Analysing the origins of the Congress party, BJP president Amit Shah on Friday claimed the party had no ideological basis and was a “special purpose vehicle” to secure freedom. “Congress kisi ek vichaar dhaara ke adhaar par, kisi ek siddhant ke adhaar par bani hui party hi nahi hai, woh azadi prapt karne ka ek special purpose vehicle hai, azadi prapt karne ka ek saadhan tha. (Congress was not based on any ideology or principle. It was a special purpose vehicle to gain independence),” said Shah. He further went on to claim the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, was aware of the internal chaos within the Congress party and hence wanted it dissolved soon after independence. As per the BJP stalwart, unlike the Congress, the BJP had a clear objective and higher democracy within its organisation.
The issue with political principles is that it can never be isolated from the historical circumstances in which they were formed. Shah’s remark on the party does have a grain of truth. The Congress was indeed the political organisation at the forefront of the nationalist struggle. However, an in-depth analysis of the origins of the party would show that the Congress did have an organisational principle, which was based on the political necessities of the time. While Shah is not accurate when he says that the Congress was not based on any kind of principles, he is also missing out on the fact that just like the Congress, the BJP’s ideology was also rooted in the time at which it was formed.
Ideological foundation of the Congress
Founded in December 1885 under the guidance of retired British officer AO Hume, the Congress was the largest political organisation of its time. Its establishment in the late nineteenth century was rooted in the need for building a communication bridge between the British and those Indians who had been educated in the Western mode of thought. Consequently, it was also a product of the efforts of those Indians who had undergone a European model of education and were fighting a cultural crisis to come to peace with the inner contradictions between European ideologies and traditional Indian values.
It is accurate to say that people from a large number of cultural and political background came together under the banner of the Congress. However, there was one common thread that tied them all, the fact that all of them belonged to the class of Western-educated elite, who became the intermediary between the natives and the British. As noted by historian W Travis Hanes III, such cross-cultural synthesis was a common feature in most intermediary organisations formed between the colonisers and the colonised.
In the case of India, this class of intermediaries came under the suspicion of the British soon after the 1857 revolt and were particularly barred from rising in administrative jobs despite having the requisite qualifications. In addition to the professional frustrations, the other complexity faced by the Western-educated Indians was that in the process of being introduced to European ideas like liberty and equality, they faced a crisis in terms of respecting their own cultural ethos. Resulting from this cultural crisis were the neo-Hinduism movements, that sought out the best within traditional Hindu value systems, reforming them in a way to bring them closer to European thoughts.
The Indian National Congress was a political product of the Hindu reform movements and in particular derived its inspiration from the Theosophical Society of India founded by Madam H.P. Blavatsky. The tenets of the Theosophical society that were originally formulated in America, appealed to social reformer Britons in India like Hume who went on to help in the formation of the Congress. At the same time, Blavatsky’s ideologies came across as attractive to the Western-educated Indians as well for the reason that it helped in solving their cultural crisis. While the Theosophical society was based on spirituality, Blavatsky maintained that the source of ancient wisdom was to be found in India. “It has been discovered that the very same ideas (as those the occultists had traced back to ancient Egypt), may be found in Buddhistic and Brahmanical literature,” she said. This notion of modern spirituality being sourced out of Indian traditions gave a validity to the traditional value systems of the Western-educated elite in India, a number of whom went on to join the Theosophical Society.
Further, the Theosophical Society also provided the ideological basis of religious unity by extending its message on spirituality to all other religions in India. The British often criticised India’s multi-religiosity as being the biggest hindrance to achieving a unified nationality status. The Theosophical Society provided the suitable response to this argument.
While in the beginning the Theosophical Society was restricted to the philosophical sphere, by virtue of its appeal to the educated elite in India, the organisation soon enough found itself providing a background to a political movement. As noted by political scientist Mark Bevir, “the importance of neo-Hinduism appears in the way the Theosophical Society provided the framework for action, within which some of its Indian and British members worked to form the Indian National Congress”. When the Congress was formed in 1885, its immediate motive was not independence. Rather its intent was to form a political arm that would mediate between the British authorities and the demands of the Indians.
Ideological foundation of the BJP
While the Congress was formed on the basis of the Hindu reform movements of the late nineteenth century, the BJP was also formed on the basis of the ideological processes of its time. The BJP’s origins lie in the Bhartiya Jana Sangh (BJS) founded by Shyama Prasad Mookherjee who broke away from the Congress in 1951 due to ideological conflicts with Nehru. Basing itself on the need for preserving Hindu cultural traditions and countering what they believed were Muslim appeasement policies of the Congress, the BJS was formed in collaboration with the Hindutva organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
The BJS held strong protests against the Emergency imposed by Congress leader Indira Gandhi and collaborated with other opposition parties to form the Janata Party. Due to political disagreements within the party, it dissolved in 1980 and majority of its members formed the BJP. The 1980s being a time of large-scale Hindu-Muslim riots, the BJP found its ideological basis in the hardline Hindutva model, particularly rooted in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
Formed soon after Independence, the BJS’ ideology needs to be located in the fact that it was largely shaped by the atmosphere of religious strife that existed in the years following Partition. As the party remodelled itself to form the Janata Party and then the BJP, its core principle remained the same, fighting for the preservation of a Hindu cultural identity.