Congress in crisis: Inept handling

By Inder Jit
(Published on 14 February 1989)

The Congress-I today faces its worst ever crisis. Indeed, a bigger question mark than ever before has gone up over its future. The recent happenings in Madhya Pradesh and Bihar and presently in Gujarat and Rajasthan are no doubt uppermost in my mind. But dissidence is not new to the Congress. Time and again, the party has witnessed disagreement, even sharp wordy duels, over policies and personalities. The Gaya Congress in 1922, for instance, saw a head-on collision between the Pro-changers and the No-changers. C.R. Das, Motilal Nehru, Vithalbhai Patel were the Pro-changers. They wanted the war of independence carried into the legislatures with the battle cry: Destroy From Within. Mahatma Gandhi and his supporters opposed the move and came to be called No-changers. With Gandhi in jail, the Congress giants seemed set for an easy victory. But they were worsted in debate by Rajaji and Rajenbabu and in the voting by the delegates. Gandhi emerged as the party’s unrivalled leader. Das was so shaken by the defeat that he resigned from the Congress Presidentship.
The Haripura and Tripura Congress sessions in 1938 and 1939 respectively brought into the open the struggle between Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Bose for leadership and created a major crisis. (Rivalry between the two started at the Karachi Congress in 1930). Having presided over the Haripura session, Bose offered himself for re-election on the precedent established by Nehru’s presidentship of two successive terms. Mahatma Gandhi opposed Bose’s candidature and put up Pattabhi Sitaramayya, a veteran Congressman, as his candidate. Bose triumphed and Gandhi proclaimed the victory of the young leader from Bengal as his own defeat. The High Command, however, promptly neutralized Bose by getting the session to pass a resolution directing the new President to form his “Cabinet” in consultation with Gandhi. Bose took the resolution as a vote of no-confidence and honourably resigned. Rajenbabu stepped into the breach. The Congress once again gained in strength as the party democratically resolved its differences, clear about its priorities and goal.
Nearer our times, the conflict between Nehruties and Patelites came to a head in August 1950 when Rafi Ahmed Kidwai secured Nehru’s support for his proposal to put up Acharya Kripalani for the Congress Presidentship as against Purushottam Das Tandon. Within a fortnight of this decision, Kidwai arranged the publication of a letter declaring that Nehru would refuse to serve on the Working Committee if Tandon was elected. Sardar Patel backed Tandon and Kripalani was defeated in the most exciting contest since Subhash Bose clashed with Gandhi. Tandon retaliated by refusing to appoint Kidwai to the Working Committee. I recall Tandon being urged to ignore Nehru’s exit, especially since he continued to enjoy the Sardar’s full backing. But Tandon refused to split the Congress on a personal issue at a time when so much needed to be done. Instead, he resigned as Congress President in favour of Nehru — a gesture which was hailed widely as not only graceful but highly patriotic.
Dissent and disagreement within the Congress slowly crept into the legislatures following independence. Top leaders in the states clashed time and again for supremacy, backed by their supporters. Dr.B.C. Roy, for instance, replaced Dr. P.C. Ghosh in West Bengal. Mr. Morarji Desai took over from Mr. B.C.Kher in undivided Bombay. Mr. Jai Narayan Vyas toppled Mr. HiralalShashtri in Rajasthan. Mr. K.C. Reddy was replaced by Mr. K. Hanumanthaiya in erstwhile Mysore. A battle royal was fought between Dr. Sri Krishna Sinha, Bihar’s first Chief Minister, and Mr. AnugrahaNarain Sinha for leadership of the Congress Legislature Party. The ballot boxes were even carried all the way from Patna to the AICC office at Jantar Mantar Road in New Delhi to prevent trouble from erupting. Mr. Pratap Singh Kairon took over from Mr. Bhimsen Sachar in what was then known as East Punjab. Importantly, however, disputes and differences were resolved by discussion or through an accepted democratic process. Self was not allowed to take precedence over the party or the country.
