Big mistakes. Big successes. Big USPs. Despite its long and chequered history, there are reasons why the Congress is like no other political party in India

By Shoma Chaudhury

Ramachandra Guha Historian
Ramachandra Guha Historian
Photo: Garima Jain

Do you think the Congress has a USP that sets it apart from other political parties? And does it still retain that USP?
Yes, it has an organisational, ideological and historical USP. It has the uniqueness of leading the freedom struggle. The organisational USP is that it is an all-India party, created by party-builders and institutionmakers, none of whom were Nehru-Gandhis. People like Rajendra Prasad, Sardar Patel, K Kamaraj and YB Chavan. Indira Gandhi inherited this. The ideological USP is that in a country as diverse as India, the Congress is a middle-of-the-road, centrist party that tries to take everyone along. To use Mukul Kesavan’s wonderful phrase, it is the “Noah’s Ark of nationalism”. These are the three USPs. But there is also a fourth thing — the charisma of the First Family. Is this charisma a consequence of the first three USPs ? One could argue that but there is one striking quality about this dynasty which is true of Nehru, Indira, Rajiv, Sonia and Rahul. None of them are seen through a regional, religious or linguistic lens. Jyoti Basu was a Bengali leader; LK Advani is a Hindu leader. But when Indira Gandhi was wiped out in the north in 1977, the south still voted for her and Narendra Modi’s “Rome Rajya” taunts on Sonia fell flat.

Is that the Mahatma Gandhi-Nehru legacy?
To be fair, each of them has acquired independent charisma. How they’ve acquired it, requires detailed biographical analysis.

If you were to enlist the major failures of the party over the decades, what would you pick?
There have been errors that had national implications. But I think the Congress is blamed for the wrong things in the 1950s. I don’t think Nehru’s ‘mixed economy’ was a wrong idea. That was what was needed at the time; even the industrialists wanted it. China was a misjudgement — Nehru chose the wrong person as defence minister. But essentially, it was two great civilisations coming out of colonial rule, seeking to find their way in the world and rubbing against each other. The Congress’ failure in the 1950s was the lack of a will to provide universal education to all citizens, something Mahatma Gandhi would have focussed on. In the 40s and 50s, you had a reservoir of social capital — an idealistic middle class groomed by the Independence movement. If we’d put them to work on schooling everyone, as was done in 19th century Europe and other ex-colonial countries like Vietnam and Cuba, we’d have been in a different position.

The failure of the 60s and 70s is Indira Gandhi’s idea of a committed bureaucracy and judiciary. The autonomy of institutions was destroyed. The failure of the 80s would be Rajiv Gandhi going back on the Shah Bano issue and opening the locks in Ayodhya. The failure of the 90s is that the Babri Masjid demolition was allowed to happen. And there is the rampant corruption — there is no excuse for Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh not to have checked it. I’m certain if A Raja was sacked even in the first term, the government would not have fallen. And the message sent would have been different. To Nehru’s credit, on issues such as Hindu reform and universal franchise, he went against his own party. Sometimes, brave decisions need to be taken. The party has also become too Delhi-centric and has lost its organisational robustness. There is also a real crisis of leadership now. This model of separating the government and the party has not worked. Tough decisions cannot happen with multiple consultation. Either Sonia Gandhi should become PM or Manmohan Singh should have fought the Lok Sabha election and achieved some power in his own right.

What would you pick as Congress’ successes?
The biggest one is still its inclusive idea.

Apart from the dynasty, who do you feel could have made prime minister? Nehru should probably have left in 1958 or ’59. The tragedy remains that Shastri died too young. Once Indira Gandhi took over, there was no question of anybody else being countenanced. My hunch is Rahul is much more ambivalent about becoming PM. Congress had many people who could have been PM but their statesman-like qualities were kept in check, hostage to the party mentality of deference and hierarchy.

The Congress is losing ground in the states. Is its pan-India appeal just an idea rather than a political reality?
The Congress has not been smart about responding to the Dalit and OBC challenge. For example, Sonia Gandhi would have been smart if she would have named MGNREGA after Ambedkar but the Congress lacks that kind of daring. But in a national election, I think it still has an advantage. In a local context, people may vote for a regional party but in a national election, the narrow-mindedness of the BJP and other parties will cause problems. And while federalism is a good idea, the Centre can still direct many things like conflicts in Kashmir and the Northeast, forest rights and foreign policy.

There is a crisis of leadership now. The party has also become too Delhi-centric and has lost its organisational robustness’

Congress 2010 — do you think it still has any of the moral voice of its founders?
Obviously not. But as the British politician Enoch Powell said, all political lives end in failure. If you look at Nehru, Indira, Rajiv and Manmohan Singh, they all did good things at one time and Sonia revived the Congress. But all of them threw it away in the latter part of their tenure. The goodwill is dissipated after a few years in power, replaced by apathy and opportunism.

Most nations are based on an idea of one dominant language and community. The Indian subcontinent was so diverse when the British left, it could have easily fractured into dozens of nations. What is the trick of history that allowed us to be this Noah’s Ark?
The trick of history is Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru. Tagore’s contribution is not appreciated enough. Gandhi’s experience in South Africa was even more crucial. Nehru, of course, was mentored by Gandhi. In a country so divided, you can’t have the European model of nationalism. The BJP can never replicate the Congress because of its roots in the RSS and the idea of a Hindu nation. So the alternatives to the Congress’ idea of India is either Naxalism or balkanisation. Most Indians don’t want that.

So would it be true to say that if the Congress had not existed, India would not have been the way it is?
Absolutely. India would not have existed as a single, unitary country, however fragile and tenuous the unity is.