End of ideology

Print edition : May 16, 2014

P.V. Narasimha Rao (right) and Manmohan Singh. The policy change initiated by Rajiv Gandhi continued unabated during their regimes. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

At the AICC meeting in Avadi, Chennai, in 1995, where the "socialist" orientation of the Congress was announced. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

After the Congress Parliamentary Party's executive committee meeting in 1969 that discussed nationalisation of banks. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Sanjay Gandhi, who initiated an "ideology-neutral" agenda. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Rajiv Gandhi, who totally reversed the ideological direction Jawaharlal Nehru had given the Congress. Photo: The Hindu Archives.

If the Congress is floundering, it is because it lacks today the ideology, social vision and agenda an inherently pluralistic and unequal society like India needs.

THERE is an adage that history repeats itself, the first time as a tragedy and then as a farce. Recently, a renowned economist confided to me that the current problems afflicting the country existed because Sonia Gandhi, president of the Indian National Congress, is a “communist”. This label has been attributed to her due to the massive social sector spending during the tenures of both the UPA I and UPA II, which has fettered the growth of the national economy. According to him, this has not only brought economic ruin to the country, but also led to the fortunes of the Congress party plummeting. He believes that the country can banish poverty in a substantive manner only if growth is scripted authentically, and pursuing populist policies will ensure neither growth nor development. However, he admitted that she was influenced by two leading economists of the world who did not have any personal axe to grind; they only had the welfare of the people in mind. Even though the characterisation of Sonia Gandhi appeared to be comic, the comment does indicate the derision with which a social sector agenda is held by some sections of the national elite.

This, however, was not the first time that a Congress president had to face the direct wrath of the corporate sector. When Jawaharlal Nehru returned from the then Soviet Union in the 1930s and vowed to replicate the socialist experiment in independent India, the “Bombay Group of Industrialists”, led by Homi Mody and Vithaldas Thackersey, made a virulent criticism of the rising star of the Congress party. In contrast, G.D. Birla, a leading industrialist and a close aide of Mahatma Gandhi, even though he was not an admirer of Nehru, admonished with alacrity the recalcitrant Bombay-based industrialists. He advised them to not criticise Nehru, but to cultivate him. To what extent Nehru got cultivated by the Indian capitalists may be debated, but the strong ideological foundation that he gave to the Indian National Congress is part of history now. The ideology-driven Congress party, under the canopy of Gandhi and Nehru, not only brought Independence for the country, but built the massive edifice of the national economy during the first two decades of post-Independence India. Even though the “Idea of India” unfolded during the Independence movement through many ideological streams, its scripting had the decisive imprint of the Gandhi/Nehru foundation. In contrast, Sonia Gandhi, a fourth-generation “Nehru”, cannot be faulted for even an iota of ideological pretensions. In fact, for all the “Nehrus”, the genealogy is only “biological” and far from being “ideological”. The grotesque proportions of the current “Idea of India” can easily be attributed to the later generation of Nehrus. After all, the emergence of political forces like the Shiv Sena or Bhindranwale was the result of the implicit support that they received from the Congress during their initial years. Thus, not only Marx, even Nehru will be turning in his grave if Sonia Gandhi is considered a communist or even a liberal socialist.

The Indian national movement and the subsequent evolution of India had a strong “ideological” foundation, and it also provided an anchor to the many countries that were liberated after the conflagrations of the Second World War. India emerged as the natural leader of not only the Afro-Asian nations, but also of many non-aligned countries across the world. Even though the national and international ideological bondings were effected initially by Nehru, it continued to find resonance during much of the period of Indira Gandhi. In fact, in the past, not only the Congress party, but most of the leading political parties had strong ideological foundations, which acted as the axis around which the supporters and cadres of those parties were mobilised. The splits in political parties, not uncommon even in those days, were not necessarily around pelf or office, but mainly around ideological differences.

In the last couple of years, however, the Congress party has drifted far from its ideological anchor in the most unprecedented manner. To be fair, some drift has always been there in the history of this party. For example, after the demise of Nehru, the Congress retreated from its ideological moorings for the first time when a corporate-sponsored Finance Minister, Sachin Chowdhury, was inducted into the Cabinet and this was followed by a devaluation of the rupee in 1966. However, Indira Gandhi made up for this blunder by giving a leftward nudge to the Congress and going for the nationalisation of banks, the abolition of privy purses, and so on, as enunciated in the 10-point “stray thought” circulated in the All India Congress Committee (AICC) session in Bangalore in 1969. The Congress party was further strengthened with the decisive victory of India in the Bangladesh war. The party was electrified and the nation galvanised. There was a deluge of ideology-driven professional and political persons in the Congress party, reminiscent of the present-day Aam Aadmi Party. Not only did Indira Gandhi ensure a split of the party, its electoral reverses in the fourth parliamentary election in 1967 became a thing of the past.