Sardar Patel’s demise in December 1950 created a gaping void in the Congress organisation, which he had managed with an iron hand for two decades. Nehru now sought the help of Lal Bahadur Shastri, who was then Police Minister in U.P. and had gained prominence at the Nasik Congress by averting an open clash between him and Tandon. Shastri proved his genius for quiet work and compromise in more ways than one and, among other things, evolved a procedure for the smooth and democratic functioning of the party’s legislative wing. Rivals were allowed to contest for leadership through an informal ballot. (Onthe first occasion, Nehru impromptu used his Gandhi cap to collect from Congress MLAs folded slips of paper on which they had been asked to name the leader.) The winner was proposed by the loser for Chief Ministership. The loser was included honourably in the Council of Ministers and adequate representation given to his group. Importantly, the Chief Minister alone chose Ministers from the dissident group. This was done to ensure two things. Loyalty to the leader and homogenous functioning.
Things greatly changed after Nehru and Shastri. Indira Gandhi initially followed Nehru’s practice. But before long she started asserting herself, leading to the great split of 1969. Thereafter, she reduced the party virtually to a pocket borough, encouraged by the poll triumph which followed the war of 1971 with Pakistan. She was able to do this successfully both because of her great capacity to play politics and act courageously and ruthlessly. (Remember, she sacked Mr. Devaraj Urs as the Chief Minister of Karnataka when he was the only Chief Minister belonging to the Congress-I in the country during the Janata rule.) Mrs. Gandhi knew her party members well and used this knowledge to impose Chief Ministers and even whole Cabinets arbitrarily in the States and make these actions appear as urgent internal requirements of her party. The ground rules were made abundantly clear for one and all in her basic policy of live and let live. The Chief Ministers in the States were allowed freedom to operate (and even to misrule) so long as they delivered the goods and were unflinchingly loyal to her personally.
Indira Gandhi was anxious to see Mr. Rajiv Gandhi involved fully with the Congress-I organization, like his younger brother Sanjay, and therefore named him General Secretary. But she soon discovered that Rajiv was made differently. Like Nehru, he was more interested in policies and planning — and, what is more, in getting the Government to work. Mr. Arun Nehru was asked to help out with the organization, in view of his successful background in management and his capacity to be tough. Things after Indira Gandhi went well so long as palace intrigue did not play havoc with Mr. Rajiv Gandhi and his inner team comprising Mr. Arun Nehru, Mr. Arun Singh and Mr. V.P. Singh. Once seeds of suspicion were sown in the mind of the leader, the team, which met late every night to review and plan for the morrow, broke up. No new team in any sense of the term was formed thereafter. Instead, Mr. Gandhi has tended to function as his mother did — taking his own decisions after sounding such people as he considers appropriate. In the bargain, ad hocism has come to rule the roost since he has neither his mother’s experience nor her capacity for politics.
Nothing reflects this ad hocism and inexperience more than the Congress-I mishandling of the poll politics in Tamil Nadu and the recent developments in Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. Veteran Congress-men, who know the state well, strongly urged him to come to some arrangement with Ms Jayalalitha’s AIADMK. (They wanted the Congress-I to offer Ms. Jayalalitha 60:40 and even Chief Ministership and not insist on 50:50 as against her offer of the MG formula – two-thirds for the AIADMK and one-third for the Congress-I in the Assembly and vice versa in Parliament.) He even permitted himself to be involved unduly in the poll battle and to be misled into believing that the Congress-I would emerge as the single largest party, if not actually get a majority. Further, he allowed himself to be persuaded by an inexperienced colleague to describe the DMK and the AIADMK as Dravidian parties and to denounce “Dravidian misrule”, ignoring the facts of life. All that has come to pass in Bhopal and Patna was avoidable and has not only shown up the mettle of his colleagues but undermined his own credibility and image.
Wise rulers and top leaders need to desist from the temptation of playing King Canute. Just as sea waves cannot be called to order by a wave of the hand, dissidence cannot be wished away merely by open threats of exposure (secret dossiers) or the big stick of President’s rule. Top Congress leaders came to be called the High Command in the past because of the moral authority they enjoyed through their selfless work and sacrifice. I recall Nehru once thundering: “Newspapers talk of us as the High Command. Let me make one thing clear. There is no High Command or Low Command. We have a Working Committee and this Committee functions democratically. We are not dictators.” Moral authority is not something which can be bestowed from above. It does not come either from occupying high ministerial or party offices. Youth has undoubtedly much in its favour. But it is no substitute for experience. Mr. Rajiv Gandhi needs to pause and ponder if dissidence is to be prevented from growing into defiance — and the crisis in the Congress-I is to be resolved successfully. — INFA