Congress : Party With a Glorious Past Heading into an Uncertain Future
The longevity of the Indian National Congress led governments at the Center, since independence, have given rise to a large number of persons who are vehemently opposed to it. Everything wrong in the country is attributed to it by these anti forces. Further momentum to these negative feelings are given by the various corruption scandals that have hit the Congress led government since last more than five years. Nothing seems to be going right for them.
A party with a 125 year history behind it, today finds itself at a nadir which is out of sync with its glorious past both before and after independence. When history of the last 100 years or more India is written there will be four or five distinct periods into which its contributions will be divided and discussed. Howsoever may its critics dismiss the party the fact remains that Congress had an almost daily role to play in India's destiny from 1888 on wards till date barring a few years in between.
The Origins (1885-1915):
As is well known the foundation of the Congress party was laid by a Scotsman named Octave Hume in December, 1885 in Pune, along with leaders like Dadabhai Naoroji, Surendranath Bannerjee and few others. They were mostly members of the Theosophical Society of India. The British had consolidated its rule in India after formally taking over the country from The East India Company after the 1857 First War of Independence. English language had been introduced and was being studied by the elite. Indians were demanding a say in the affairs of the State.
However in its initial phase the Congress was acting as a 'petitioners party'. The party would meet once a year and make a petition to the government on the issues of the day. There would not be any follow up action. It suited the British also, as a facade of some sort of limited opposition was to its advantage and controllable. The Congress was a group of educated and mostly upper caste Indians who believed in manners and etiquette. The British tolerated it as it was not a mass based organisation. However it was a nursery for future leaders and battles. The seeds of organised opposition to colonial rule were being impregnated in the minds of increasing Indians across the country.
Almost all its petitions were rejected by the British Government and in view of this constant opposition,there grew a demand within the party for launching an independence movement. By 1907 the party was divided into Garam Dal or hot headed group led by Bal Ganghadar Tilak and Naram Dal or moderates led by Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Tilak was able to galvanise the party into a mass based organisation fighting for the independence of the country. This phase continued till 1915.
Freedom Movement Struggle (1915-1947):
A galaxy of leaders like Tilak, Gokhale, Pal, Lala Lajpat Rai and M A Jinnah were instrumental from 1905 on wards in involving the masses in their taking up issues with the colonial government. However that extra spark or push was to be provided by Gandhi who returned to India in 1915, after having tried out some of his non violent methods against the racial government in South Africa. After following Gokhale's advice Gandhi traveled throughout the country and not only understood the life of the ordinary citizen, he also correctly identified fear of violence from the government as a reason that Indians were not fighting the British to gain freedom. Gandhi decided to remove this fear from the minds of Indians and in the process make them into men so that they could face the world with their head held high.
He led the freedom struggle from the front and attracted a galaxy of educated Indians from across the nation who not only supported his non violent struggle but actively participated in it. In the process themselves also developed into individual leader caliber. The Congress under Gandhi fought for India's independence and became a platform for all shades of opinion from the Left to the Right from the non violent to the violent from the poor to the rich. Its membership truly reflected India and Indians from all castes, religions and regions. This brought Indians of different hues together under the umbrella of Congress. It conducted its deliberations in a democratic manner which familiarized Indians with the functioning of democracy.
The quality of the leaders in Congress was of a high moral order. Leaders like Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, C Rajgoplachari, Rajendra Prasad, Netaji, Sarojini Naidu, Acharya Kripalani, M A Jinnah(till he left it), and many others inspired confidence in Indians. The Quit India movement in 1942 and the earlier Dandi March or the Salt Satyahraha in 1930 were turning points in the freedom movement.
Under the inspiring leadership of Mahatma Gandhi India got its freedom on August 15, 1947 but not before it was partitioned and the worst form of communal violence in which lakhs died and got displaced and left a permanent scar on the new nation.
It was a crowning glory moment for the Congress. It had successfully led the freedom movement and had a broad range of leaders to lead the nascent nation on the road to development and find its rightful place in the committee of nations. All its top leaders were alive and ready to face the challenges of leading India out of poverty and centuries of slavery.
Post Independence (1947- 1984):
The Congress party was the single largest party present in almost all cities, towns and villages of India. It therefore was the natural heir to the political vacuum after the end of the colonial government. The choice of PM was between Nehru and Patel and Gandhiji opted for the former. The Congress won the first general elections in 1952 and thereafter in 1957 and 1962.
The decade after independence was a period of hope for laying the foundation for a strong and progressive India where poverty alleviation would be a major task of the government. The tall leader that Nehru was gave the right direction to almost all the areas of the economy and various social sectors. The biggest contribution of Congress and Nehru was the strengthening of democracy and democratic institutions in the country. Nehru led by his own example tolerating dissent and encouraging dialogue and discussions in the Parliament. He laid the foundations of education, industry, atomic energy, science & technology, foreign policy and so on. His international reputation and prestige also India being held in high esteem in spite of its low economic capabilities.
