Mainstream, VOL LIV No 50 New Delhi December 3, 2016
Faded Photocopy of the Original / Perish the Thought
Monday 5 December 2016, by ,
The following article by eminent historian Ramachandra Guha was published in the Hindustan Times on November 20, 2016. Anil Nauriya wrote a sequel to the article the very next day (November 21) and sent it to the Hindustan Times for publication. But since he didn’t hear from the HT for long, he sent it to Mainstream for publication. We are publishing here both—Guha’s article (with due acknowledgement) and Nauriya’s sequel.
Faded Photocopy of the Original
On my last visit to a bookstore I picked up Nirala’s autobiographical memoir, A Life Misspent, newly translated into English by Satti Khanna. The book’s hero is a man named Kulli Bhatt, who, meandering through life, found meaning in political activism. Inspired by Gandhi and Nehru, he became a Congress party activist in eastern UP in the 1930s.
On Nirala’s earlier visits to his town, Kulli Bhatt had taken him for long sessions of aimless chatter. Now, however, all he could talk about was politics and social reform. So Kulli told Nirala that “we lack the presence of the Congress Party. We are a good-sized town, but people laugh here at the idea of an independent nation. We need to bring the Congress here.”
Once he became a full-time activist, Kulli Bhatt “pushed himself running from village to village in the heat, signing up members of the Congress Party”. A friend told Nirala that because of Kulli’s efforts, “there isn’t a village in the area now without [Congress] party members”. Pursuing his party’s cause, Kulli Bhatt “would go days without food. His health failed him. His lower limbs have rotted.”
Kulli Bhatt fell seriously ill from these exertions on behalf of his party. Visiting him on his death-bed, Nirala “met some Congress Party social workers on his way who were also headed to see him. I saw a group of untouchable children and a few parents by his door. Their eyes were despairing.”
Those who know the Congress in its present avatar will read these words with some bemusement. Where are the activists who work so tirelessly on its behalf? When a Congressman dies, does anyone except fellow party members mourn his passing? Kulli Bhatt’s work was animated by idealism and energy, two qualities that are conspicuously lacking in the Congress of today.
And perhaps of yesterday as well. I was recently going through the web archive of the Economic and Political Weekly. In the course of my search, I came across a fascinating article published in the EPW on November 23, 1991, almost exactly 25 years ago. Entitled ‘Indian National Congress: Its Place in Politics’, it was written by Anil Nauriya, a lawyer-scholar whose ancestors had themselves striven, like Kulli Bhatt, to promote the Congress message in UP in the 1930s.
Writing in the early 1990s, Anil Nauriya found the Congress poorly equipped to meet or arrest the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party. He thought that “the real threat to the ‘Congress Model’ (and to its foundational principles) at the present stage is essentially not from challengers like the BJP but from within its own ranks”. Indeed, “an inept Congress is a far more useful ‘ally’ to the BJP than a resourceful (and cantankerous) VHP”.
Nauriya believed that the decline of the Congress was a product of a culture of cronyism. “The wonderland of coteries and caucuses,” he remarked, “has distracted and distorted the politics of the Congress and even other parties long enough.” And “coteries by their very nature distort grassroots political processes. Chosen for specific superficial qualities, they exclude important points of view from their virtually captive leader. That gives rise to the pathetic phenomena of even governors, chief ministers and senior ministers being required to meet first with a member of a coterie who is then empowered to decide whether the captive leader should be troubled with the real problems of the nation. By the time the leader, whosoever he be, realises the inadequacy of his establishment, the damage is already done.”
In 1991 the incumbent Prime Minister was Narasimha Rao, a product entirely of the coterie culture developed by Indira Gandhi after she split the Congress in 1969. Before 1969, the Congress had independent-minded leaders as well as zestful party activists across India; after 1969, it was run by a High Command based in New Delhi. Rao himself had worked his way up through being a devoted loyalist of Indira and then Rajiv Gandhi; thrust unexpectedly into the office of Prime Minister, he then developed a coterie of his own, likewise disconnected from grassroots political processes.
In the quarter-of-a-century since Nauriya’s article was published, the coterie culture of the Congress has intensified in New Delhi, while party units have atrophied across India. The Gujarat riots and Sonia Gandhi’s perceived sacrifice won the party a temporary bump in the polls, but now it is once more paying the costs of operating in the wonderland of coteries and caucuses. Even Congress chief ministers have to curry favour with Rahul Gandhi’s “advisers”, which is why the party’s state units across India are so moribund.
