On my last visit to a bookstore I picked up Nirala’s autobiographical memoir A Life Misspent, newly translated into English by Satti Khanna. The book’s hero is a man named Kulli Bhatt, who, meandering through life, found meaning in political activism. Inspired by Gandhi and Nehru, he became a Congress party activist in eastern UP in the 1930s.
On Nirala’s earlier visits to his town, Kulli Bhatt had taken him for long sessions of aimless chatter. Now, however, all he could talk about was politics and social reform. So Kulli told Nirala that “we lack the presence of the Congress Party. We are a good-sized town, but people laugh here at the idea of an independent nation. We need to bring the Congress here”.
Once he became a full-time activist, Kulli Bhatt “pushed himself running from village to village in the heat, signing up members of the Congress Party”. A friend told Nirala that because of Kulli’s efforts, “there isn’t a village in the area now without [Congress] party members”. Pursuing his party’s cause, Kulli Bhatt “would go days without food. His health failed him. His lower limbs have rotted”.
Kulli Bhatt fell seriously ill from these exertions on behalf of his party. Visiting him on his death-bed, Nirala “met some Congress Party social workers on his way who were also headed to see him. I saw a group of untouchable children and a few parents by his door. Their eyes were despairing”.
Those who know the Congress in its present avatar will read these words with some bemusement. Where are the activists who work so tirelessly on its behalf? When a Congressman dies, does anyone except fellow party members mourn his passing? Kulli Bhatt’s work was animated by idealism and energy, two qualities that are conspicuously lacking in the Congress of today.
And perhaps of yesterday as well. I was recently going through the web archive of the Economic and Political Weekly. In the course of my search, I came across a fascinating article published in the EPW on November 23, 1991, almost exactly 25 years ago. Entitled ‘Indian National Congress: Its Place in Politics’, it was written by Anil Nauriya, a lawyer-scholar whose ancestors had themselves striven, like Kulli Bhatt, to promote the Congress message in UP in the 1930s.
Writing in the early 1990s, Anil Nauriya found the Congress poorly equipped to meet or arrest the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party. He thought that “the real threat to the ‘Congress Model’ (and to its foundational principles) at the present stage is essentially not from challengers like the BJP but from within its own ranks”. Indeed, “an inept Congress is a far more useful ‘ally’ to the BJP than a resourceful (and cantankerous) VHP”.
Nauriya believed that the decline of the Congress was a product of a culture of cronyism. “The wonderland of coteries and caucuses,” he remarked, “has distracted and distorted the politics of the Congress and even other parties long enough.” And “coteries by their very nature distort grassroots political processes. Chosen for specific superficial qualities, they exclude important points of view from their virtually captive leader. That gives rise to the pathetic phenomena of even governors, chief ministers and senior ministers being required to meet first with a member of a coterie who is then empowered to decide whether the captive leader should be troubled with the real problems of the nation. By the time the leader, whosoever he be, realises the inadequacy of his establishment, the damage is already done”.
In 1991 the incumbent Prime Minister was Narasimha Rao, a product entirely of the coterie culture developed by Indira Gandhi after she split the Congress in 1969. Before 1969, the Congress had independent-minded leaders as well as zestful party activists across India; after 1969, it was run by a High Command based in New Delhi. Rao himself had worked his way up through being a devoted loyalist of Indira and then Rajiv Gandhi; thrust unexpectedly into the office of Prime Minister, he then developed a coterie of his own, likewise disconnected from grassroots political processes.
In the quarter-of-a-century since Nauriya’s article was published, the coterie culture of the Congress has intensified in New Delhi, while party units have atrophied across India. The Gujarat riots and Sonia Gandhi’s perceived sacrifice won the party a temporary bump in the polls, but now it is once more paying the costs of operating in the wonderland of coteries and caucuses. Even Congress chief ministers have to curry favour with Rahul Gandhi’s “advisers”, which is why the party’s state units across India are so moribund.
Writing in 1991, and at a time when the First Family was out of power, Anil Nauriya still hoped that the degradation could be arrested. The Congress, he wrote, “had to tidy up a mess that has long prevailed in its house”. I do not believe Nauriya has that hope anymore. As for Nirala’s Kulli Bhatt, were he to be reborn, he would see today’s Congress as the faded, corrupted, photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of an original for which he had so selflesslessly worked back in the 1930s.
The English monarch Charles II is said to have told his subjects: “I have been an unconscionable time dying, and I beg you to excuse it.” The Congress party has taken far too long to die as well. Once so vital to the history of the nation, it has become an impediment to its future development. Its sluggish, purposeless, existence has constrained the emergence of the constructive and credible Opposition that the country so sorely needs. Now, a necessary (but of course not sufficient) condition for India to flourish may be that the Congress should first perish.