Historic half-truths

Print edition : January 28, 2011

A history of 125 years of the Congress party seeks to obfuscate the real issues facing it and the country.

in New Delhi

Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee release the book celebrating 125 years of the Congress at the 83rd plenary session of the party in New Delhi on December 19, 2010.-RAJEEV BHATT

IF you thought it was Indira Gandhi who was responsible for the Emergency, you are wrong. It was Jayaprakash Narayan, who acted like a loose cannon, mobilising people to overthrow her, and forced her to impose it. And it was not Indira Gandhi who was responsible for all that went wrong during the Emergency, it was her son Sanjay Gandhi, who acted without her knowledge. Nevertheless, people at large welcomed the Emergency! This is what a book on the Congress party tells you.

There is more. If communalism, which has reared its head in the country, led to one of the most abhorrent incidents in the history of India, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, it is not the Congress party which is to be blamed, but the fissiparous movement led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Never mind that there was a Congress government at the Centre when it all happened.

Congress and the Making of the Indian Nation, brought out recently to commemorate 125 years of the Congress, is merely an attempt to blame others for historical facts such as the Emergency or the rise of communalism, for which it can be faulted, and claim the credit for achievements, like the economic transformation of the country, that came by default. It gives no insight into the various problems that have plagued the nation in recent years when the party has been a major political player. The book looks like yet another exercise in self-congratulation by the Hail Sonia brigade rather than a history of the country's largest party.

The Emergency

The imposition of the Emergency in June 1975 is one of the biggest blots on the history of the Congress. The party has always shied away from discussing the issue in the post-Emergency period. So it was only natural that the chapter on the Emergency would be dissected with utmost curiosity. However, instead of any genuine analysis or introspection, what the party has put forth in the book leaves a bad taste in one's mouth.

The chapter dealing with the Indira Gandhi years in the post-Bangladesh period (pages 114-117) talks about the domestic economic crisis following an unprecedented monsoon failure, the high rates of inflation hence, and the resultant trade and industrial unrest all over India in the early 1970s. There were food riots in many areas and soon this disaffection led to large-scale industrial unrest. Strikes occurred in many areas during 1972-73, leading to a 22-day all India railway strike in May 1974, the book says. The suppression of this strike saw the popularity of the government plummeting among the working class, it says.

The book says Sanjay Gandhi (centre) promoted slum clearance, literacy, and anti-dowry measures, but in an "arbitrary and authoritarian manner".-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

This, along with a mutiny by the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) in Uttar Pradesh in May 1973 which was brought under control by the Army (35 constables and soldiers were killed in the process), escalated tension in the country. According to the book, during this socio-economic upheaval, two mass movements revolving around high food prices were launched in Bihar and Gujarat, leading to strikes, arson, looting and rioting. The movement in Bihar was led by Jayaprakash Narayan, who gave the call for a total revolution demanding the resignation of the Congress government led by Indira Gandhi.

The book goes on to describe how this extra-constitutional and undemocratic movement (there is no explanation as to why this was undemocratic or extra-constitutional) was supported by students, traders, the middle class and a section of the intelligentsia, and how it acquired a pan-India character leading to violent clashes between the people and the police in many places.

In the meantime came the famous Allahabad High Court judgment, delivered by Justice J.L. Sinha, which quashed Indira Gandhi's election to the Lok Sabha on the grounds of electoral malpractices and banned her from contesting elections for six years. She refused to resign, and the Opposition parties which had entered the movement by now, gave a call for mass agitation from June 29, 1975, and announced their intention of gheraoing the Prime Minister's residence in New Delhi in order to force her to resign. This prompted her to impose the Emergency on the night of June 25-26.

There is no mention in the book, however, of the fact that there was no Cabinet meeting and that the then President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed was almost forced to sign the order invoking Article 352 in the dead of night, which meant putting democracy under indefinite suspension. There is also no explanation as to why a leader who was hailed as Goddess Durga' in 1971 following the India-Pakistan war had become so unpopular in such a short time that people braved police lathis and bullets to ask for her resignation.

Rajiv Gandhi addressing a rally in Tirupati on June 15, 1989. Bofors is listed as "the most serious problem" he faced. He lost power in the elections held that year.-M.A. RAHIM

The book says Jayaprakash Narayan, who came out of political retirement to lead a mass movement against her, was bereft of any political ideology. Even though Jayaprakash Narayan could not be faulted on his integrity and selflessness, his ideology remained vague. During the 1950s he criticised parliamentary democracy and advocated a party-less democracy. During this movement in Bihar he advocated total revolution, but he never really defined its political, social or economic implications. He himself was not an authoritarian leader, but the ambiguity of his ideas provided scope for totalitarian elements, it says. It further says that the undemocratic nature of the movement he led was evident in its aim of wanting to overthrow the government in Bihar and the Central government at any cost.

The book condemns the movement saying the methods adopted of demonstrations, rallies, gheraos and strikes were totally unconstitutional. It is intriguing, however, why perfectly legitimate tools for political protest in any democracy should be viewed as unconstitutional by the Congress.

Interestingly, the authors, while admitting that all democratic fundamental rights were suspended during the Emergency, say that over one lakh people were jailed, the power of the judiciary was reduced drastically, and unlimited power was concentrated in the hands of the Prime Minister. Yet the book says vast sections of the population welcomed it initially since general administration improved. It briefly mentions how unfortunately, in certain spheres, over-enthusiasm led to compulsion in enforcement of certain programmes like compulsory sterilisation and clearance of slums.