Writing in 1991, and at a time when the First Family was out of power, Anil Nauriya still hoped that the degradation could be arrested. The Congress, he wrote, “had to tidy up a mess that has long prevailed in its house”. I do not believe Nauriya has that hope anymore. As for Nirala’s Kulli Bhatt, were he to be reborn, he would see today’s Congress as the faded, corrupted, photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of an original for which he had so selflesslessly worked back in the 1930s.
The English monarch Charles II is said to have told his subjects: “I have been an unconscionable time dying, and I beg you to excuse it.” The Congress party has taken far too long to die as well. Once so vital to the history of the nation, it has become an impediment to its future development. Its sluggish, purposeless existence has constrained the emergence of the constructive and credible Opposition that the country so sorely needs. Now, a necessary (but of course not sufficient) condition for India to flourish may be that the Congress should first perish.
o o o
Perish the Thought
My friend Ramachandra Guha made a kind reference in the Hindustan Times, November 20, 2016, to my article published 25 years ago in the Economic and Political Weekly, November 23, 1991, entitled ‘Indian National Congress : Its Place in Politics’.
While I appreciate his analysis and even agree with most of what he has written, it is his conclusion that is somewhat problematic. I rather doubt whether his notion that a ‘necessary condition...for India to flourish may be that the Congress should first perish’ follows from anything in my article of 1991 or indeed from the reasoning in his own column in the Hindustan Times 25 years later.
The crisis before India today is too grave for any commentator seriously to suggest the wiping out of a major political party, much less a political party whose history is entwined with nation-formation in India. Regardless of what happens to the Congress, I certainly mind its replacement by a formation which has no roots in our freedom movement or in its values.
Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that in a democracy diverse points of view have their legitimate place. This is especially so at the present juncture when the need for the emergence of a strong Opposition should be self-evident.
It is often contrary to the public interest for political entities representing important approaches and world-views to perish, or disappear entirely as organisations, from the political scene.
We have some telling instances of this in the not-too-distant past that would amply illustrate the point..
A triple historical error occurred when in founding the Janata Party in 1977 a merger took place of various parties including the Congress (O), the then Socialist Party and the Bharatiya Lok Dal (into which the erstwhile Swatantra Party had already merged). It might, in retrospect, have been better to have had an open coalition than a merger of parties. It is worth pondering the consequences of the merger which led to the organisational disappearance of vital elements from the political spectrum.
After the split in the Congress in 1969 the Congress (O) and Mrs Indira Gandhi’s party had functioned as separate political entities both claiming the Congress legacy.
The merger of the Congress (O) into the Janata Party deprived the country of this alternative Congress tradition. With the disappearance of the Congress (O), Mrs Gandhi’s Congress became the sole legatee, in an organisational sense, of the historical Congress tradition. A decline in the fortunes of the epigones of Mrs Gandhi’s party thus came to carry, on the face of it, historical connotations rather than a mere contemporary political implication.
Likewise, the merger of the Socialist Party with the Janata Party deprived the polity of a non-casteist socialist formation which till then was, at least according to the Draft Platform of the Socialist Party issued in 1972, anxious to confront the communal-sectarian forces in the country.
The extinction of the Swatantra Party, with its merger first into the Bharatiya Lok Dal (BLD), and then of the BLD with the Janata Party, deprived the country of a secular Right-wing, as represented by the Swatantra (as distinct from a religious-sectarian Right-wing that is currently predominant).
This is what the perishing of important political parties can lead to—a terrible narrowing of options for the Indian people. That is why I consider the slogan adopted by one political party in the previous General Elections, seeking a “Congress-Mukt Bharat”, as having been ill-advised and even irresponsible, apart, of course, from being ahistorical.
Guha is too sensitive a student of contemporary India seriously to intend such an outcome, particularly when the Congress is not the only political party with undemocratic structures or covert controls, whether from within the formal organisation or without.And I am certain he would not, on reflection, support such a result, at a time when the Congress has already been considerably weakened, a post-2014 strong Opposition has yet to emerge, political and social fissures have recently been sharply deepened, the legal system is in crisis, incredulous encounter deaths are on the rise, and the country is in the midst of a peculiar economic and currency emergency in the bringing about of which the currently unfortunate political party that has been marked out to perish is surely not responsible.