Recently, Mallikarjun Kharge, a senior Congress leader and having a long experience in politics, was declared elected in the election for the post of President of the Indian National Congress. He is the third Dalit to hold this very important and prestigious post. Elections for the post of president in the party were held after nearly 24 years. It is interesting that barring Communist parties, office bearers of almost all parties in India have been nominated. Most of the parties have been occupied by specific families. Though BJP has been opposing the dynasty of Congress, but there is no dearth of political dynasties in BJP. The BJP is the only party controlled by another organization – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
The Congress is often accused of being controlled by the Gandhi family. We should also remember that in 2004, when Sonia Gandhi’s name was proposed for the post of Prime Minister, many individuals and parties strongly opposed it, citing her foreign origin. Sonia Gandhi was the tallest Congress leader at that time, an MP and a natural contender for the Prime Minister’s post. It is interesting that those who did not want to allow Sonia Gandhi to become the Prime Minister by calling her a foreigner, are celebrating the election of Rishi Sunak as the Prime Minister of England.
Kharge is heading the Congress at a time when the party faces innumerable challenges and the political arena is dominated by disruptive forces. In other areas too, preference is being given to those with saffron ideology. For example, the recruitment of vice-chancellors and teachers of universities is based on their ideology and not their educational qualifications. This is a time when many sections of the country are surrounded by various kinds of troubles.
At the global level, India’s position in the indices of hunger, freedom of the press, democratic freedoms, freedom of religion, etc. is going down. The economic condition of the common people has deteriorated rapidly. Prices are rising, unemployment is rising and farming is becoming increasingly difficult. Several international agencies have warned of increasing atrocities on minorities. Gregory Stanton, an international scholar on genocide, has also said that the situation of minorities in India is worrying.
It is clear that in this background, India’s largest opposition party is facing a plethora of challenges. The party has to defend the values which were the basis of formation of Congress. Before the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885, many modern institutions had come into existence in the country. These included Bombay Association, Madras Mahajan Sabha, Pune Public Meeting etc. In the meeting of the representatives of these assemblies held in Calcutta in 1883, it was emphasized that a political platform was needed to convey the political demands of the citizens of the country to the British. These demands included industrialization of the country, land reforms, establishment of ICS examination centers in India and greater participation of Indians in administration.
Lord A. O. Hume brought these various organizations and their leadership together and formed an organization to strive for greater participation of Indians in politics. This organization was above the narrowness of religion, caste and region. Over time, women also joined in.
The post of president was very important in the Congress and party presidents included Muslims (Maulana Azad), Christians (W.C. Banerjee) and Parsis (Dadabhai Nairoji). With the combined efforts of all these, the Congress could become an inclusive platform. In the early years of the party, Lokmanya Tilak, MG Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale etc. gave voice to democratic values and presented petitions against the dictatorial policies of the colonial rulers.
With the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi on the scene began mass movements that united the people. Ultimately these mass movements forced the British to leave India. Mahatma Gandhi’s mantra was to take care of the interests of the last man in the last row. In a way, this principle of his became a guide for the policies of the Congress. Unfortunately, due to the global situation, the Congress governments had to implement such policies which were not in line with the interests of the poorer classes, but still the policies of the UPA-1 and UPA-2 governments were largely people-oriented. Revolutionary laws like Right to Information, Right to Education and Right to Health were made during these governments. During this period social movements and progressive forces got an opportunity to shape the social welfare policies of the government.
The introduction of identity politics turned everything upside down. The anti-reservation riots of 1980 and 1986 were a warning of the times to come. Following the implementation of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations, protests against the policies of positive discrimination emerged in the form of Advani’s Rath Yatra and the subsequent demolition of the Babri Masjid. People were divided on the basis of religion. Beef, cow, ghar wapsi, population balance etc became the main issues which weakened the fraternity based on our common culture and traditions.
The Udaipur conference of Congress held recently can be a new beginning. This conference gives rise to the hope that perhaps fraternity will be re-established in our country, the values mentioned in the Preamble of our Constitution will be encouraged and there will be tension in the administrative system. Efforts will be made to prevent the infiltration of communal elements.
At the time when Kharge has been elected president, a top party leader Rahul Gandhi is taking out the Bharat Jodo Yatra. If this yatra can really connect people, it will help in building the India of the dreams of Gandhi, Patel, Nehru, Subhash and Ambedkar. The issues being raised in this visit are important. We also have to pay attention to the increasing attacks on the Constitution and preserve the inclusive spirit of the Constitution.
The new Speaker should consider building the unity of the opposition on the basis of principles. These principles can be associated with love, harmony and peace. To establish unity among the opposition parties, commitment to such economic policies should be necessary which will improve the lives of the common people. We can only hope that the election of Kharge as the National President of the Congress and Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra will prove to be the fulfillment of the aspirations of the Indian people reeling under the chasm of disruptive politics. This disruptive politics is only doing good to the industrialists and communal elements.
(The author taught at IIT Mumbai and is a recipient of the 2007 National Communal Harmony Award)