The Congress party’s leadership conundrum is in focus after its dismal performance in state elections
“Ek chavanni chandi ki, Jai bol Mahatma Gandhi ki”. I came across this fascinating slogan in the modern Hindi classic Raag Darbari, though quoted ironically in a different context, in a novel set in the late 1960s post-independence India. My search for the origins of this slogan led me to the Non-Cooperation Movement of 1920-21, which for the first time established the Indian National Congress as a mass party of Indians and Gandhi as its undisputed leader. It was Gandhi who formulated the policy for a boycott of British goods and institutions and went ahead with a public call till the time the British agreed to home rule and atoned for the atrocities committed in the wake of recently passed draconian Rowlatt Act.
The other part of this movement (most often described by the historians as perhaps the most inclusive and the most radical of all the key movements in the Indian struggle), was Gandhi’s call to increase the membership of the Congress, taking it to 10 million within a year. For this, the membership fee was reduced to char annas, a quarter of a rupee. Among other things introduced in the Congress during this period were, creation of state units across India, promotion of Indian languages in place of English during meetings, all positions and offices to be filled via elections, and all former practices distinguishing Congressmen on basis of caste, ethnicity, religion and sex to be eliminated. Gandhi had by then also initiated a network of ashrams across key states in Gujarat, Maharashtra, United Provinces and Bihar among others, that worked in tandem with these state units.
Moreover, Congress also developed a social agenda for its volunteers focussing on untouchability, alcoholism, sanitation, purdah and oppression of women, illiteracy and organisation of national schools and colleges and promotion of khadi as a means of self-reliance, all of which were on the to-do list of Congress volunteers across villages and towns.
So, when Priyanka Gandhi was lauded by a set of liberal analysts for her radical slogan, larki hoon, lar sakti hoon, in the recent by elections, the party was trying to return to an agenda which had its origins within the same organisation. It was ironic to see that, some of these agenda points were hijacked by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party some time ago e.g., sanitation, with an entirely different interpretation given to the ideals of rising beyond caste and ethnicity (and positing a singular Hindu identity in its place), developing a swadeshi curriculum via swadeshi schools and a complete hijacking of the model of Gandhian ashrams for entirely different purposes.
Even when it is the Congress, more than even the traditional Left, which is speaking a language of rights, social justice and emancipation today, it is speaking in a vacuum where there is apparently no technology that can translate this language into a living presence among people across regions and identities.
The result was that while the same Priyanka Gandhi was seen running helter-skelter across the hinterlands of Uttar Pradesh (UP) over several caste, gender-based atrocities, there were few people seen standing behind her. Barely a year ago, when the massive second wave of Covid-19 was killing dozens of people on the streets, Priyanka was praised for taking much needed relief to hundreds of families. Yet, within weeks, the goodwill was lost due to larger structural absence of the party on the ground, resulting in losses even in states like Goa, and Uttarakhand where there was palpably a lot of anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP.
Charismatic leaders are needed, but the leadership gets entrenched only if you have a structured mass presence to back them. People tend to forget that behind the hysteria of Modi charisma there a is deep-rooted presence of an ideology established through Saraswati Shishu Mandirs and Hindu Yuva Vahinis in their various avatars. The digital technologies to back them up came much later although many tend to confuse them for the real culprit. So even when it is the Congress, more than even the traditional Left, (forget about the likes of Aam Admi Party), which is speaking the language of rights, social justice and emancipation today, it is speaking in a vacuum where there is apparently no technology available to translate the rhetoric into a living presence among the people across regions and identities.
So, what options does the Congress Party have right now? There is one shown by Jinnah, who when outsmarted by Gandhi in the wake of Non-Cooperation Movement and its aftermath, decided to go back to practising law in England, living in a semi-hibernation for almost four years till the time political environment became right for him to make a comeback. And there is another shown by Gandhi himself, who in the wake of losing much of his credibility in the wake of Civil Disobedience Movement of the early 1930s, decided to live the life of a hermit, but among his very people, working on untouchability, and what he called social re-construction for almost a decade before launching another full-scale attack against the Raj in 1942.
There is a moving climax scene in the classic The Last Emperor, when after three long hours of documenting the tumultuous years of Chinese revolution, the camera pans to the desolate courtyard of the Forbidden Kingdom, where it shows a lone sweeper cleaning the place around the now vacant throne. The camera then zooms closer to reveal that it’s the child who was once anointed as the emperor of China, now a frail, old man looking forlornly at the throne. One sincerely hopes, the current leaders of the Congress party don’t meet that fate.
The writer has remained associated with social activism for many years and is currently an independent researcher and writer