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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 39, September 17, 2011

How Deep is the Rot?

Friday 23 September 2011, by Nikhil Chakravartty



Bihar and Uttar Pradesh together have long been regarded as the traditional homeland of the Congress. These two States together constitute an almost overwhelming bloc in Parliament, and all the Prime Ministers of India but one have come from Uttar Pradesh. The Central Ministers from this region easily outnumber those from any other region; inevitably this has been most conspicuous under the Congress than under the Janata Raj.

It is therefore natural to regard these two States as providing the barometer of the health of the Congress. In fact, this stretch of Indian soil forming the basin of India’s two mighty rivers, Ganga and Jamuna, has long set the tone of Congress culture.

Viewed in this background, the striking deterioration in the standard of Congress functioning in these two States should serve as a warning not only to the leadership of the ruling party but to the nation as a whole. It is not enough to say that the Congress in these two States is riddled with factions: perhaps it was always so in the past. But when faction fights reach a point of physical violence, when a Congress MP was so brutally assaulted in the presence of the Pradesh Congress chief that he had to be hospitalised—as happened only has a few days ago at Kanpur—then one to concede that the rot has reached a new dimension.

The Kanpur clash is not an isolated incident. It fits into the pattern of degeneration that could be regarded as inescapable given the sorry state of things around. It does not require much research to say that Viswanath Pratap Singh’s resignation from the post of Chief Minister of UP although submitted in the wake of the massacre of Harijans and Yadavas in Mainpuri and Kanpur districts, was actually motivated by the fore-knowledge that his faction—more precisely, his caste faction—has ceased to enjoy the patronage of the high-ups in his party, and his ouster was only a matter of weeks, if not days. By taking the initiative himself of stepping down from office, he might have missed the chance of getting a berth in the Union Council of Ministers as the Prime Minister was reportedly thinking to provide for him since personally he had not earned her displeasure. The new dispensation which is sought to be installed in the UP Congress started with the appointment of Mohsina Kidwai as the President of the Pradesh Congress. The ugly scuffle among Congressmen that took place in her presence at Kanpur on July 4 will no doubt serve as an ominous portent for her. The change of guards does not necessarily lift the standard of political conduct.

If in UP Viswanath Pratap Singh resigned after the Harijan massacres, no such compulsion or compunction moved the Bihar Chief Minister to follow suit after the gruesome murder of six Harijans by upper-caste landlords in a village in Aurangabad district followed by the murderous clash between two groups in Monghyr. This is because Dr Jagannath Mishra is confident that his faction can safely hold out against all others inside the Pradesh Congress.

Whether the Bihar Chief Minister’s self-confidence is justified or not, there is no gain-saying that this has generated an attitude of disdain towards what may be regarded as public opinion. The demand in the Bihar Assembly for a debate on the Monghyr incident was flouted by the Mishra Ministry with the Speaker oblivious to the need for taking up the matter urgently in the Assembly. The pandemonium that broke loose in the House leading to the ejection of as many as ninetyseven MLAs in two consecutive days brings out the utter degeneracy of political life in Bihar. If the Opposition behaved like a bunch of rowdies, the Ministry fared no better having demonstrated its provocatively dehumanised attitude to the sufferings of the common people with whose vote it had come to office.

The enormity of the Bihar Ministry’s criminal apathy to what has been happening in the State can hardly be comprehended by focusing attention on these two incidents, however shocking these might have been. In every walk of life, not only does one come across a spate of violence but rampant corruption. From the running of railways through the State to the management of hospitals, schools, colleges and universities, the stink of corruption reaches high heavens and the Ministers in office with records that would have put their forefathers to shame. This is the picture of Bihar: if there is any State where the charge of breakdown of administration can be applied with the least fear of contra-diction, it is Bihar indeed.

But Indira Gandhi would not easily wield her broomstick to clean up the Augean’s stables, because of the lurking fear that any drastic treatment might cost the Congress-I Ministry itself. After all, defection, though perfected in Haryana, is not the monopoly of that State alone. Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra and Orissa—it is difficult to find a State where the Congress-I Ministries are not haunted by the spectre of defections. Haryana has of course helped to embolden the prospective defector: he is armed with the knowledge that defection is not even formally punished but, on the contrary, amply rewarded. The authority of the so-called Congress High Command has passed into the realm of mythology.

Those who try to diagnose the malady of the Congress Ministries as being due to the disharmony between the Pradesh Congress leadership and the Ministerial team, between what is called the party and the government, are really living in a world of make-believe. The slide down in Congress functioning has gone too far to permit any such tussle based on the concept of the movement-versus-administration. That was the issue that used to harass the Congress in the thirties and possibly uptil the fifties, and that is the issue which today might be proving a headache for the Left Front Ministries whether in West Bengal, Kerala or Tripura. But so far as the Congress today is concerned, the problem is how to keep under leash the warring factions, and they are widely interspersed over the Ministries and legislature parties. As for the party organisation—outside the clan of the legislature party—it is virtually a signboard organisation, revived from time to time at the time of elections with a convoy of jeeps and a battery of loudspeakers.

