Dissent has a place in the Congress only if it is from the dynasty. When it emanates from other quarters, there is no attempt to engage, discuss, reason with or to persuade. Such voices are snuffed out.
Senior members of the Congress Party jumped at the opportunity this weekend to lecture the Bharatiya Janata Party on dealing with dissent. Out of curiosity, I scrambled through the archived sources and sepia scrapbooks to list instances of exemplary handling of dissent within the Congress Party.
Surprisingly, I found that the “dented and painted” archives of the Congress’ conventions reveal less of dissent. A culture of tinkered unanimity dominates them, very much like it was in Stalin’s era in erstwhile USSR where even innocuous pictures were cropped to weed out dissenting faces. In the Congress, this treatment is extended to eminent leaders who have the courage of conviction to voice their opinion and to stand up against toadying one-upmanship.
Perhaps, anticipating such situations, Mahatma Gandhi had suggested disbanding of the Congress, then a movement which had leaders of divergent tendencies and ideologies, all bonded by the singular goal of independence from foreign rule. They failed to do so.
Within the Congress a section, instead of engaging with dissenting voices, chose the Stalinist method of snuffing out dissent. This got sharpened with time.
Post-Independence, rather too soon, the Congress set a precedent in autocratic decision-making when Purushottam Das Tandon, the party’s elected president, was removed in September 1951 by Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru positioned himself as the president of the party, while he was the Prime Minister. In one stroke, the line between the party and the government was effaced. Even earlier, in August 1951, Nehru showed his dislike for some senior Congress leaders by threatening to resign from the Congress Working Committee while asserting that he could not work with people with “the wrong kind of ideas”. It is easy to construe who these “people” were — they were strong provincial leaders who could speak their mind, such as Tandon, B.C. Roy and Sampurnanad. Unfortunately, by then, Sardar Patel was no more.
Nehru did not think it fit to check the dynastic streak that may enhance the already undemocratic tendencies within the party when, in 1959, he oversaw Indira Gandhi taking over as party president. In 1967, after a series of electoral setbacks in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal — elders in the Congress who represented a large section of the party — raised voices of dissent at the party’s dismal performance. But Indira Gandhi carried on, notwithstanding the discomfort in the organisation. On November 12, 1969, the Congress Party expelled her for “indiscipline”. But Indira Gandhi, running a minority government with the CPI’s support, did not assuage her party leaders or reason with them; instead she split the party. Since then, snuffing out any voice of dissent is effected with the dynastic disinfectant.
Family courtiers conveniently got elected as Congress presidents, and one such even rose to fame by coining a captivating slogan, “India is Indira, Indira is India”. Thus, the dynastic ways got reinforced, and reached its nadir when, in 1998, through what was described as a “constitutional coup”, an elected president, Sitaram Kesri, was left locked up in the toilet, literally, and the old dynasty took over, yet again. Veteran journalist Harish Khare, speaking at a symposium in June 2003, captured this event in the party’s history beautifully: “March 14, 1998, thus became the defining moment for the relationship between the leadership and the rest of the Congress. Here was the world’s oldest political organisation collectively and willingly renouncing democratic principles as the basis of its internal arrangements and, instead, opting for a quintessentially feudal order. Whatever the trappings of subsequent ‘democratic’ electoral exercises, the fundamental nature of the party remains unchanged — a Nehru-Gandhi claimant sitting, unchallenged, at the top. The most natural order of things, with all the embellishments of organisational modernity. For better or for worse, the party would be given no other leadership choice, and its leaders must reconcile to this format. The only alternative to Sonia Gandhi would be her children; you, dear Congressman, are free to exercise your democratic choice between the daughter or the son. The top leadership was not negotiable, nor questionable, nor accountable.”
Occasionally dissenters do succeed in the Congress. Here is a particular case in point.
On October 7, 1949, a resolution was adopted in the Congress Working Committee: “…RSS members were permitted to join the Congress.” Political analyst Walter Andersen observes, “…supporters of Patel favouring the action and the followers of Nehru opposing it; the organisational wing of the Congress supported the move and the parliamentary wing opposed it”.
A.G. Kher, then a minister of local self-government in Uttar Pradesh, asked why certain Congressmen opposed the RSS when members of the Arya Samaj or the Jamaat-ul-Ulema were eligible: “It cannot be that they were involved in Gandhi’s murder, for they were exonerated of that charge in court of law. Nor that they had not followed Patel’s advice as to the functioning of the group… calling them fascists, abusing and insulting them, and again and again repeating old charges does not serve any purpose, nor is it a Gandhian method. To ban their entry into the Congress fold is a further exhibition of intolerance and hatred…”
Subsequently, Nehru attended the Congress Working Committee meeting on November 17, 1949, and ensured that the earlier majority CWC decision was nullified. He insisted on denying membership to RSS men, “by stipulating that they could join, but only if they gave up their RSS membership”. No such conditions applied to the men from the Jamaat. Clearly, the intolerance and hatred was not in the minds of the organisational wing of the Congress; it was in the mind of the then Prime Minister and continues in the minds of the dynasty.
Dissent has a place in the Congress only if it is from the dynasty. When it emanates from other quarters, there is no attempt to engage, discuss, reason with or to persuade. Such voices are snuffed
out. The dynasty does not waste time in engaging with dissent.
The writer is spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The views expressed in this column are her own.