How old is the Congress party? It could be 134 years since 1885, or we could begin with the breakaway party Indira Gandhi founded in 1969 — the Congress (R) — from the official party called the Congress (O). In December 1977, Indira resigned her primary membership of the Congress (R) and founded the Congress (I).
Whether 134, 50 or 42 years old, the Congress is developing serious memory loss. Take the most recent spat about surgical strikes. It took weeks into the campaign to respond to Narendra Modi’s challenge. Then it came up with not one but several instances which no one could recall as having made an impact and now are quickly forgotten.
There was however a ready example of the first and glorious “surgical strike” way back in 1965 when Lal Bahadur Shastri ordered the Army to cross the Punjab border, which altered the balance of the battle. But then Shastri was an accidental prime minister and has been wiped out from history to establish a seamless succession of the Nehru Gandhi dynasty. P V Narasimha Rao suffers from the same deletion, hence the Congress cannot take pride from the radical transformation of the economy under him after 40 years of stagnation. No doubt as time passes Manmohan Singh will be quietly given the same amnesia treatment. This is a determined effort to throw away one’s best cards just to make sure that any success, if it comes, can be attributed to the family.
It is a free country and the Congress is free to write its own terminal history. But it does take considerable chutzpah to insist, as the Congress has done recently, that while it can cite the names of the family to glorify the Party — Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, (forget Sanjay please) Rajiv, Sonia, no one else should name Rajiv negatively.
But, for India, it is worth cherishing the memory of Shastri. Not only for the firm response to Pakistan or even his invocation Jai Jawan Jai Kisan. He was the first political leader to ask openly in Parliament whether all the heavy duty Plans which were being implemented benefited the aam aadmi, using those iconic words. Had he lived beyond his brief tenure of 20 months being Prime Minister, he could have contested the 1967 election in his own right and made the Congress a normal political party and saved it from the dynastic fate. No wonder there are conspiracy theories blaming the Russians, the Pakistanis or whoever to account for his death from a heart attack. Accidents do happen by chance and in unpredictable ways. There need be no conspiracy whatever.
It is inopportune to predict the outcome of the election. Rumour has it that Rahul Gandhi is aiming for success in the2022 Uttar Pradesh elections and the 2024 general elections. He says he has time, given his age and the certainty of tenure as Congress president. So 2019 has been conceded.
Yet there is no guarantee that history will repeat itself. Between Rajiv Gandhi’s failure to win a majority and now, 30 years have passed without a Congress-majority government. Even the UPA took 15 years to arrive. There will be a generation of voters by then for whom names of Indira, Rajiv or even Nehru will have little purchase.
If Congress wants to survive, it will have to forget its past and invent itself a future.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 12, 2019, under the title ‘Congress’s selective amnesia’.