The Congress should not be measured in terms of a typical political party like the Communist Party (Marxist), the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Hindu Mahasabha. These have distinct ideologies; they aim to make India in the image of their respective ideology. Anyone who is admitted as a member is expected to believe in a particular ideology. There are rules and procedures that each party tries to follow. The Congress, on paper, has all these, but in practice, operates on the “Führerprinzip” or the leadership principle. This was demonstrated vividly from 1977 to 1979. Many a stalwart tended to discount Indira Gandhi after she lost the 1977 election. For a few months, she had to lie low as a member of the Congress (K). The ‘K’ stood for K Brahmananda Reddy.
As the year progressed, the lady began to assert that she ought to be the president of the party. Initially, the party stalwarts, many of whom still wore the white Gandhi cap and khadi attire, took no serious notice. Eventually, however, an AICC meeting was held on 31 December 1977. Well before midnight, Indira Gandhi left the meeting in a huff after informing the attendees that she would be available at the Glass House, which was one of the focal points of Bangalore. Soon after midnight four Congressmen, namely Kamalapati Tripathi, (UP), Subroto Mukherjee (West Bengal) and two others, a total of four, went to the Glass House. Led by Indira Gandhi as president, the Congress (I) came into being. It did not take many months for this party to proliferate in the then prevailing political scenario. Long before 1980 most Congressmen had shifted to the Congress (I). The Congress (K) disappeared and in its place, a dozen-member Congress (S) came into being, the (S) standing for socialist.
The media had rightly commented in those momentous months that the ‘Congress is not where leaders attend. The Congress is where its supreme leader sits’. The then president of the Congress, Dev Kanta Barooah declared that “India is Indira and Indira is India” in 1974. In the 1980-81 general elections, the Congress (I) led by Indira won a thumping victory and thereafter she ruled India till her assassination in October 1984. For the leader who is not entirely convinced by this theory of the Führerprinzip, she /he is entitled to other examples. But in essence it is inner-party autocracy and not inner party democracy as Vladimir Lenin had desired for the Bolshevik Party following the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Let us turn to Gandhiji, who ruled the Congress with an iron fist concealed by goat’s milk, from 1920 to 1946. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose won the Congress presidential election with a substantial majority in the AICC, defeating Gandhi’s favourite, Pattabhi Sitaramayya. The great leader strongly disapproved of Netaji’s conduct. He had been president in 1938 and his standing again for the election was not to Gandhi’s liking. He therefore, saw to it that Netaji could not function in office. He ensured that the 21member Congress Working Committee (CWC), comparable to the cabinet of a government, could not be formed. No one would join in the face of the displeased Bapu. Netaji Subhas was left with no choice but to leave the Congress Party; he resigned his presidentship and soon quit the Congress.
We now come to Jawaharlal Nehru who was a favourite of Gandhiji but not of the Congress Party. In 1946, when its leaders were released from jail after the Quit India agitation, they realized that Maulana Abul Kalam Azad had been the party president for six years. It was time there was a change also especially because Independence was in the air and whoever was Congress president was likely to become prime minister. As was the party procedure all the 16 Pradesh Congress Committees were consulted. Fifteen of 16 PCCs were for Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and one was for Acharya JB Kripalani; no one showed any interest in Nehru. Yet Gandhiji asked the Sardar to step aside and let Nehru become Congress president.
Thus Jawaharlal become president and then became VicePresident of the Interim government headed by Viceroy Mountbatten and partnered by the Muslim League. On 3 June 1947, the Viceroy declared Partition effective on 14th and 15th August when Nehru became Prime Minister. As an obedient disciple of Gandhiji, the Sardar worked earnestly as deputy PM and helped the Government of India. Nehru came to be recognized as the leader of the party also and remained so until he died in May 1964. Notwithstanding the terrible failure of his China policy, the humiliation and above all, the loss of territory by November 1962, Nehru remained Prime Minister and head of the Congress until he died. This shows to what length Congressmen were willing to remain loyal to their leader. To reiterate, out of loyalty to Gandhiji, the party accepted Nehru and out of loyalty to Nehru, they continued to support him no matter his blunders.
Indira Gandhi’s only substantial qualification was that she was Nehru’s daughter. Choosing her as Prime Minister was out of loyalty to her father; she was only a gudiya in the eyes of senior Congressmen. The handling of Sant Bhindranwale, more so the Akal Takht and the Punjab problem of 1984 left much to be desired. Yet, Congressmen remained loyal to their leader. They also accepted her son Rajiv Gandhi the new general secretary of the party as if he was inevitably going to be their next leader.
After Indira Gandhi was assassinated, Congressmen patiently waited till Rajiv Gandhi was able to return to Delhi from West Bengal where he was on tour. He was ready to be sworn in as next fuehrer, when it was realized that the rashtrapati was overseas. Giani Zail Singh was rushed to Rashtrapati Bhavan within minutes of having landed at Palam airport. He swore Rajiv at exactly 6 pm, seven hours after BBC Radio had announced Indira’s demise. As a loyal Congressman, the Giani did not insist on Rajiv being elected leader of the parliamentary party. When Rajiv was unfortunately assassinated at Sriperumbudur in 1991, no one questioned his presidentship of the party, although as Prime Minister he had lost the 1989 election. The bereaved family chose P.V. Narasimha Rao to be the successor. Despite being over 50 Lok Sabha votes short after the general election, Congressmen remained loyal to the government and Rao remained Prime Minister for his entire term.
Within days of Narasimha Rao being sworn in as Prime Minister, he overturned the socialism planted by Nehru at the Congress’ Avadi session in 1955. In less than two years, doubts were cast that Rao also overturned secularism, which had been fathered by no less than Gandhi. The Muslims widely believe that the Rao Government had a hand in the demolition at Ayodhya. Yet, he remained PM till the end of his term in 1996. Thereafter, the party was on the lookout for a more permanent leader. Sonia Gandhi was elected defeating the only opposing candidate (the late) Jitendra Prasada. To this day, she remains president of the Congress.
The writer is an author, thinker and former Member of Parliament