CAN the Congress Party be retrieved? This was the question posed to me. Another one is whether or not the party is relevant. Answering the last question first, I said that a 150-year-old organization, which has loyal members even in the remotest rural areas cannot be irrelevant. The Congress led the independence movement and has ruled the country for more than five decades.
For my generation, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel who were the top two leaders of the Congress are icons and I cannot forget the sacrifices the people made under their leadership. Their words counted and people would gather at their call whenever or wherever they made. Then, the Congress was India and India was the Congress.
The situation began to change after the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, who succeeded Nehru. I had the privilege of working as the press officer with Shastri. He had doubts about Nehru’s succession plans and would often say that ‘unke dimaag me to un ki putri hai’ (he has his daughter in mind). But, Shastri would, add that it would not be easy.
This turned out to be true because after the death of Nehru, Morarji Desai was the first one to throw his hat in the ring. Congress President K. Kamaraj did not want Morarji who he considered intractable and not accommodative for a country where it was essential to be conciliatory to take the people of different religions, castes and regions together. Shastri did succeed Nehru but died early because of heart attack at Tashkent where he had gone to sign a peace agreement with General Ayub Khan, Martial Law Administrator of Pakistan. My feeling is that had he lived, relations between India and Pakistan would have normalized. I recall that after hearing the sudden death of Shastri, Ayub came to dacha where the Russians had put up the Indian Prime Minister up.
General Ayub said in my presence, “had he (Shastri) lived Pakistan and India would have become long-lasting friends.” Ayub also became the pallbearer of the coffin that carried Shastri’s body to the aircraft, which flew it to Delhi. I think Ayub did echo the feelings of Pakistan because when I visited the country subsequently people recollected Shastri’s friendship. Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto, then Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, was the spoiler. He did not want to sign a treaty, which would shun violence in settling issues between India and Pakistan. And he flew straight from Tashkent to Islamabad and propagated that Ayub had sold the country to India. What Ayub had conceded was that the differences between India and Pakistan would be settled peacefully.
Shastri had made Ayub to write on the peace draft he had brought along “without resorting to arms.” The hand-written words in the text are retained by the National Archives of India. Although many people in Pakistan doubt this but the fact remains that General Ayub did sign the peace treaty because he, as the Army chief, knew what the devastation the wars caused. With such long and big heritage, the Congress Party cannot be written off. In fact, the very history of independent India begins with the movement, which helped the country roll back the British Raj. It is true that the Congress has come down from the pedestal it had once occupied but it does not mean that it has become irrelevant.
Can the party be retrieved is a difficult question to answer. It had two major segments of followers: Dalits and Muslims. Mayawati, the dalit leader, has cornered the people whom the Hindu religion itself had categorized as sudras (untouchables). In fact, there is no religion in the world, which makes discrimination against its own people as part of its traditions. In fact, if the Hindus were to analyse they would find that the Muslims are converts from Hinduism because it did not treat them as equals, something, which the Islam did. Today when the RSS raises the banner of ghar wapsi, it should realize that such a thing cannot happen until the Hindus give up untouchability which is rampant in rural India. People of different castes may have begun sitting on the same bed, yet they still have separate wells and separate cremation grounds.
The Muslims, after the establishment of Pakistan, have sought a party, which is secular. The Congress, however, was not as firm in its ideology as it was during the days of Nehru and Patel. Still the Muslims had no choice because the only alternative available to them after the Congress, was the Communist Party. But this did not fit into their scheme of things and was too totalitarian and disciplinarian.
For a religion, which has a holy book to follow, there was very little leeway. Islam attracted converts because it gave a sense of equality. Hadees (the spoken words) did give room for personal interpretations. But the loyal say that there could be no deviation from the Book, roughly 1400 years old because these were the world of Allah. Yet the Islam over the years has changed. If it could severe from the rigid path, Hinduism should have no problems of in overhauling itself in the face of modern challenges.
However, discrimination against dalits is so deep that I do not expect many strides in this field. This is a challenge before the Hindus. The experience so far has been far from happy. At the time of elections, some appeals are made and even top Hindu leaders from the Congress eat at the houses of dalits. But all this wears off once the polls are over and people are back to their old moorings of discrimination.
If the Congress wants to retrieve its lost influence, it would have to cleanse its own house. Secularism has become just a word and many Congress leaders are as rabid as the BJP fanatics. Secularism is a commitment, an aptitude of mind. We have included secularism in the preamble of the constitution, but we are far from practising it. And, sometimes, I feel that India is trying to follow Pakistan where people wear religion on their sleeves to prove that they are firms Muslims.
—The writer is a veteran Indian journalist, syndicated columnist, human rights activist and author.