The relation between the President of the Congress and the respective working committee (congress working committee), has been one marked by contention, factions and uncertainty since its very foundation.
Image Caption: Indira Gandhi at the AICC meet (29th/May/1976)
The congress party of India has evolved to a great extent, with its traced heirloom associated with the Indian national movement to the present allegory of its downfall. The internal relations of the congress have always provided us with a perception about its functioning, reforms sought after, structure of their vote base and the respective ideology associated with it.
Last year around the month of July, an unprecedented move in the history of Indian National Congress was observed, with 23 senior leaders writing a letter to party chief Sonia Gandhi, asking her for “sweeping changes” in the party. The list included five former chief ministers, sitting MPs Shashi Tharoor and Manish Tewari, members of Congress Working Committee and over a dozen former union ministers with years of political experience. This incident attracted a lot of heat to it with various opinions and beliefs. In either cases of questioning the party leadership or supporting the same, similar phrases like nepotism or ‘ek khandan ka raj…’ followed the discourse.
Six months later, after a 5-hour meeting, interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her senior party colleagues, including representatives of the 23 leaders who had sought wide-ranging intra-party reforms through a controversial letter in July, Sonia asked all leaders present at the meeting to put forth their views on organisational matters. Both Sonia and Rahul endorsed the view that measures to strengthen the party have to be taken. Sonia said that a party panel is already in the process of finalizing the schedule for electing the next Congress president. The leaders, including those seeking reform, urged Rahul to withdraw his resignation so that suspense on the leadership issue ends. Rahul did not give any assurance but said he is willing to take up any responsibility given to him by the party.
Pawan Bansal, party general secretary and interim treasurer said, “Detailed discussions were held today on ways to strengthen the party. All members present spoke. Both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi said that the party is a big family and everyone has a responsibility towards strengthening it.”
Recently a demand was articulated by Ghulam Nabi Azad, leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, his deputy Anand Sharma, and former finance minister P Chidambaram, who wasn’t a signatory to the original letter but supported elections to the CEC (Central Election Committee) of the Congress party. They said CEC members should be chosen by the same electoral college that takes part in the election of the president. While the letter writers want elections at all levels and the CEC is one such forum, a former CWC member told HT that the CEC’s membership carried the kind of prestige that even the CWC, the party’s top decision-making body, didn’t have. Harmless though it may seem, but the polls for the Central Election Committee of the congress can emerge as a bone of contention for the party framework and leadership.
The Prehistoric Roots
The Congress party and its core contentions are not a recent phenomenon but a trend dating to the past. In the year 1939, National Leader Subhash Chandra Bose, also known as Netaji, was re-elected as the President of the Indian National Congress. Bose’s opponent Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramayya couldn’t fetch enough votes for himself. Since Dr. Sitaramayya was strongly supported by Gandhi, so much so that he stopped him from withdrawing his candidature, it is seen as a personal failure of Gandhi. Gandhi urged Bose to assume the duties of the President and form his working committee for running Congress. However, it seemed difficult as reports suggested that Subhash Chandra’s re-election was not sitting well with some INC workers, especially those supporting Gandhi. The working committee was dominated by Gandhi supporters, who were not happy with the presence and ways of Bose. A power-play occurred in the Congress Working Committee, as a result in April 1939, Bose stepped down and his position was filled by Dr Rajendra Prasad who went on to become the first president of independent India. In May 1939, Bose formed the Forward Block within Congress and followed a path different from the Gandhian ideology.
Image Caption: Gandhi and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose
Image Credits: The Statesman
Since the Constitution of INC does not provide for the removal of the president, power-play may occur in the Congress Working Committee in the near future. At present, the Indian National Congress’ future seems uncertain and blurry. Only time will tell the fate of INC.
The Post Independence Rhetoric
Even after the independence this trend did find its way into the new framework of Congress as a national party. The pioneering social scientist, Partha Chatterjee, extensively wrote about the relationship between the government wing and the party wing of the congress. In his book, State and Politics in India, he explains the innumerable contrasting viewpoints within the party itself on this respective topic; further delineating the derivation of power and the formations of various sects in the party. The issue of the relationship between the Party and the government wings, remained at the centre of hullabaloo within the Congress. Whether it be the sects of conservatives and socialists during the early independence era of the party or notable factions during Indira Gandhi’s time; congress has continuously faced a problem regarding the continuity of the same question: What is the relationship between its government wing and the party wing?
When Nehru became the Prime Minister of the interim government, J.B Kriplani was appointed as the Congress president. But soon after, both immediately ran into serious disagreements regarding the ministerial wing over the issue of relationship between the party and government. After the CWC talks, Kriplani resigned and left congress. He was later succeeded by the right-wing leader, Purushottamdas Tandon, which once again ended in a dispute. But now in 1951, Nehru resigned from the working committee. When D.N Dhebar was elected as the congress president in the year 1954, he said, “It is a mistake to consider that there is a dual leadership in the nation… There is only one leader today and that is Pandit Nehru. Whether he carries the mantle of the Presidentship or not, ultimately, the whole nation looks to him for support and guidance.” Another notable rift and contention between the congress party was seen during the time of Indira Gandhi, where ultimately the supporters of Indira formed the Congress Requisitionists and the senior leaders of the syndicate group formed the Congress Organisation.
Image Credits: Times now
The Iron ‘Mother-India’
In 1977, Indira Gandhi resigned from the Congress Working Committee. In a letter to the Congress president, K. Brahmananda Reddy, she said that she would resign from the CWC, the supreme body of the Congress, and would now work as an ordinary member of the party. Reddy refused to disclose the contents of Mrs Gandhi’s letter, which was hand delivered to the Congress president by F.M. Khan, an MP and a confidant of Karnataka chief minister, Devraj Urs.