However his Kashmir policy was a disaster for which we are paying a price today also. He overlooked the few complaints of emerging corruption which today has become a demon threatening our progress. He followed socialistic policies which had to be given up in 1991-92. He overestimated the Chinese attitude towards India and 1962 took place.
But Congress remained united and supported him and his government with vigour. The party had many discussions for the paths to be followed in various sectors of the economy and other areas.
It was the period when Bhakra Dam was built to support irrigation in Punjab, when CSIR laboratories were established to support Science, when IIT's were set up to produce world class technocrats, when IIM's where established to produce efficient managers, when steel plants and other heavy industries were set up to boost infrastructure and other industries and so on.
The Congress was the dominant party and it was natural that it won three elections in a row. The death of Nehru in 1964 was a blow but not entirely unexpected. After Nehru who? was an often debated topic. The Congress smoothly chose the diminutive Lal Bahadur Shastri a Nehruite and an impeccably honest person as the PM.
Shastri's crowning glory was the leadership he provided to meet the escalating food shortages and during the Indo-Pak war of 1965. The defeat of Pakistan brought back to a large extent the glory lost to the Chinese in the earlier 1962 war. The same Shastri whom many ridiculed for his very short height and softness rose to cheer him and love him. However in 1966 he suffered a heart attack while negotiating with the Pakistanis in Tashkent at the behest of Russians.
It was again time to chose a new PM. The election of Indira Gandhi, Nehru's daughter was to be the beginning of new and different type of era in Indian politics and also in the affairs of the Congress party. She faced opposition from what was called the Syndicate group to her election and also to her policies. This group wanted Morarjee Desai to become the PM and thus became hostile to her. Soon things came to an head and Indira in a master stroke nationalised all the Indian banks and stopped the Privy purse being paid to a large number of ex kings in the country. This was done through an ordinance and was opposed by the Syndicate group.
The result was a split in the Congress party and Indira formed the Congress (I) and the other group was known as Congress(O). Almost all Congressmen joined Indira led Congress and it soon became the official Congress party. Indira led with a strong hand and came out with populist policies like garibi hatao and 21 point poverty alleviation programmes. These helped her to sweep the elections. Her crowning moment was the formation of Bangladesh with help of Indian army and the break up of Pakistan as a result of the Indo-Pak war of 1971. Even Vajpayee hailed her as a Durga incarnation. She also gave strong support to the Green Revolution in agriculture which has made India self sufficient in food grains.
However she also attracted considerable opposition to her iron rule and policies. Jai Prakash Narayan led the movement against her and it reached its zenith in 1975 when as a measure to curb it Indira imposed the emergency in the country, suspending citizens civil liberties. This was never expected nor experienced by Indians. June 25th 1975 was a black day in Indian democracy. Some leaders of the Congress carried out alleged excesses and the Congress and Indira became extremely unpopular with the masses.
She lifted the emergency in 1977 and announced elections. Congress was washed out and got only one seat in the whole of Noth India. Indira herself lost her seat. A coalition of many parties was formed known as the Janata Party and it formed the first non Congress government in Delhi only to collapse in a few months. In 1979 elections were held agiain and surprisingly Indira was voted back to power. Congress once again formed government at the Center.
A mellowed Indira was different person now. However the terrorist ridden Punjab saw the Operation Bluestar to flush out terrorist taking shelter in the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984. A large number of terrorist, pilgrims and army personnel were killed in the army led operations. This was to result in the assassination of Indira by her two Sikh bodyguards in October, 1984 to avenge the assault on the Golden Temple. What followed was tragic. Anti Sikh riots broke out in Delhi and parts of North India and elsewhere. It is alleged that nearly 3000 innocent Sikhs were killed. The alleged involvement of certain Congress leaders has spoiled the image of Congress till today.
The above events created a division in the attitude of many Indians towards Congress and added to the numbers which were already alienated because of the emergency imposition. The beginning of the accelerated fall of Congress can be traced to these two events.
Indira became the PM three times and left behind a party not so cohesive as Nehru had left it.
Post Indira Gandhi(1984-2004):
The elections thst were held after Indira's death gave Congress a thumping number of seats in the Lok Sabha which even Nehru had not been able to win. The more than 400 seats gave Congress a solid majority and Rajiv Gandhi, the son of Indira and a reluctant PM was at the helm of affairs. The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty had given its third PM to the country.
Rajiv was young and had a modern outlook He was charmingly handsome and was highly telegenic. He initiated modernization programs like computerization and expansion of affordable communications. But he also unwittingly or otherwise took a decision regarding the Ram Janamabhomi Temple in Ayodhaya which allowed it to be reopened after many years of being under lock. Till today the dispute continues and it was politically exploited by BJP to capture power post demolition of Babri Masjid.
