As the Congress stares at a crisis with a string of political defections in Karnataka and Goa, both party haters and its well-wishers are asking if Congress’ ideology is outdated. Why is it not able to retain even its existing base, forget attracting new talent?
The Congress’ core ideology is not outdated, instead the party has moved away from it over the last few decades. Almost simultaneously, its support base too has shrunk. The party was never an ideological monolith or organisational behemoth, but it had a liberal, moral world view.
It is this spirit of idealism that defines the Congress, or at least used to. Mahatma Gandhi’s moral crusade and Jawaharlal Nehru’s modernism — the two pillars that gave the party its ideological base — were perfectly integrated into the Congress’s character. With the decline of idealism and the moral fibre, and the rise of hedonism — the so-called “killer instinct” philosophy of “success” — the Congress now seems to have lost that character.
Since the party does not have a cadre like the RSS, nor does it have card-carrying members like the Left Front, it will have to bring back that idealism, if it wants to revive itself.
What Congress had
The congress was born in 1885, four years before Nehru’s birth in 1889. Several leaders over the decades became the party’s face, but Nehru’s shadow hovers over it. Somehow, nearly a century later, the BJP still feels threatened by that shadow.
But there is something in that chequered history of the 135-year-old party, which ruled this vast multi-lingual, multi-religious, multi-caste, hierarchy-obsessed mass of people for over 55 years, that at once provides inspiration but also puts a burden on Rahul Gandhi, who is expected to carry the Nehruvian cross.
The Congress has had many mass organisations — Indian National Trade Union, Kisan Congress, National Students’ Union of India, legal and human rights department and various cells. All these organisations as well as those active on other social fronts helped the poor and took up causes like setting up schools, promoting literacy classes, organising community activities, including religious festivals, and helping various aggrieved Dalit and Muslim youth groups.
Over the years, those ties became weak. The recruitment of new members began to dwindle. Only the traditional Congress families with access to power survived. To retain that access, they promoted family members in politics. The unrestricted access to power brought money and networks of small and big businesses, which in turn enriched them but further distanced the party from the people.
How the party lost it
It became clear that personal ambition had replaced social concern. Seeking power, and then holding on to that power, took over the ideological beliefs. Winning elections became more important, and since elections needed money, politics was monetised. In this environment, individualism and cynicism enveloped the political consciousness of the party leaders and the second and third rankers.
Today, fronts like even the Youth Congress have lost touch with the targeted community, and have become entry points for power. The social disconnect was concomitant with the rise of the new middle class, emerging prosperity and opportunities created by modernisation policies of Rajiv Gandhi and liberalisation policies of Manmohan Singh. Now, they are merely chapters in the Congress’s distinguished history.
Where someone like Rahul Gandhi, or his successor, will face trouble today in addressing this uncertain future that the Congress is confronted with is in the fact that the party’s glorious past and argumentative legacy has been made irrelevant.
Was there a turning point?
The Congress during its inception was a social organisation aiming for political recognition from the British rulers. Then it became a nationalist movement. After the rise of international socialism, the Congress acquired its socialist idealism. At the end of the second World War and with the rise of western liberalism, the party emerged as a defender of libertarian causes. Its cosmopolitanism and secularism came out of tolerance, respect towards “the other”.
The Congress has never been a party with immovable ideological treatise and political shibboleths. It embraced both, the socialist idealism and, later with ease, the liberal economic path. It preferred respect and tolerance towards all religions and social justice to underprivileged, without getting trapped into caste identities.
While trying to explore where and when the Congress began to evolve politically and ideologically, I looked at how the party’s DNA came into being. It is truly fascinating to see how the Congress adapted to its environment in a semi-Darwinian fashion, without giving up some of its basic tenets evolved during the freedom movement.
A journey to the roots
Of the three founding presidents of the Indian National Congress, from 1885 to 1887, one was a Bengali Hindu, the second a Parsee and the third was a Muslim — Womesh Chandra Bonnerjee, Dadabhai Naoroji, and Badruddin Tyabji.
Most of the 72 people gathered to launch the organisation (not yet a political party) were upper caste Hindus. Many of them Vedic scholars or well versed in Indian philosophy and scriptures. They had come wearing their traditional dress and headgears. The initiative was taken by Allan Octavian Hume, a British member of the Imperial Civil Service.
Despite the organisation mostly comprising Brahminical elites rooted in traditions, the Congress elected a Parsee and then a Muslim, in 1886 and 1887, respectively, as its presidents. Bonnerjee, the first president to be elected in 1885, was married to a Hindu, who later converted to Christianity. When he died in England, he was buried without any religious rituals. He was neither an atheist, nor an agnostic.
A.O. Hume, the originator of the idea of Congress, was also a maverick of sorts. Though a Christian, he was a sort of skeptic. He believed more in Theosophy, and was a philosophical disciple of a Tibetan guru. In the late nineteenth century, in the absence of any modern communication devices, it is a fascinating story, perhaps a guide, for today’s leadership how Hume mobilised such diverse people.
Mohandas Gandhi had not become Mahatma nor Jawaharlal had become his disciple. Indeed, exactly 20 years younger, Nehru did not even know Gandhi. When Gandhi was evolving his philosophy of personal and political morality as well as non-violence, Nehru was getting attracted towards Marxist version of Fabian Socialism. And Lokmanya Tilak was emerging as a sort of militant nationalist voice.
There was no pre-defined ideological frame to the Congress. Nor was there a nationwide network of activists. Organisationally, too, the Congress was evolving. But it had the pulse of the people’s sub-conscious mind and the heartbeat of the world’s newly liberating consciousness — the struggle against colonialism, imperialism, racism, apartheid and backwardness.
Although the world has drastically changed today, the values and ideals still remain. They have huge strength and potential. Winning elections is less important than restoring those values. The Congress, before 1947, fought not only for the country’s freedom, but for those values too. The organisation and the huge following for Gandhi, and later Nehru, emerged from that, not from elections and power.
The author is a former editor and Congress member of Rajya Sabha. Views are personal.