Every year on November 19th newspapers carry advertisements commemorating the birth anniversary of Indira Gandhi. This year the government outdid itself. Almost every newspaper on every page carried huge photographs and advertisements lauding the late prime minister. Was this overdrive impelled by the gnawing fear of a fatally mauled Congress that needed to revive morale by recalling the glory days of Indira Gandhi? It is known that in public perception Indira Gandhi was the greatest prime minister this nation ever had. Ah yes, perception! How distant perception and officially inspired hype are from reality! If the Congress genuinely wants to prevent its impending demise it must reinvent itself. To reinvent itself it must confront the truth unvarnished by falsified history. I say this not as a lifelong critic of the Congress but as a genuine well wisher knowing that a national party, however much I may oppose its policies, is a national asset deserving survival. So for a start Congressmen must reappraise the history of their most iconic leader, Indira Gandhi, as well as the history of their party from its origins to the present day. They must also reappraise the changed context in India. Then, and only then, might they formulate remedial steps to preserve their party.
Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister caused greater damage to the national interest than any other Prime Minister India had. In her total span of 15 years as PM there was no interlude of real progress. Throughout her tenure India was damaged by her negative attitude and wrong policies. Just consider her record. In pursuance of her naked paranoid ambition she split the Congress and violated the basic norms of democracy by voting against her personally proposed Presidential candidate. This was but the first of many decisions during her tenure that made mockery of established democratic norms.
The Indian army having a three to one advantage over Pakistan, with a supportive local population, with supply lines cut off to the Pakistanis, with air cover denied to the enemy, conducted a safe and competent military operation to liberate Bangladesh. That was the army’s achievement. Indira Gandhi influenced by foreign superpowers squandered the advantage in the Simla Agreement by tamely releasing 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war unconditionally! She did not even have the sense to get the Line of Control in Kashmir converted into an international border to bury for all time the Kashmir dispute. Was the liberation of Bangladesh therefore serving national interest or some foreign interest?
Indira Gandhi's decision to create the terrorist LTTE outfit to help address the grievances of Sri Lankan Tamils was a short sighted piece of unprincipled policy that boomeranged eventually through the assassination of her son, Rajiv Gandhi.
Indira Gandhi deliberately fanned Sikh separatism by initially encouraging Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to derive electoral advantage against the ruling Akali Dal in Punjab . When things got out of hand she launched an avoidable full fledged military Operation Blue Star against Khalistanis holed up in the Golden Temple. The militants could have been starved and forced to surrender over a period of time and the sanctity of the holy shrine preserved. Not only did Indira Gandhi initially encourage Bhindranwale. One month before Operation Blue Star after Bhindranwale had agreed to an acceptable compromise formula that was obtained by this writer on request from Rajiv Gandhi, Mrs. Gandhi inexplicably went ahead with Operation Blue Star. Was she impelled to act under Soviet duress as credible Indian Intelligence sources had claimed at that time?
In 1976 in violation of a unanimous Parliamentary resolution that still stands, forbidding any truck with China until all territory illegally seized by it is recovered, in violation also of a policy decision that unless China agreed to the Colombo Proposals hammered in an international Asian conference India would not talk with China, Mrs. Gandhi nevertheless went ahead and established full diplomatic relations with China. She betrayed the memory of her father and the national interest. Why? The only explanation appears to be that around that time America under President Carter was on the point of clinching the process of normalization with China initiated earlier by President Nixon. Like a puppet on a string Mrs. Gandhi somersaulted and went against declared policy and the national interest.
More than enough is known of course about Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial streak that led her to impose a fraudulent Emergency jailing over 100,000 innocent citizens in order to circumvent a court decision that would have unseated her for political corruption. During the period when there was no Emergency Indira Gandhi forever ruined governance by insisting upon a “committed bureaucracy” and by destroying all institutions of democracy. Despite this astonishingly inept performance and overflowing catalogue of disastrous failures all within 15 years the Indian public hails her as India’s Iron lady. This Iron Lady was like putty in the hands of the superpowers. The sycophancy of Congress leaders and an equally sycophantic media fooled the public into believing that Indira Gandhi was a strong leader because she could misuse authority to bully innocent citizens and, thanks to the army, liberate Bangladesh , only to wreck victory’s aftermath by her disastrous diplomacy. This pathetic foreign pawn of a prime minister started the process that has led to India’s current collapse of governance and rampant corruption that is destroying the political system.
But enough of Indira Gandhi. She was an individual. She was more the creation of history than its creator. Congress leaders need to take a hard dispassionate look at the history of their party. The Congress was created by Britain as its instrument. After the 1857 Indian Mutiny and the Kuka Revolt which started in 1863 the heavily outnumbered British devised measures to prevent further violence and retain control over the large population they ruled. The Kukas had sought full political and cultural freedom from the British. They were brutally crushed by the British in 1872. In 1885 the movement’s leader, Ram Singh, died. The very same year the Indian National Congress was born. It was founded by a Briton, Alan Octavian Hume. The creation of the Congress was blessed by the British government. In a letter to the British Viceroy Lord Dufferin, Hume outlined the purpose of forming the Congress. He wrote: “A safety valve for the escape of great and growing forces, generated by our own action, was urgently needed and no more efficacious safety valve than our Congress could possibly be devised.”