Even though ideological moorings were consolidated in the Congress, the 1971 parliamentary elections ushered in a new trend in India—“plebiscitary” and “personality”-cult-driven politics. With the expulsion of the status-quoist “syndicate” within the party, a parallel party machinery unfolded. The imposition of the Emergency by Indira Gandhi in 1975 can be referred as a landmark, heralding the “end of ideology” in Indian politics. In the backdrop of a larger-than-life projection of Indira Gandhi and a severe economic crisis, two streams evolved in the Indian political firmament. One was led by Jayaprakash Narayan, who advocated the “end of ideology” and “party-less democracy” in politics. This politics advocated giving more space to the market by ending the “licence and permit raj”. The other stream was that of Sanjay Gandhi, the younger son of the Prime Minister, who introduced an ideology-neutral “Five-Point” agenda, superseding the Union government's class-driven “Twenty-Point Programme”, which included land reform, alleviation of rural poverty and justice to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.

For Sanjay Gandhi, the five most important points deserving attention were, lo and behold, adult education, end of the dowry system, growing more trees, family planning, and eradication of the caste system. Advisers like P.N. Haksar, who were the architects of the leftward shift, were marginalised. Ironically, even though they came from opposite ends of the political spectrum, there was convergence between Jayaprakash Narayan and Sanjay Gandhi on the questions of “ideology” and “market”. On the one hand, Indira Gandhi hailed the fact that the Sanjay Gandhi-led “Youth Congress” had stolen the thunder of the parent organisation, signalling a new organisational configuration of the party. On the other hand, at the instance of Jayaprakash Narayan, several political parties liquidated their organisation and, in the process, both cadres and ideology got eclipsed. Even though the Congress was not part of the Jayaprakash bandwagon, the increasing clout of Sanjay ensured that “old hands” and “ideology-driven” leaders were marginalised, and businessmen, inheritors of princely estates and persons of doubtful characters were inducted into the party. Thus, the old Congress, in fact, got liquidated from within.

In response to the rightward shift in national politics, thanks to the Jayaprakash movement and Sanjay Gandhi’s predominance, the opening up of the Indian economy started in the days of the Emergency itself. It climaxed after the assassination of Indira Gandhi following Operation Blue Star. Rajiv Gandhi totally reversed the core ideological foundation of Nehru by providing “techno-managerial” thrust not only to the Congress but also to the polity and governance. This policy continued unabated during the P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh regimes. The consequences of the “opening up of the economy” and “reform” could not be politically confronted by the mother-son duo, Sonia and Rahul.

With the all-round eclipse of ideology in the national discourse, the politics of “ethno-religious” mobilisation or “identity” gradually engulfed the nation. The Congress did try its hand at “ethno-religious” politics through Operation Blue Star, by opening the locks of the Babri Masjid, and by neutralising the court verdict in the Shah Bano case by changing the law. Ironically, all these moves, instead of placating the communal constituencies among both Hindus and Muslims variants, gave space to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other ethno-religious political parties. Sensing the trend, some socialists like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Karpoori Thakur also changed their political strategies and opted for identity-based politics. Even the Congress made a similar, but half-hearted attempt by operationalising the Mandal Commission, and it was not surprising that Sitaram Kesri, the main architect of the attempt, was quickly marginalised. Similarly, the strategy of Arjun Singh and Digvijay Singh to accommodate the emerging middle castes of the Hindi heartland in the party was ignored by its top leadership.

Going by important economic indicators, the track record of UPA I and II was not at all inferior to the record of the previous six-year rule of the NDA, except in the magnitude of corruption. However, it can be said with certainty that “politics” and “governance” are not a matter of “techno-managerial” exercise only. In a vast, pluralistic country like India, ideological foundation is the key element in fixing the political agenda, which may not necessarily be accomplished by building a mammoth organisation alone. In the absence of such ideology-based parties, identity-driven parties, based on religion or social categories or sub-national aspirations, have created a huge space for themselves in India. Thus the BJP, a party based on religious identity, is going from strength to strength, while the Left constituency has stagnated in recent times. In this scenario, if the Indian National Congress has to re-invent itself on the national stage decisively, it has to transcend the “genealogy” of Nehru to the “ideology” of Nehru.