Dissecting the grand old party

Vijay Sanghvi’s recently published book The Congress: Indira to Sonia Gandhi attempts to narrate the developments in the Indian National Congress in the last forty four years between its hegemony of power and its return to power corridors after an exile of almost a decade. The accounts are based on the personal observations as well as on detailed and in depth interactions with senior leaders of the Congress and other parties who were at the helm of affairs of politics in India. Though the author does not claim the book to be a historic account but it is certainly an essay to take readers through the ups and downs that the Congress Party suffered after the shock of Chinese aggression in October 1962. The incident had shattered the first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru. The book throws detail light on the triumphs and disasters that Indira Gandhi encountered. It also portrays the party apparatus, its political health and the uncertain future that Sonia Gandhi has inherited.

Sanghvi, has created a niche for himself as a perspective reporter and critic of political, economic and social development since he joined the profession in 1962. He is a regular contributor to various national and international journals. The author believes that the Congress has undergone a complete metamorphosis from a political edifice that was based on mass culture at the time when it took over the reins of the country in August 1947 to become an elite culture based organization. “Its transformation has been forced by events over which the party leadership had no control. But some of the disasters that the party suffered were self-inflicted due to immediate political compulsions” says Sanghvi.
Excerpts from chapter ‘The Slide’ of the book The Congress: Indira to Sonia Gandhi

The Indian National Congress had its jaunty run since the Indira Gandhi years largely on it earlier reputation earned through struggle, strife and power, as also because it was the only party which had a truly all-India character. The vehicle may keep changing one driver after the other, bur the depreciating brand equity has to take its toll. The engine that propelled it was becoming suspect; the energies that had driven it seemed half-exhausted…..

……..Interestingly, when Capra asked her why did Indian not follow the Gandhian prescription for economic advance, she simply said: “If I could start from the scratch, I would do things quite differently. But I have to be realistic. There is a large industrial base in India which I can’t throw away.” The definite conjuncture arrived in 1969, but Indira Gandhi herself was not equal or serious enough to tackle the task. She then changed her strategy and decided to take-on the old guards in the party in 1969……..

……..The successful Railway strike of 1974 was one early indication of disenchantment and disillusionment. The complete derailment of the giant railways graphically illustrated the popular mood. But Indira Gandhi seemed neither to care nor see. There were food riots in the tribal belt of Madhya Pradesh that had brought the movement on the Central Railways to a grinding halt for a week in 1974. Never before were food riots so rampant in the country and that too down to the remote tribal areas. It was unimaginable that the tribal would rise against the government for food……..

…….The true and most effective picture of existing inequities felt at all levels by those at the receiving end was depicted by Salman Rushdie in a documentary ‘Midnight Riddles’ to project issues, effecting the man on streets who is ignored and peripheral considerations given free-play. What had irked the establishment much more to ban its broadcast was the starkness of the depiction of day-to-day life, like a woman on a Mumbai footpath making rotis on a temporary chulha of loose bricks, while her toddler son is playing in the sewer. The TV camera then shifts to focus on a modern kitchen in a posh home where a housewife is making kebabs. Her pet dog comes, pulls her sari by mouth so that a piece of kebab falls down, dog grabs it and runs away……

……The transition from Indira Gandhi’s cynical gamesmanship to Rajiv Gandhi’s over-exuberant attempts to dismantle the edifice that had slowly lost touch with the masses was a half-baked response to a first rate crisis. The party organisation had been eroded so deeply that it dare not question either the mother or the son. The party was no longer a springboard for chalking up ideas and schemes- the ubiquitous Congressman had left the process of thinking entirely to one leader……