One need not dwell on the subsequent history of the Congress and the freedom movement in the limited space of this article. It should suffice to point out that the far sighted British planned early a peaceful transfer of power to a class of Indians educated and culturally influenced by them when a changing world would render independence inevitable. They envisaged Home Rule for India on the lines of Canada. There was nothing wrong with this. It was British statesmanship at its best. Nor should one object to the core cultural values that the British introduced in this country. All Indian leaders of the freedom movement were, consciously or subconsciously, aware of the gradual transfer of power in the guise of a freedom struggle that was under way. After all, Mahatma Gandhi twice rejected the demand for total independence proposed by Maulana Hasrat Mohani in the annual Congress Working Committee meetings. It was only the third consecutive time in 1929 that Gandhiji supported Mohani’s resolution. By that time young Jawaharlal Nehru, schooled and educated in Britain, devoid of any political experience in India compared to the more qualified Sardar Vallabhai Patel, had been anointed Congress President by Gandhiji.
Things went wrong not because Congress leaders acted by British values. Things went wrong because they acted by their narrow personal ambitions while being guided by their British mentors who were themselves divided after World War II. Thus were India and Palestine partitioned within the space of four months. In fairness to the British they made offers that would have allowed prevention of the Partition and instead the creation of a federal united India. Only C. Rajagopalachari among Congress leaders recommended acceptance of the British proposal. Instead the bloody Partition occurred. Elements in the British government had been planning this long before the subcontinent’s leaders thought of it. Let it be noted that in 1940 when the first official demand for Pakistan was made by the Muslim League, the British had already requisitioned in the same year the services of Zafrullah Khan to secretly draw up the plan for creating the two dominions of India and Pakistan.
Despite the follies of Congress leaders there were millions of ordinary Indians sincerely participating in the freedom struggle. They were betrayed by the Partition. One need not recall the shameful record of that period. Books have been written on the subject. Even a stalwart leader like Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was shamelessly betrayed by Gandhiji and Nehru. He wanted to merge NWFP with India. Failing that he sought independence for his province. Nehru refused to accept his offer because NWFP was not contiguous with India. Was East Pakistan contiguous with West Pakistan? The Congress could have accepted Ghaffar Khan’s offer and after the Pathan province became part of India granted it full independence. But such strategy was unthinkable by leaders who were virtual pawns of the British.
This briefly was the pre-Independence record of the Congress. The Congress had started as a federal freedom movement in which the Muslims, the Sikhs and the Socialists all participated as equals. Jinnah had been a leading Congressman. Baba Kharak Singh was simultaneously President of the Akali Dal as well as the Punjab Congress. Before the first general election the Congress from a federal movement became a political party. The Akali Dal was not allowed to field its candidates using the Congress symbol. Eventually from a political party the Congress further degenerated into a dynasty. Jawaharlal Nehru against the reservations of the Congress Working Committee appointed his daughter Indira Gandhi as Congress President. Was he emboldened by the memory of Mahatma Gandhi appointing him Congress President over the heads of more deserving candidates in 1929?
After this degeneration of the Congress, and after the history of the subverted freedom struggle, can India return to the days of the earlier Congress? I think not. When one predicts the demise of the Congress as it exists most Congress leaders would laugh. They would point out that the Congress remains superior to the opposition parties. They would miss the point. The Congress will not disappear through an electoral defeat by the opposition. Such a change of regime would matter little. There is nothing to choose between the Congress and the opposition. The Congress is the fountainhead of the current political culture that pervades in all political parties. The Congress can be finished because India’s democratic system could be destroyed. Today we have police stations without having the rule of law. We have law courts without getting justice. We have elections without having democracy. Our system has collapsed because our democratic institutions have been destroyed. Institutions have been reduced to empty husks devoid of real content.
And meanwhile India , along with the world, has changed. The reality of its multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-ethnic nature has surfaced. Communication has connected all regions. Information has increased awareness of distinct identity in all regions. The traditional centralized one party rule that the Congress offered since Independence will no longer serve. As a federal nation India needs a federal system. Currently Mr. Rahul Gandhi is trying very hard to revive the Congress as it was in the days of Pandit Nehru. If one may humbly proffer him advice he should stop wasting his time. The old Congress is dead. It cannot be revived. It can only be reinvented. The Indian National Congress should be converted into the Indian Federal Congress. Regional parties should be co-opted at the parliamentary level while being allowed to retain their separate identities at the state level. From such a transient arrangement might evolve eventually a single, cohesive Indian Federal Congress that rules the centre and all the states to deliver decentralized power to the people. Never has independent India had such potential to play a global role. Never has independent India’s democracy been as vulnerable as it is today. To seize the moment politicians must act. It is later than what most people think.
In conclusion one offers a reminder to Congress leaders who continue to pay lip service to Gandhiji. Often the Mahatma contradicted his own earlier statements. Therefore he advised his followers that whenever he did so they should accept his later statement. What was Gandhiji’s last wish? On the day of his assassination he wrote his last will urging Congress leaders to dissolve the Indian National Congress. Let Congress leaders reflect on that.