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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 25, June 14, 2014

Loss of an Ideological Battle

Saturday 14 June 2014, by Ambrose Pinto

As people committed to Centrist politics, the victory of the BJP in the parliamentary elections has saddened many of us. That in no way means that we are making a case for the existing Congress. Not many tears are shed for the defeat of the Congress. The Congress surely deserved what it got, 44 seats in a House of 543, the lowest ever. The party can only reap what it had sown. Not only scams and scandals during the UPA regime, there was also plenty of arrogance besides the total betrayal of the poor and the subalterns. The policies of the Congress were not what the party professed. When there is a dichotomy between what the party says and what it does, then the party loses its credibility. That is what the Congress had become—a party without any ideological orientation. Of course, that lack of orientation has caused great damage to the country with no alternative to the voters.

Ideology of the Congress

The erosion of the ideology was gradual. As the party of the freedom struggle the party was to embody those solemn promises made at the time of the country’s freedom. The party then had promised to wipe out every tear from every eye, work towards a society of equality, fraternity and justice and evolve a socialist and secular state. While the minorities were promised protection with assurance of educational and cultural rights, the SCs/STs were assured proportional representation in educational institutions, employment and representation in the legislatures. The OBCs too were promised representation in employment and education. With the freedom of the country, once the Congress movement was transformed into a political party, there was competition for power. The landlords, industrialists and businessmen wielded power on the party. Several Congress leaders, both regional and national, came from bourgeois families with little love for the poor and downtrodden. They were more interested in grabbing power from the British than the transformation of the social order.

In fact a number of those who had fought for the freedom of the country with strong ideo-logical commitments refused to be a part of the Congress party once they witnessed the struggle for power among the cadre. The consequence was that land reforms could not be imple-mented. Primary education was not univer-salised. The dual system of education was maintained with the poor quality of state-owned education for the poor and quality institutions with English as the medium of instruction for the ruling elite. Though there were laws against untouchability, bonded labour, child labour, devadasi system and other oppressive practices, their implementation did not take place. Actually, it was the very ruling elite that were carrying on with those practices. Given the elite nature of the justice system, the poor could not use it to their advantage.

And yet the Congress did galvanise the discriminated and marginalised communities with promises and hopes. Though the reservation policy for the SCs/STs and its half-hearted implementation continues and is mere tokenism, it had made these communities loyal to the Congress party. The leaders of the SCs/STs were mostly Congressmen and women since there were no other parties that included them. With no better alternative, the minorities too had cast their lot with the Congress party ever since independence. Most Congress leaders from the backward communities were committed to the party of the freedom struggle.

In spite of all the limitations the party was perceived as secular and inclusive. That has changed now. With the gradual decline of the commitment of the Congress to social transformation and the emergence of several other parties including regional parties, the subaltern communities have started looking at other parties for participation and abandoning the Congress.

Betrayal of Socialism

The decline of the Congress began more swiftly with the policies of neo-liberalism and the imposition of the market economy on the country during the Prime Ministership of P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1991 when the country was opened to free trade. The corporations—national, multi-national and transnational—made their way into India and Indian society was marketised. The poor who received crumbs from the state were slowly and steadily distanced from the state. The educated employed too moved away from the state institutions and the agricultural sector and found their jobs in these corporations —BPOs and KPOs. The middle class, all these years accustomed to largesse from the state, found employment outside the state avenues. With consumerism becoming their way of life, they were gradually alienated from the state. The state became less and less interested in the poor. The focus was on investment and bringing foreign capital into the country to generate growth more than employment.

Land laws were changed to suit the interests of the corporations. Changes in the agricultural sector brought havoc to the lives of the poor. The sector was corporatised. Till then agriculture was a livelihood for more than 75 per cent of the people of the country. When the sector is corporatised, profits become more important. New seeds and fertilisers were introduced into the sector leading to the disaster of the sector, with farmers committing suicide, labourers with no jobs moving into other sectors and finding no employment. The state could not protect them since it had abdicated its responsibility to the economy by handing over its responsibility to international financial organisations and transnational and multinational corporations. When an agricultural country is made to fit into a global capitalist economy, with the state unable to intervene, it is natural that people are made to fend for themselves.

It was a betrayal by the Congress of the tenet of socialism, something that was the soul of India, nurtured and cultivated by the framers of the Constitution and successive governments till the time of Mrs Indira Gandhi. Not that Nehruvian socialism was socialism in the strict sense. However, it did have clauses for the amelioration poverty in the country though it did not succeed in distribution of wealth in an equitable manner. The state, however, did play a part in policies and programmes where the poor thought they were included. All that feel gradually disappeared once the ordinary people experienced the impacts of neo-liberalism.

Betrayal of Secularism

The other important premise on which the Constitution was founded was secularism. The term may have been added in the Preamble of the Constitution later but the country was founded on the principle of secularism. The forces of communalism were present right from the beginning of the freedom of the country and they were keen to define the identity of the nation in terms of religion. The partition riots were part of that attempt. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and several communal riots in different small and big cities of India were to turn a secular and tolerant India towards a communal one.

In spite of several attempts to poison the country with the communal venom, the people of India did not give in. They were determined to keep India secular. But once again it was the Congress party that led the country down. During several incidents of communal riots across the country, the maximum the state did was to institute high level committees without implementing the recommendations of the committees. Those who instigated violence were not taken to task.

