The country is passing through a period which will be remembered for a momentous event – the journey’s end for the Congress, one of the world’s oldest parties which was formed in 1885. The actual demise may still take a few years. But, preparations are on for the last rites.
The reason why the Congress is going down is the same process of decay which affects individuals and families. In the case of the Congress, the individual which took it to the heights of glory was Jawaharlal Nehru, personally chosen by Mahatma Gandhi to lead the country in the post-independence period.
Nehru’s two positive contributions were the establishment of democracy, which eluded many newly independent countries, and strengthening of the concept of secularism, which prevented India from becoming a “Hindu Pakistan”, as many had feared, with the minorities living as second class citizens.
However, the negative aspect of his policy related to the belief that India should embrace a “socialistic pattern of society”, as a Congress resolution of 1955 stated. However, it was under Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, that “socialism” reached its zenith.
Its distinguishing features were, in Indira’s time, a controlled economy where income tax rates reached 97 per cent, banks were nationalized, companies identified as monopoly concerns were not allowed to expand production even if there was a high demand for their goods and price control on virtually everything – from paper to steel, from tyres to cement, from medicines to cars.
Indira’s reign also marked the tacit acceptance of the dynastic principle by the Nehru-Gandhi family since she encouraged her ill-behaved younger son, Sanjay, to play a leading role in the party. But, it was Indira’s version of socialism which the present Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, learned when she arrived in India as Rajiv Gandhi’s wife and lived as a member of Indira’s household.
Along with socialism, Sonia also apparently imbibed Indira’s cynicism, which was reflected most starkly when Indira imposed the Emergency in 1975 to throttle Nehru’s prime achievement – the establishment of democracy. Indira’s belief was that the Congress had to be kept in power at all costs – even if it meant turning India into a banana republic.
In Sonia’s case, the tactics for retaining power by hook or by crook involved turning a blind eye to corruption like the 2G spectrum scam in which the then telecom minister, Andimuthu Raja, was implicated lest any step against him made Raja’s party, the DMK, withdraw support from the Manmohan Singh government.
Sonia also played the regressive caste card, compelling the government to include castes in the census data in 2011 after a gap of 80 years – the practice was stopped in 1931 – and also floating the idea of reservations in educational institutions and for employment in government offices for the backward castes among Muslims. Although Islam does not recognize the Hindu caste system, the converts to Islam from Hinduism generally retain their original caste identity.
What has hurt the Congress the most, however, is Sonia’s failure to understand how India has changed since Indira’s time. It was after the transition from a controlled economy to an open, market-oriented system which made large sections of Indians, especially those belonging to the middle classes, realize that a buoyant economy offers greater opportunities for advancement in life than reservations based on caste.
It was Narendra Modi who understood this new attitude among the younger generation, which is why he has projected himself as pro-business who is intent on growth. The Congress, however, is adhering to its left-of-centre policies presumably because the economic reforms which its own government introduced in 1991 were the handiwork of Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh who were the prime minister and finance minister at the time.
Had the reforms been thought up by a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family, the Congress might have accepted them as a continuation of Nehru’s vision of development. After all, he had described dams as the temples of modern India, underlining his preference for industrialisation.
But, right from the ’90s and especially after the Congress’s defeat in the general election of 1996, the party has been voicing its reservations about the reforms, describing them as pro-rich.
Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for Sonia to initiate a process of rolling back the reforms in the last years of the Manmohan Singh government and pushing, instead, the populist measures favoured by her “kitchen cabinet”, the National Advisory Council (NAC), comprising crypto-communists.
If a single reason has to be given for the Congress’s defeat in the 2014 general election and in the subsequent assembly polls, it is the retreat from reforms which led to a fall in the growth rate and spread a sense of doom and gloom, which was effectively exploited by Modi.
Another reason is the increasing popular revulsion against the demeaning sycophancy of Congressmen towards the family, when it is clear that neither Sonia nor her son, Rahul, described in a television programme as a “dumbo”, has the requisite leadership qualities or the intellectual ability to lead a country of India’s size and complexity.
It is patently the degeneration of the family, whose first signs were evident in the behaviour of Sanjay Gandhi in the 1970s, which is steadily eroding the party’s influence if only because in popular perception, the family and the party are one. Unless the Congressmen break away from the family’s apron-strings, they will continue to head towards their doom.