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I saw in Rahul Gandhi’s Cambridge talk a 1915 Congress moment: Shruti Kapila

Easy to mock Rahul Gandhi at Cambridge, but he's right in remaking Congress as party of protest not power.

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Of all the barbs and brickbats that came flooding on my various digital endpoints last week after I held a conversation with Rahul Gandhi in Cambridge, one hit hard. Trolling in India is an industrialised and monetised activity and its ability to distort truth in this instance was neither the first nor will it be the last. Though vexatious, trolling only proved that the Cambridge conversation had indeed rattled the Congress leader’s political opponents.

A series of WhatsApp messages from a friend in Delhi did though get under my skin. Now, this is a friend who has been hospitable to me, and this friendship has given me reason to believe that the city is not all toxic. The friend is no Right-winger but proceeded to prophesise that Rahul Gandhi and the Indian National Congress were two different and even antagonistic entities that would only end very badly. Mansplaining Kapil Sibal’s departure as a smoking gun of the Congress party’s doom, it was infuriating to be patronised but touching to see that Sibal still evoked such sympathy for his tawdry need of office. He had only repeated older Congressmen (men underlined) who too had predictably landed similar taunts and prophecies on my phone.

As ever, when faced with political prophecies, history, to my mind and habits, offers the best instruction and fortification against political astrology and fantasy.

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Mahatma and the Congress

On his return to India in 1915, after two long decades in South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi encountered a shambolic, faction-ridden Indian National Congress with as many self-appointed leaders as causes and convictions ranging from other-worldly spiritualists to rigid Marxists. He found the Congress largely occupied by lawyers and the party still reeling from its original split a decade earlier in 1907 over the twinned themes of religion and violence alongside the spectacular failure of its mass Swadeshi movement.

Gandhi was already an international public figure by then thanks to his iconic Satyagraha in South Africa on the issue of racialised identification for Indians there. By then, Gandhi had also encountered in London the garam dal (or ‘extremists’) and hot-headed young men given to the temptations of violence, including and above all, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. Gandhi’s idiosyncratic manifesto Hind Swaraj published in 1909 was addressed to his volatile critics both inside and outside the Congress who had found and labelled him slow, weak and all too tame. By 1940, no less than Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, had labelled Gandhi the Fuhrer since, according to Jinnah, the Mahatma commanded total authority in the Congress without holding a single party office.

Jinnah was correct to recognise that the ascendancy of the Congress was equal to the authority of Gandhi. Gandhi had effectively transformed a moribund party into the largest and most powerful machine of protest in the world. Turning his back on well-heeled if articulate lawyers, Gandhi painstakingly built a wide social coalition of the peasantry, Muslims, women, and the labouring poor across the country and its regions. This was achieved over the course of three major protest movements — one a decade — punctuated as these were by smaller satyagrahas and long spells of retreat and even silence, to say nothing of prison sentences. Gandhi attracted back to India men such as N.S. Hardikar (from America) who founded the Seva Dal in 1923, a Congress volunteer body created two years prior to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Overturning its annual ritual of tamashas usually held in colonial cities like Bombay or Calcutta, Gandhi converted the Congress into a body of unlimited membership marked by everyday voluntarism and sacrifice. The party membership price came down to an anna and shrill debating gave way to active mobilisation. Lean in its bureaucratic structure and in devolving the work of a shadow government, primarily to Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi ensured that the transition from protest to power at Independence for the party was seamless. This transition to power was, however, arguably despite Gandhi.

It is indeed a fact that Gandhi held no office in the Indian National Congress. It is now a standard question asked on the Indian history undergraduate paper here at Cambridge: whether the Congress became a mass party because of or despite Gandhi? Realists and hard-nosed purveyors of power dismiss his role as a cynical Machiavelli, just the way Jinnah did. Idealists and those interested in explaining changed rules of the game — rather than simply accounting for institutional power — credit Gandhi for transforming Indian politics and ushering in decolonisation and Indian democracy. In short, it is precisely because he was of the Congress but not beholden to it that Gandhi emerged as the superman of Indian politics. That he was frail, not a hectoring strongman in a hurry and dare I say, an effeminate Gandhi’s politics of patience and sacrifice continues to both inspire and divide.

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The INC today

In declaring a mass protest movement as the only option to revive and remake the Congress, as he did at Cambridge, Rahul Gandhi openly seeks inspiration from the Mahatma. It would be foolish to compare the two men. What, however, certainly bears comparison is the state of the Congress in 1915 and in 2022. Few, it would seem within the Congress, have realised that it is no longer a party of power. The noisy and unseemly jostling for berths in the Upper House, or the staking out of family fiefdoms, or mobilising of factions and generations — all such shenanigans belong to a bygone era when the party and its leadership could afford to run its complex structure through accommodation. The search for patronage, and internal party offices by Congress members is suicidal, both individuals and the party. That those seeking such petty goods articulate these demands with lashings of grand ideals and purpose, gives it the definite appearance of a tantrum thrown by a child whose toys have been taken away.

Whether it is the carping of the older gentlemen of the G-23 faction or the fulminating commentariat’s total fixation with him as the prime suspect, both confirm Rahul Gandhi’s leadership, if only perversely. My Delhi friend’s scornful WhatsApp messages to me confirm it again.

The hollow juggernaut that the Congress party today is can only be remade as a party of power by mass protest. For that, it will have to swap the search for influence and individual careerism for an arduous commitment to resistance. The internal psychodrama is now a totally boring but entirely damaging distraction. Protest will radicalise the origins of the Congress for a new if dangerous era. What is clear is that in affirming his conviction in political protest, Rahul Gandhi has realised that what is at stake is the future of India’s identity over and above that of the fortunes of the Indian National Congress.

Shruti Kapila is Associate Professor of Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @shrutikapila. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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