History shows charismatic leadership, even in the absence of political acumen, is the glue that can keep the Congress together. National president of Swaraj India, Yogendra Yadav, would like the Congress to die for the sake of the country’s political welfare so that space is created for a new Opposition organisation to come up to help remove the Modi regime. Evidently, Yadav is afflicted with anger; or else he would not have made such an irrational statement. The Congress enjoys enormous brand equity, which is essential for a party to get national acceptability. India is not only huge but a diverse country in terms of languages and ethos. Within a language group, too, there are differences — perhaps inherited from the caste system. Then there are variations in development — some are still at the cultural level of the 19th Century while others are on the apron of the 21st Century.
To get identified with such a wide variety of people is very difficult. For a new party to grow into a national formation, opposing the BJP and removing its leadership, would not only be a Herculean task but also might take decades to be successful. One may note that for all its successes, the BJP has not yet been able to effectively reach out to the people of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Its prototype, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, was founded in 1951, ie, 68 years ago. I doubt if a third alternative has come up, although some friends have told this writer that a Delhi-based party is hopeful of going national. One wonders if Yadav, when he was a member of a party, had provided the inspiration?
The Congress has a unique record. It began with informing the British rulers how the Indian intelligentsia felt about their policies and actions. Gradually, it started agitating for freedom or discretion to Indians. In such a cause, virtually anyone was welcome to join — whether Indian or foreigner — the party’s founder was an Englishman, Allan Octavian Hume. Until the advent of Mahatma Gandhi, the Congress was a gentlemen’s set-up, rather like a club. It was in 1921, with the non-cooperation movement, that it began to take the character of a mass party. Soon, the Mahatma became its leader, who led the party until Jawaharlal Nehru took over. After Nehru’s death, his daughter, Indira Gandhi, took over.
In October 1984, after being shot by her bodyguards, Indira Gandhi had been declared dead by doctors at AIIMS hospital and the tragic news was broadcast by the BBC radio by 11 am. But Akashvani and Doordarshan kept this development under wraps until 6 pm by when President Zail Singh had returned to India and was ready to swear in Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister. This subterfuge showed how important leadership was to the Congress. By then, the party had hardly any assets, except its brand equity. Until 1969, the Congress had virtually everything that a political party might want. But with its split in 1969, the assets, including the organisational network, remained with the Congress (organisation). Indira Gandhi’s Congress (ruling) had nothing except the members, who were personally loyal to her. As it happened, she chose to not have assets. Several Pradesh Congress Committees operated from their president’s residence. For instance, Ajit Kumar Panja of West Bengal used the drawing room of his residence at 250, Chittranjan Avenue, Kolkata. Many a member, wedded to the tradition, would swear “I will go to any masjid or any mandir but refuse to visit an imam or mahant at his house”. Indira Gandhi must have received such complaints but she did not care. Presumably, her view might have been “what I do not have, no one can take away”. Evidently, she did not trust many. By 1980, half the district Congress committees did not exist. She depended on her charisma and her mass following; party members were powerless helpers in promoting her cause.
Many Congressmen by then had also come to believe that the Nehru-Gandhi family had a unique charisma among the masses. Their evidence was that the Mahatma transformed the Congress into a mass party and it flourished on his charisma until Nehru took the baton from him. After Nehru, Indira Gandhi effectively played this role and enabled the Congress to dominate the Indian political scene. Thereafter, Rajiv Gandhi played a yeoman’s role in keeping the party flying high. For the first and the only time, he led over 400 Congressmen in the Lok Sabha. If he lost the 1989 elections, it was because of Bofors more than anything else. In the 1990s, many of the partymen missed a Gandhi at the helm. They found it difficult to swallow the leadership of PV Narasimha Rao. This writer has personally heard four Hindu Congressmen saying that Rao wore khaki knickers as his underwear. Three Muslim members were heard whispering under their breath that it was he who destroyed the Babri Masjid. This is to illustrate the frustration among party members.
When Sitaram Kesari became party president, several rumour-mongers were selling the belief that at this rate, their historic party would break up. Little wonder that the only Gandhi available, namely, Sonia Gandhi, was elevated to the ivory throne of the Congress. The partymen had no inhibition as it had been founded by an Englishman. It was later presided over by an Irish woman Annie Besant and subsequently, by Nellie Sengupta. For Congressmen, the priority was a charismatic Gandhi, no matter whether brown or white.
There is a fundamental reason for charismatic leadership to keep the Congress together. That reason is that the party is primarily a platform of politicians to meet for the pursuit of power. Especially after Independence, it had no particular cause, nor an ideology to hold it together. Little wonder that the Mahatma recommended its dissolution post-Independence. In the great man’s own time, the Congress had opposed Partition and without much hesitation, had accepted the division after Jinnah’s Direct Action, inaugurated by the Great Calcutta Killing of August 1946.
To quote a more recent example, the Congress had won the 1991 general election on a socialistic manifesto. Within a week, however, it gave a go-by to all socialism and liberalised the economy on the basis of an IMF prescription. This freedom from ideology has enabled the Congress to induct members from all walks of political life, whether an Akali like Zail Singh or a communist like Rangarajan Kumaramangalam or a Shiv Sainik like Chhagan Bhujbal, et al. The flip side of this convenience is the indispensability of charismatic leaders as binders or unifiers.
The political acumen that Yadav yearns for is not an essential component of charisma. Rajiv Gandhi did not have it. Be that as it may, what is necessary for the party is to find such a leader rather than wanting the Congress to die. In any case, the Congress is not a roadblock to the rise of a third national party. The pathways for the rise of such a party are innumerable in our large country.
(The writer is a well-known columnist and an author. Views expressed are personal)
Writer: Prafull Goradia
Courtesy: The Pioneer