The inexperienced but honest Rajiv got embroiled in the Bofors gun scam and his image took a beating. He attempted to resolve the Assam and Punjab problems, with some degree of success. He also sent troops to Sri Lanka to curb the Tamil militants. This was to be his undoing, as during the campaigning for the 1990 elections he was killed by the LTTE in a suicide bomb blast in Tamil Nadu.
By now the Congress had began to get the image of corrupt party, though in the following elections P V Narsimha Rao became the PM. He ushered in the economic reforms in the 1991-92 budget through Dr Man Mohan Singh. The liberalized economy was to unleash the Indian economy into a fast growth mode and changed the economics of the country in a great manner. India's international trade grew handsomely and it got globilised in the process. The purchasing power of Indian's also started improving and consumerism increased. Life style of people improved. The mood in the country was upbeat after a long time.
The Congress party was now being led by Sonia Gandhi another reluctant entrant into politics. But she had to bow to the requests of the Congress party workers as they wanted a Nehru- Gandhi family member at the helm of the affair. The family still had a strong brand value. In spite of far reaching economic reforms the 1996 elections did not bring back the Congress to power. It remained out of power till 2004 and was the principle opposition party in the Parliament during the BJP government headed by Atal Behari Vajpayee (1999-2004).
Manmohan Singh's Era (2004-2014):
The BJP got a shock when it lost the elections in 2004 after what was seen to be a successful coalition led ably by Atalji. Congress returned to form the government at the Center. Normally Sonia should have become the PM, but in a master stroke she recommended Manmohan Singh for the PM's post. One of the main reason she apparently did it was because she did not want her foreign origin to become a contentious issue. Singh was to prove to be an able PM heading the UPA I coalition. But for the Nuclear Bill the performance of the government was average although economy was showing better GDP growth rates.
The elections of 2009 were not expected to give Congress any better results than 2004. But that is what happened . Congress came back stronger and again led the coalition government as UPA II. This time however the going has not been good for the Congress. Apart from the GDP rates falling from a high of 8.5% to around 4.5 %, it is the number and quantum of scams that have made it go down in the eyes of a vast number of voters. It is also not able to face the well planned onslaught by BJP led single handed by Modi. Severe anti incumbency is going to make it very difficult to come back to power in 2014 elections.
With 24 X 7 TV coverage, news channels have had a field day exposing the various scams and this has gone against the party's image. The party is finding it very difficult to explain the occurrence of the scams and the absence of strong action on their perpetrators. Congress leadership is unable to explain why corruption was allowed to take place, even when it was suspected to be taking place.
The dual arrangement of leadership at the top has resulted in the Congress President exercising authority without responsibility and the PM having responsibility without authority. In the process the PM is seen as a weak person who has not been able to prevent scams from taking place.
The rise of dynasty in the Congress is the maximum as it has been around the longest. Dynasty gives a very big advantage and unfair clout to the progeny of politicians in power. It gives them assured returns and thus they end up as armchair politicians dispensing favours to a very close circle of intimate persons/groups. In today's India where aspirations are running high and the number of self made persons is on the rise and people have to face tremendous competition to prove themselves, dynasty backing is considered both unfair and unjust.
The present lot of Congress leaders are mostly above age of retirement and some are in their 70's and 80's. They seem to be a tired lot and are not prepared to go to the extra length to improve the fortunes of the party. They would like their pampered sons and daughters to do so. But thay have not come up the hard way and lack grass root contacts.In a country of young persons below 35 years of age they are out of tune with them.
Having been in power for so long has created a sense of false security and a sense of "right' to rule in many a Congress leader. The economy has become sluggish with inflation and prices are hurtfully high. Growth is also jobless to a large extant and this does not make for a healthy economy.
Also these weaknesses especially corruption and dynasty factor is ceaselessly exploited by BJP and its PM candidate very successfully it seems. The Congress does not seem to have an answer to it. Also the rise of AAP party has introduced a totally new dimension in the way politics is sought to be conducted and the Congress is again on the receiving end.
It is very clear that by displacing Congress, political space will be created, for being occupied by competing parties. Thus Congress is under constant scrutiny and attack by its political rivals. So far it has not shown the flair to hit back. It seems the scams have corroded its structure and made it weak.
For a century old party with a glorious record of having brought out India into independence and thereafter guided it to an rising economic power ,it finds itself in a hopeless situation politically. Does it need a Nehru or Indira or Rao to revitalize it or Rahul is their only answer. The young voter of India, today, does not care for past glories but cares for near future opportunities with very low tolerance for corruption.
Does Congress have in it, to face the emerging new challenges and march for the next 100 years as it has in the last 100 years. Mid 2014 will tell.
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