Rahul seems set to stay on in public life, but can he strike back like Indira?
Rahul, unlike Indira Gandhi, is heading a party that had deviated from his own grandmother’s days. Its record in ruling the country, particularly after the late 1980s, does not inspire confidence that the Congress president can command a team that is committed to the ideas proffered by him.
Even while he seems to hold on to his decision to quit as party president, Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Wayanad and the content of his public statements suggest his intentions: to dig in his heels and stay on in public life. Rahul did indicate this in his address to the Congress Parliamentary Party too. This is not the first time in the long history of the Congress that its leader has set out on a similar task in a situation similar to what the party finds itself in today.
His grandmother, Indira Gandhi, had taken this path not once but twice. First in 1967-69, when Morarji Desai found favour with her adversaries in the party – the Syndicate -- against her. This battle reached its peak at the Bangalore session of the AICC, in July 1969, when they managed to field N Sanjeeva Reddy as the party’s candidate in the elections, scheduled in some months. Indira struck back, pushing nationalization of 14 private banks, outwitting Finance Minister Morarji Desai in the process and even pushing him to react by resigning as both Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.
The Congress party split in December 1969, after it was known that Indira Gandhi ensured the victory of VV Giri as President, defeating the Congress party’s nominee, N Sanjeeva Reddy. She waited until the banks, after nationalization, set up their branches in the countryside and the agrarian community came to experience the good things that bank nationalization brought to their lives, and until the apex court struck down the measure and also the order abolishing Privy Purses to the former princes.
Moments after the apex court decided against her Government in the Privy Purses case, on December 27, 1970, she called for early elections. Asked what the issue in the election was by Italian journalist Orianno Falacci, Indira said "I am the Issue". She added, as an afterthought, "All of them (meaning her detractors within and outside) want me out because I want to remove poverty." When she said this, she was aware that the people had identified her with the branches of the now nationalized banks in their villages, and hence her slogan was bound to work.
The second instance was after her return to power in January 1980. She sought votes in the name of stability and it worked with a people who experienced the unstable Janata regime. Among the lessons history teaches us is that the people, as a rule, seek stability. This has been true ever since the Greek civilizational system, where critical thinking was celebrated, gave way to the Roman state where the answer to this or that thing was found in the scriptures. Indira Gandhi’s Congress thus profited in 1971, and again subsequently in 1980.
The Congress campaign in November-December 1984, when general elections were held after Indira’s assassination, was conceived and carried out by a professional advertising agency; the posters and the images on them drew on what Erich Fromm would theorise as the ‘Fear of Freedom’. The turmoil in Punjab, the North Eastern region and a splintered opposition were all made use of by the agency to convey that the Congress party alone can keep the nation safe. It worked wonders and Rajiv Gandhi rode a Congress Parliamentary Party that was 400 plus strong in the Lok Sabha.
The reason why I am recalling these two instances from the past is in a specific context; the context in which Rahul Gandhi now finds himself in his party and what appears to be his thinking in so far as his and the party’s future are concerned. I will desist from presuming that Rahul has a strategy in place as such. I will hold that he seems to be thinking along the lines of setting the direction the party ought to take, as did his grandmother, Indira Gandhi, when she in 1967-69 carried her party her way in the couple of years since December 1969. This was after she formed the Congress (Requisitionists) in December 1969.
Rahul Gandhi’s pointed statement that concern for environmental protection and preserving nature ought to be the agenda for politics also implies that he looks at this not merely as a programme central to NGOs. It must be noted that he had expressed such concerns even while his own party had been running the government -- when he spoke up to save the Niyamgiri in Odisha -- and hence his public statement in Wayanad does not seem to have been just a knee-jerk reaction.
Similarly, Rahul Gandhi seemed to have prevailed upon his party to put up the Minimum Wages Guarantee in the party’s manifesto. He, it appears, is bent on taking a leaf out of Indira’s life and most so from her strategy, as advised then by P.N.Haksar, to put the Congress on a track that took the people to economic freedom in the Constitutional sense.
But then, Rahul, unlike Indira Gandhi, is heading a party that had deviated from his own grandmother’s days. Its record in ruling the country, particularly after the late 1980s, does not inspire confidence that the Congress president can command a team that is committed to the ideas proffered by him. Rahul Gandhi, even in Wayanad, was accompanied by party leaders who, while in government in Kerala, had shot dead adivasis fighting for land rights in Wayanad.
A lot of sanctions for MoUs and projects that certainly threatened the livelihood of the adivasis were pushed by the Congress as much as others across the political spectrum, when they wielded power in the states or at the Centre. And none, in a way, has failed to record its opposition to similar decisions by another party in power. It is thus that environment turned into an NGO agenda and with the NGOs, somewhat as a rule, drawing aid from INGOs, those pushing such projects have found it easy to put their campaigns in the dock.
Well, the point here is not so much whether Rahul will succeed in reviving the Congress, as president or otherwise. The point is to wonder whether Rahul Gandhi will manage to persuade his own partymen to carry out a task where the need is to have people who must belong to the moment when Indira rejuvenated and repurposed the Congress the first time round in the 1967-69 period. The challenge is daunting, as his partymen today include the Chidambarams, the Kamal Naths, the Scindias and such others who belong to the Congress of the time since Indira Gandhi ‘re-invented’ the party the second time in the 1980s. This was a time when she put her own self, and the idea of a strong leader, as central to the safety of the nation.
(V Krishna Ananth is a political commentator and author of the book 'India Since Independence: Making Sense of Indian Politics' (Pearson)