Withering of Indian National Congress

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By Prem Prakash

India National Congress was formed in 1885 at the initiative of a British national resident in India, Alan Octavian Hume so that Indians could get their rightful representation in the ruling British government. At the inaugural session held in Bombay from December 28 to 31, UC Banerjee was elected the first president of the Party. The fact that this party decided to seek independence came much later after great sacrifices in Punjab.

For the first 35 years after its formation in 1885, the Congress party seemed reconciled with the British rule. It was dominated by the rich and upper-middle-class as also by several British residents in India. Between the years 1888 and 1917, the Congress Party had presidents with British national background on six occasions just as the Party today has Sonia Gandhi, an Italian-born Indian citizen as its president.

The Party began getting a mass base when Mahatma Gandhi came back to India at the instance of Gopal Krishna Gokhale. It was in 1901 Calcutta session that Gandhi first appeared on the Congress platform but there was no rebellion against British rule. He supported the British during the World War 1 in the hope of getting Dominion status for India after the war with British monarch continuing to be the head of state of India.

Nevertheless, Mahatma Gandhi’s entry into Indian politics took the party towards the mass base from an elitist platform that it had been. However, the demand for only a Dominion Status still remained.

When Mahatma Gandhi launched the boycott of British goods in 1920, the campaign drew a massive response from India’s people. It was then that the Congress now truly became the mass-based political organisation with roots in villages and towns. In March 1922 Gandhi ji was arrested and charged against sedition and sentenced to six years imprisonment. He was, however, released in 1924 after a surgery that he had to go through. The fact was that the British did not treat him as a political prisoner. He suffered the same way as he did during his agitations in South Africa.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with Sonia Gandhi and Dr. Manmohan Singh during Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting at AICC HQ in New Delhi on 6 August 2019

After recovering from surgery, Gandhi ji got back deep into active politics, however, at the Calcutta session of the Congress in 1928, he proposed a resolution demanding Dominion Status for India, failing which he threatened mass Satyagraha. It is important to remember here that this was all that the Congress demanded till it was shaken to its roots by the killing of Lala Lajpat Rai in Punjab in 1928, followed by the actions of Bhagat Singh and his colleagues. It was they who demanded complete independence for India from colonial rule.

The killing of Lala Lajpat Rai and the trial of Bhagat Singh and his colleagues had electrified not only Punjab but the whole of India against the British. The people of India were disappointed with the leadership of Gandhi and the Congress for not supporting them vociferously. They seemed insulated from public opinion. It was in this background that on December 31, 1929, that Jawahar Lal Nehru presiding over the 44th session of the Congress in Lahore raised the tricolour on the banks of river Ravi demanding “Purna Swaraj” – Complete Independence for India.

It is important to understand all this background on how the party became a vehicle to fight for Indian independence. It must also be remembered that sacrifice of Bhagat Singh and his colleagues had now made it less draconian for freedom fighters to court arrest as Bhagat Singh and his colleagues had succeeded, during their trial, to be recognised as political prisoners and not criminals. Bhagat Singh had boldly declared that they were at war against the foreign ruler and as such if arrested they had certain rights.

Indian National Congress at its 45th session in Karachi under the presidentship of Sardar Vallabbhai Patel re-iterated the goal of “Purna Swaraj” or complete independence. It also placed on record the great bravery and sacrifice of Bhagat Singh and his colleagues Rajguru and Sukhdev who were hanged together with Bhagat Singh. The fourth comrade Jatin Das died during the hunger strike in jail. His body was taken to Calcutta for the funeral led by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.

Seeing all the above background and how Congress became a major vehicle to lead India towards Independence, it is sad to notice its slow and painful demise. For 18 years in a row now, Sonia Gandhi has continued to be the president with a brief interlude of Rahul Gandhi. The stranglehold of the Gandhi family at the party is complete. Upcoming young leaders are not encouraged. It is sad to see them leaving the Congress instead of seeking to revive it from the grassroots to the very top. Perhaps that is not being encouraged or they lack the will.

That Parliamentary system or for that matter any democratic system flourishes when there are at least two main parties on the national scene. What we are witnessing since 2014 is the decimation of opposition. There are regional parties present in Parliament – many in the Opposition, but India has had no Leader of Opposition since 2014. The Congress Party, towards which many in India still look at with awe and reverence as the party that won us Independence, is steadily getting decimated with lack of inner-party democracy. Gone are the days of those great sessions of the Party where grass-root delegates from all over India were present in hundreds.

It will be a sad day for India’s democracy if it is reduced to de facto one-party rule. Granted that India needs a strong leader today to face the situation where a new world is emerging with an expansionist China flexing its muscles right on our borders. If there is a responsible opposition party with backing of the mass of people of India, at least it can in a responsible way to ensure consensus and evolve a unified voice of India in this new world. In the absence of a major opposition party one only hears a cacophony of dissenting views.

Can the young leaders within the Congress party or those who have even left it unite and attempt to bring life to the great party? This author is aware that the late Rajesh Pilot was going to challenge the stranglehold of the family on Congress. Later it was Jitendra Prasad who was determined to do that, but again like Pilot, Prasada too died before they could do what they had wanted to.

At present, it appears like none of the young leaders either have the energy or gumption to do break free. Congress is facing a crisis similar to the one Mrs Indira Gandhi faced in 1969 when she dislodged the old order that came to be known as Syndicate controlling the party. Those proud of India’s democracy live in hope that a vibrant opposition party emerges from the mess that the Congress is in currently and India’s democracy saved.

(The author of this opinion piece is New Delhi based veteran journalist and Chairman of ANI.)