In her letter, the former prime minister wrote, "There are moments in an individual’s life, when the inexorable logic of events leaves no option than the one which may appear extreme. For some weeks, I have had the feeling that one such moment has arrived in my life. Since childhood, I have been brought up in an atmosphere of patriotism. Later, the nation gave me the opportunity of serving it, which I have been doing and shall continue to do to the best of my capacity. In the context of democracy, I have never rejected the verdict of the people, whatever it was. But now I see my own organisation rendered incapable of playing its legitimate role in national affairs… Hence, after full reflection, I have decided to resign from the Working Committee."
The Half-Lion Reign
It is true that former Prime Minister of India and Congress president Rao was tainted in many ways while running a minority government at the Centre between 1991 and 1996. The relationship between Sonia Gandhi and Narasimha Rao became so sour that after his death in 2004, the former Prime Minister’s body was not allowed to lie in the Congress headquarters. His last rites had to be performed not in New Delhi but in his home state of Andhra Pradesh. In July last year, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi paid tribute to Rao on his birth centenary, writing a letter to Telangana Pradesh Congress Committee praising his bold leadership. The Congress party must re-examine Rao’s tenure and see how someone from outside the Gandhi clan, for the first time in two decades, ran both the government and the party between 1991 and 1996.
As Sanjaya Baru noted in his book 1991: How PV Narasimha Rao Made History, “The Tirupati session strengthened PV and the party organisation and, in doing so, became an important step in the direction of once again making the Congress a truly national political party that was not identified with any one individual or family.” Despite Rao’s decision to hold elections, he could not digest the fact that his critics were elected to the Congress Working Committee. He had nullified the election on the pretext that no Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe and women candidates had been elected. But he allowed the internal power struggle to continue. Rao reconstituted the committee, making sure to nominate all the members who had been elected. Rao showed that it was possible to survive the pressure of heavyweight rivals including Arjun Singh, Narayan Datt Tiwari, Sharad Pawar, AK Antony and those who were close to Gandhi family. He had the backing of the Southern lobby of the party. Without the support of the Gandhis, he completed a full term in office as prime minister in 1996, running a minority government with a faction-ridden Congress.
The Righteous Political Heir
Pranab Mukherjee was side-lined from Congress during the premiership of Rajiv Gandhi. Mukherjee had viewed himself and not the inexperienced Rajiv, as the rightful successor to Indira following her assassination in 1984. Mukherjee lost out in the ensuing power struggle. He formed his own party, the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress, which merged with Congress in 1989 after reaching a consensus with Rajiv Gandhi. After Rajiv Gandhi's assassination in 1991, Mukherjee's political career was revived when Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao appointed him as the Planning Commission head in 1991 and foreign minister in 1995. Following this, as elder statesman of Congress, Mukherjee was the principal architect of Sonia Gandhi's ascent to the party's presidency in 1998. When the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance came to power in 2004, Mukherjee won a Lok Sabha seat for the first time. From then until his resignation in 2012, he held a number of key cabinet portfolios in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government.
In his book, “The dramatic decade: The Indira Gandhi years”, Mukherjee fondly pondered about the fact that, soon after he became a member of the Rajya Sabha and in the ensuing years, he swiftly rose up the political ladder under the tutelage of Indira Gandhi. However, in the years following the assassination of Indira, Mukherjee though still unwaveringly loyal to the Congress, slipped into an uneasy relationship with the party.
The Present Allegory
The unresolved top-level leadership issue is back to haunt the Congress again as the party continues to witness more resignations among its regional leaders. Congress national spokesperson Sanjay Jha recently vented his frustration over recent desertions in Gujarat by MLAs to flag the crisis. “Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and now Gujarat, reflects the growing sense of insecurity among leaders about the party's future which nobody is willing to address,” Jha told India Today TV.
Image Caption: (from left to right) Pranob Mukherjee with the former prime minister P.V Narsimha Rao; Image Credits: The Hindu
Dissatisfaction among the party’s top brass has set off a fresh volley of allegations between Congress leaders. The need to postpone the internal poll has been explained as the larger task awaiting the party in view of the impending Assembly elections in April and May in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala and Puducherry. This has meant that the interim president’s term will last almost two years – an unusual duration for a position held in a provisional capacity only. When the last full-time president Rahul Gandhi began his short-lived term in December 2017, the polling for the Assembly election in Gujarat had just concluded and the party was expected to do well. When the results were announced, although the Congress had not been able to cause an upset and the BJP overcame over two decades of anti-incumbency to return to power in the state, the close fight showed that the Congress was pushing harder to recover lost ground. This was evident in the manner in which party workers welcomed Rahul’s formal taking over as president.
Be that as it may, the alleged lack of charisma in the current leadership of the party, and the legacy costs of dynastic politics as a sales pitch in ambitious India, push another stream of the party to look for broader choices within the organisation. What the congress needs to realise is that it cannot afford another factional dispute arising out of it. The Congress needs to rewrite its ideological agenda and open the entry gates of the party for people with different ideologies within its broad spectrum of its heirloom. The party can revive itself by rebuilding the party organisation by repopulating its cadres with foot soldiers and flag bearers at the grassroots level and set up realistic goals to do a political rebound in the distant future.
By Nirmanyu Chouhan
Nirmanyu is a history honours student from Hindu college, pushing and exploring his interests in the numerous aspects of global and national political arena, also driven towards the study of regional socio-political affairs. He is more towards research and development of a particular issue and active journaling.