Abheri Raychaudhuri (Kolkata): With Rahul Gandhi set to be made the Congress party’s national president, a question often asked is whether he deserves to be projected as the face of the Grand Old Party. A less eminent question, but persistent nonetheless, is whether the Congress, originally instituted to fight for India’s freedom, is relevant in today’s day and age, an apprehension raised by Mahatma Gandhi a day before he was assassinated.

In ‘His Last Will and Testament’ written on 29 January 1948 and published by the Harijan on 15 February, Gandhi wrote, “Though split into two, India having attained political independence through means devised by the Indian National Congress, the Congress in its present shape and form, i.e. as a propaganda vehicle and parliamentary machine, has outlived its use.”

“The struggle for the ascendency of ‘civil over military power is bound to take place in India’s progress towards its democratic goal.’ It must be kept out of unhealthy competition with political parties and communal bodies. For these and other similar reasons, the A.I.C.C. (All India Congress Committee) resolves to disband the existing Congress organization and flower into a Lok Sevak Sangh under the following rules with power to alter them as occasion may demand,” he wrote.

As an alternative, Gandhi suggested this Lok Sevak Sangh could spread across the numerous villages that dot the Indian heartland, where he believed the true soul of the country to be.

Gandhi’s words were probably prompted by disappointment brought about by allegations of corruption within the Congress party since Independence.  A committee set up by the Planning Commission under former bureaucrat A.D. Gorwala had as early as in 1951 pointed to corruption and decay within the government led by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.  

The Father of the Nation had warned the Congress of its ability to lose out to more worthy opponents if it did not mend its ways. The 1 February 1948 issue of the Harijan published his words on this: “These servants will be expected to operate upon and serve the voters registered according to law in their own surroundings. Many persons and parties will woo them. The very best will win. Thus and in no other way can the Congress regain its fast ebbing, unique position in the country. But yesterday the Congress was unwittingly the servant of the nation, it was KHUDA-I-KHIDMATGAR—God’s servant. Let it now proclaim to itself and the world that it is only God’s servant—nothing more, nothing less. If it engages in the ungainly skirmish for power, it will find one fine morning that it is no more. Thank God, it is now no longer in sole possession of the field.”

As is evident now, Gandhi’s ideas, apart from a cursory mention in the Directive Principles of State Policy as laid out in Articles 36-51 of the Indian Constitution, were gently if firmly neglected. The Congress has continued to fight elections until the present day, with varying degrees of success.

By the time the Second World War ended and the British finally gave India its freedom, Gandhi had begun to lose his power over the inner circle of the Congress party, a fact noted by Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of pre-Independent India and the first governor-general after freedom. In ‘Freedom at Midnight’, which begins with the events of the early months of 1947 and Mountbatten’s arrival in India, the authors Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins note the shift in Gandhi’s influence and comment on it, as a reflection of the viceroy’s own thoughts. Beginning with Partition, which Gandhi opposed but Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had come to terms with, Gandhi’s sphere of authority was limited to his prayer meetings.

Despite his anguish over corruption within the Congress ranks, Gandhi still maintained an iota of hope and optimism for the party, a spark eagerly sought by many today. In another letter, published in the Harijan on 1 February 1948, Gandhi wrote, “Indian National Congress which is the oldest national political organization and which has after many battles fought her non-violent way to freedom cannot be allowed to die.”

Noting that “in its difficult ascent to democracy, it (the Congress) has inevitably created rotten boroughs leading to corruption and creation of institutions, popular and democratic only in name,” Gandhi further suggested measures which could help Congress “get out of the weedy and unwieldy growth.”

“The Congress must do away with its special register of members, at no time exceeding one crore, not even then easily identifiable. It had an unknown register of millions who could never be wanted. Its register should now be co-extensive with all the men and women on the voters’ rolls in the country. The Congress business should be to see that no faked name gets in and no legitimate name is left out. On its own register it will have a body of servants of the nation who would be worked doing the work allotted to them from time to time,” he suggested, adding, “Unfortunately for the country they will be drawn chiefly for the time being from the city dwellers, most of whom would be required to work for and in the villages of India. The ranks must be filled in increasing numbers from villagers.”

While he hoped to have the “time and health” to discuss how the servants of the nation could work towards raising themselves in the estimation of their masters, “the whole of the adult population, male and female,” an untimely death by the hands of Nathuram Godse brought a quick end to that.

In its present avatar, the Congress party continues to battle accusations of corruption and high-level misappropriation of funds at every front, from within its state units in Himachal Pradesh to when it headed the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre led by Manmohan Singh. The Rs1.76 lakh crore 2G scam saw telecom minister A. Raja being hauled up for issuing second-generation telecom licenses to operators at throwaway prices to operators illustrates the fears Gandhi had foreseen and sought to avoid. The Bofors Scam of 1987 saw corruption breach levels as high as the prime minister. Rajiv Gandhi, Nehru’s grandson, was accused of having received illegal kickbacks from Swedish arms manufacturer Bofors in a $1.4 billion deal for the sale of 410 field howitzer guns.

It has been nearly 70 years since the Congress first faced allegations of corruption, and maybe now it is time that it steps back to examine where it went wrong and how it can find its way back to being the “umbrella” party it had been during the freedom struggle. A party that provided a platform to capitalists, socialists, communists and a certain class of fundamentalists to express their best intentions is now floundering to find its own defining ideology in a changing political order.

The Congress was hailed as the “safety valve” for allowing Indian aspirations an outlet during British rule, but is now frequently chastised for remaining active beyond its sell-by date. It would do well for it to remember the words of Gandhi, who himself inspired the following words from Albert Einstein: “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”

Sources: Gandhi Heritage Portal, www.gandhiheritageportal.org

Abheri Raychaudhuri tweets at @AbheriRC.

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