The two major incidents that shook the foundations of secular India after the assassi-nation of Mahatma Gandhi were the Ayodhya incident of 1992 and the Godhra carnage of 2002. There has not been any action on the perpetrators of violence. Those responsible for the communal violence were from the ruling class and the party in power did not want to act. It is likely that a section of those in the Congress party were sympathetic to the cause of the communalists. As a result the minorities remain suspicious of the Congress. In States ruled by the Congress in spite of making demands for protection and development, the minorities have remained alienated from the mainstream.

Alienation from the Poor

The consequence of both the betrayal of socialism and secularism is there for the Congress to see. With the imposition of the neo-liberal economic policies the Congress had alienated the poor. There was not much difference between the two national parties on the economic programmes. Both the BJP and Congress had the consensus to mortgage the country to transnational and multinational corporations. What must have shocked the poor is the close nexus of the political parties with the business class and their refusal to see the face of the poor who constitute the majority in the country.

Given the compromise on the values of secularism by the Congress, the minorities—who had stood by the party—did not fully embrace them across the country. Why would they vote for them when the party was unable to look after their interests? The party provided less and less representation to the communities both in contesting elections and in various centres of decision-making. There was increasing violence on the communities and a vicious propaganda.

The Congress was not fully committed for the protection of the communities and failed to stand up to the tenets of secularism when the party was challenged by the communal forces. It was equally true about the party’s commit-ment to the neo-liberal economic policies. Instead of remaining faithful to the sovereignty of the state, the central orientation of the economy was allowed to be decided by the international financial institutions.

Loss of an Ideology

That is why one does not grieve at the demise of the existing Congress. It was no more the Congress of the freedom struggle. While Dr Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of the country, was highly respected for his personal integrity and deeply esteemed for his inter-national standing, he functioned more as the CEO of the country than the Prime Minister. With his commitment to the market policies he was keener to adjust the economy to fall in line with international norms than tune it to the needs of the people of the country. The poor did not figure in his programme.

This was the same story with the other members of the Cabinet. They functioned for the most part as functionaries for the corporations than the people. The arrogance with which they appeared in front of the television channels, the disgust with which they spoke of the common people and the ideas they aired did not endear them to the citizens. In fact, the party had developed a dislike for the poor if one has to view the way in which protestors were dealt with in Kudankulam, POSCO and other places where the land of the poor was taken away by the corporations in nexus with the state. The workers had no more rights. Trade unions were done away with and the workers remained at the mercy of the corporations. Whenever there was a conflict between the corporations and the people, the state provided support to the corporations. In several places the land of the poor was taken away by force with the support of the police. Slums were cleared for land grab. The prices went soaring whereas the poor could not manage their daily necessities.

At the level of secularism most Congressmen and women did not even know the meaning and implications of secularism. In several places the party welcomed in its fold members of the Sangh Parivar, former Ministers of the BJP and other regional outfits to win elections without any commitment to secularism. The party had become opportunistic. In fact, there was nothing of the Congress in the party than the dynasty. It was sad to watch the party of the freedom struggle moving out of the national stage with no one to blame but the party itself.

Reinvention of the Congress

This is not to say that the country does not need the Congress. The country needs the Congress, not in its existing form, but with strong ideological commitments with the original inspiration. With the existing leaders tainted with scams and scandals without any ideological bearing but with only the desire for power, the task is not easy but not impossible. Having lost touch with the reality and lack of knowledge on the issues that affect the common man on the streets, the party may have to go to the remote villages, towns and cities and re-educate itself. Instead of wasting away time in the corridors of power by networking with industrialists and businessmen, Congress leaders and volunteers should move into local self-government units and build ideological groups.

However, what is more important is that the leaders of the party go to the school of the people to learn from them instead of the corporates. Solutions to issues of the people cannot come from the international financial institutions or from industrial corporations but from the people. If each of the Congress leaders goes and lives in a village with least facilities for a month, they would learn more about India than if they jabber in the corridors of power about the poor.

Once educated by the people, the party may have to build grassroots groups with the Congress ideology of “swaraj”. The present economy is not a national economy that is controlled by the corporations. It is a global economy controlled by the corporations. We need a local economy more than a national economy that would pose a challenge to the global economy.

Finally, the Congress party has taught the country enough of catechism without practising most of it tenets. The party may have to provide far greater representation for the marginalised, backwards and minorities, at least in proportion to their numbers and win them over. A new kind of hope needs to be provided to them. In fact if the party does not make them torchbearers of a new society that is visualised, the party cannot easily come back into governance.

Every move of the Congress would be under scrutiny with the new government in power. The Congress can decide to die or re-invent itself. The country needs the ideology of the Congress of equality, fraternity and justice. The ideology of the present regime of Hindutva, one people, one nation, one culture and one religion can only be fought with another ideology of with respect for pluralism, diversity, secularism and socialism.

The bubble of the present regime is likely to burst earlier than expected. In the meantime, the citizens have to learn to resist what is not constitutional in the present regime.

Dr Ambrose Pinto SJ is the Principal of St Aloysius Degree College, Bengaluru.