If one talks to a Congressman of the old vintage, invariably he comments about the lack of a party organisation. In moments of honest introspection, he or she concedes that after the great split of 1969, there has been no party-building worth the name. Different executive bodies were adhoc appointed or sanctioned by the top. Since 1978, that is, after the final split which gave birth to the Congress-I, every Committee is formed as ordained by the Party President, that is, Indira Gandhi herself. If Chavan is left in the cold and Bhajan Lal is admitted, it is by virtue of the decision of the Party President.

For sometime, the Congress circles were excited at the prospect of their organisation being rejuvenated by the up-and-coming Youth Congress and Sanjay Gandhi was held aloft as an avatar. But the elements that were found to flock around him were by and large of the type which would have fitted better into a mafia, hardly the mettle needed to run a democratic organisation or to rule over a functioning democracy. Most of these elements are being unobtrusively weeded out; obviously Indira Gandhi has found most of them to be a liability than an asset. The Maneka controversy brings out in a manner the liability left behind by the Sanjay tradition: essentially, the Maneka clique represents what Sanjay stood for.

In UP Congress policies, the process of gentle purge which Indira Gandhi seems to have undertaken has brought out another element of the problem: in working out the election strategy of 1979, Indira Gandhi, along with Sanjay, had patronised rather conspicuously the Rajput elements, and this was taken by the Brahmins as a threat to their preserve. In the overhauling of the UP Congress, the elimination of Rajputs from key positions is only to be expected. And with it the possibility of heightened tension within the party organisation can hardly be ruled out.

Would Indira Gandhi try to rebuild a proper party organisation? As far one can make out, she is averse to the building of a well-knit party. For her, the emergence of the party structure would lead to the reappearance of the party bosses of the Syndicate type. She prefers, it seems, only a vast, amorphous collection bound by loyalty to her person. It is not just an accident that most of the Congress Chief Ministers of today openly proclaim that they owe their office to the grace and kindness of Indira Gandhi: they hardly claim to be the leader by virtue of their own hold on the party or the masses. And this is also the candid claim of the Congress candidate for the current Presidential poll.

There are senior leaders in the Congress-I who are worried about the alarming disinte-gration of the party. They feel that once the Presidential poll is over, there will be urgent need to build the party and as the first step towards it, they are keen on having organi-sational elections on the basis of membership drive. Some of them, to gain the Prime Minister’s ear, are pressing for Rajiv Gandhi to devote himself to the running of the AICC office. But even these elements do not have the faintest idea how to go about holding organisational elections. The Pradesh Congress organisations are either defunct or hopelessly divided while there has been no membership enrolment for years.

But the more mature among the senior Congressmen are not so optimistic about the future. They are sceptic about the efficacy of holding organisational elections. As one of them very wisely explained, vested interests have come to dominate the party organisations over the years at various levels, by the strengths of their money power which the party had used during the elections. So, once the organisational elections are set in motion, these vested interests would push through their own cronies and edge out whatever old and honest Congress elements are still left in the party.

Indira Gandhi has been repeatedly emphasising the urgency of implementing the Twenty-Point Programme: special bodies have been set up in the government for this purpose. Exhortations galore have gone out. But without an organised mass movement can any such programme be implemented? And no organised mass movement will be possible without the transmission belt of a mass political organisation. This is precisely what her Congress could have taken up, had it cared to build an organisation.

In the hot-house atmosphere of Emergency, the Congress planned to set up implementation committees for the Twenty-Point Programme. Nothing emerged—not because there was any lack of funds. Rather the surefeit of funds—not all of which was honestly collected, to say the least—created the illusion that everything could be built with money. The more hard-headed in the set-up thought that the elections at least could be managed with huge accumulation of funds. The election of 1977 disproved this thesis, but the thesis itself has not been rejected. In the dark days of hibernation, 1977-1979, funds were not only carefully stored but more were collected. However, the 1980 elections were won by Indira Gandhi’s party not by the strength of funds, but by the strength of the fact that the Janata having broken to pieces through its own follies and shortcomings, the electorate rejected it and brought Indira Gandhi back to power. It was thus not a case of funds that settled the question of electoral victory, but the strength of politics.

Today, the only politics that dominate the Congress is the politics of how to hold on to power. What is missed is that power can slip out of the grasp of any party if it fails to respond to the needs and urges of the masses. Callousness to the problems facing the underprivileged millions and concentration on the acquisition of ill-gotten wealth can kill a ruling party, however powerful, or an opposition, however vociferous. The future of the Congress-I, as also of every party in this country today, depends on its qualifying by that test in the eyes of the masters of Indian democracy, the millions who toil and periodically come to exercise their vote.

(Mainstream, July 10, 1982)

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