of power, talking of which Gandhi once spoke of “the will to clear the Congress’s Augean stables”. In other words, the Congress itself had to be the opposition to the Congress. It needed the will to clear its own Augean stables.

The other battle in the Congress was between the ideas of a civic nationalism and a religious/ cultural nationalism. The pull of cultural nationalism was very strong. To counter traditional ideas of community with a modern idea of community was not easy.

The battle continued even after Independence. Nehru had to take on conservative Hindu culturalists like Purushottam Das Tandon, Rajendra Prasad, Vallabhbhai Patel and others. In effect, prime minister Nehru was the main opposition to the establishment in the Congress party itself.

Sixty years of being in power in independent India meant the Congress had lost the memory of its oppositional role. People came to it because it promised the fruits of power. Once again the question arose: who would clear the Congress’s Augean stables? The party lost power briefly in 1977, regained it in 1980, lost it again in 1989. After that, the only long stint it had in power was from 2004 to 2014. Since then, it has been in opposition. It was written off by most political observers and analysts, but has bounced back as a strong opposition voice in the 2024 elections.

The brief spells the Congress had in an oppositional role turned out to be waiting periods before it returned to power. The Congress was understood to be the default party of power, which explains why all other parties, even when in power, behaved like the opposition to the Congress, which was treated as the establishment.

This changed after 2014. A new order emerged in Indian politics under Narendra Modi. Colonial ambitions made a comeback, and a totalitarian state began to capture all aspects of the lives of Indians. This state began to treat citizens as subjects, turning them effectively into vassals of the leader and the party.

To my mind, it was India’s descent into a totalitarian polity — in which an Indian state was seeking to re-colonise Indian minds — that reminded the Congress of its oppositional role. I recall a conversation with a group of academics on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Nehru’s death, in which Rahul Gandhi said he was sure the Congress was not fighting the BJP but the RSS.

To play the oppositional role effectively once again, the Congress had to clear its Augean stables once again. The task fell upon the shoulders of Rahul Gandhi. Career politicians who saw the party as a ticket to power were eyeing greener pastures — some had left, some were on their way.

Rahul Gandhi was berated for not being able to hold on to powerful leaders in the party. People forget that even Nehru couldn’t prevent JP or Ram Manohar Lohia or J.B. Kriplani, Rajaji and others from leaving the party. In Indira Gandhi’s time too, many old Congressmen quit the party. It happened in 1966-67 and again in 1977.

A closer look reveals that the Congress is being cleansed of its feudal, right-wing elements, which had made the party home, given its tent-like character. They represent the establishment. The Congress is lighter without them.

Being out of power is not easy for people who think they are destined to rule, but the Modi regime has helped the Congress rediscover its forgotten role. It has reminded the Congress that its task is to defend the idea of India as a secular democratic republic, in which all are equal and people are supreme, a country that aspires to secure freedom, equality, justice for all in a spirit of togetherness. The Congress has been reminded of its historical role to bring all people together with a sense of being equal participants in a shared destiny.

Over the past decade, the Congress had been casting about for a language in which to fight the new totalitarian regime. It seems to have found it during the two yatras Rahul Gandhi undertook. Not at all surprising, then, that the party is once again becoming a tent for all those who are fighting for the rights of the marginalised and the dispossessed. They are coming to it not expecting power but with the feeling that the party will fight for the rights of people. Let us celebrate this second birth of the Congress.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at the University of Delhi, and is a literary and cultural critic

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