September 9, 1990: Self-immolation by Rajeev Goswami, a student, in protest against the Mandal Commission report. The Mandal agitation got only a passing mention.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Sanjay Gandhi, the book says, promoted slum clearance, anti-dowry measures and promotion of literacy, but in an arbitrary and authoritarian manner much to the annoyance of the popular opinion. The book says it was owing to his support for family planning that the government decided to pursue it more vigorously. But for people who still remember the horrors of forced sterilisation or of having to run out of their homes in the Turkman Gate area in Delhi as bulldozers razed their homes, this is hardly an explanation. And the tome does nothing to exorcise the ghost of the Emergency from the popular psyche.

But Congressmen see nothing amiss in this half-hearted cleansing exercise. The book has not been written by Congress members. It has been written by professional historians though it is a fact that Pranab Mukherjee is the chief editor. We have merely tried to set the record straight on many issues, including the Emergency. As for trying to put the blame on someone who is not there to defend himself, that is not the idea. A fact remains a fact, no matter what. But there is no attempt at demeaning or devaluing the contribution of Sanjay Gandhi, said Shakeel Ahmad, a senior Congress leader and the party's spokesperson.

Mandal-Masjid

On issues like communalism and casteism, which have plagued Indian polity for close to 20 years, the book is equally ambiguous. It offers no explanation for the tumultuous second half of the 1980s and most of the 1990s when Mandal and Masjid reigned supreme in Indian politics and the Congress party remained a mute bystander.

Jayaprakash Narayan leading a `march to Parliament' in Delhi in March 1975. The official history describes how "this extra-constitutional and undemocratic movement" led by him was supported by students, traders, the middle class and a section of the intelligentsia.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

It conveniently brushes under the carpet factors that make the Congress also guilty as far as the rise of communalism is concerned. It makes no mention of the fact that before the VHP ran amok with the Ram temple agenda, it was Rajiv Gandhi's government at the Centre that presented the issue on a platter to the saffron brigade. In February 1986, his government allowed the locks of the Babri Masjid to be opened and the Ram Lalla idol to be worshipped there.

While dealing with the rise of communalism, it is only the period of P.V. Narasimha Rao which has been scrutinised in the book. There is no mention of any direct or indirect impetus given to communal forces during the Rajiv years.

In chapters dealing with Narasimha Rao, the onus of the menace of communalism has been placed squarely on the BJP-VHP combine and on Prime Minister V.P. Singh, during whose tenure L.K. Advani organised the rath yatra, which enhanced communal tensions.

Talking about the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, the book says the destruction took place with the collusion of the State government. Calling the incident a permanent blot on the nation's history, the book, quoting from an All India Congress Committee resolution, says the incident happened because the BJP indulged in treachery of the worst kind.

But why is there no criticism of the government which was ruling at the Centre? Well, we denied Rao the ticket to contest the Lok Sabha elections thereafter, said Shakeel Ahmad.

Janata Dal Leaders V.P. Singh and Ram Vilas Paswan during the Mandal yatra near Kanpur in September 1992. The book is ambiguous about casteism in politics.-SUBIR ROY

But was not Rajiv Gandhi too responsible for the rise of communalism to some extent? No Congress leader would answer that question.

Bofors scandal

Interestingly, even the Bofors scandal, which continues to haunt the party and which cost Rajiv Gandhi his prime ministership (he lost the 1989 election as Bofors, and subsequently corruption, had become the main election issue then), finds only a passing mention in the Rajiv Years (pages 130-131) as one of the many allegations levelled by the elements of opportunistic anti-Congresssism led by V.P. Singh.

Listing Bofors as the most serious problem faced by Rajiv, the book says the opposition parties were united against him on this issue, and this, combined with the Nehruvian concept of secularism, became the main electoral issue in the 1989 Lok Sabha election. The party fared badly but still managed to emerge as the single largest party with 197 seats in the Lok Sabha. But Rajiv, despite being invited to form the government, preferred to sit in the Opposition, and the National Front government came to power, which in turn lent legitimacy and credibility to the BJP and also blurred the mark of communalism from its image to some extent. There is no explanation whatsoever why a party which had secured a three-fourths majority after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in October 1984 had become so unpopular in barely four years that no party was willing to work with it.

The Mandal agitation, which ever since has divided Indian society along caste lines and has thrown up myriad regional caste satraps who continue to hold their ground, has merely been recalled in a few lines, without offering the party's viewpoint.

Narasimha Rao's contribution

What, however, stands out, is the acknowledgment of Narasimha Rao's contribution to the party and to the country's economy. So far his name had never found mention in any party forum, nor was his contribution to the country's economy talked about at any stage.

Talking about the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, the book says the destruction took place with the collusion of the BJP-ruled State government.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The book says it was creditable that his government completed its full term, making him the first person outside the Nehru-Gandhi family to serve as Prime Minister for five continuous years. It is, however, only a grudging acknowledgment, as the book says the process of economic liberalisation that he began and which paid rich dividends were outlined in the Congress manifesto and had actually started with Indira Gandhi and was taken forward by Rajiv Gandhi.

Hailing the economic measures taken by the Rao government, the book says one of the most significant results of the reform measures was reduction in the number of people living below the poverty line. The political stability of the government and the available public sector base built up in the earlier years allowed these far-reaching changes to be carried out.

Hailing Sonia

Predictably, a significant portion of the book deals with the rise of Sonia Gandhi ever since she took charge of the party in 1998. But it makes no mention of how a screaming Sitaram Kesri was almost physically thrown out of the party president's chair when she assumed office.

Manmohan Singh paying tribute to P.V. Narasimha Rao on his death anniversary on December 23. The former Prime Minister got a grudging acknowledgement.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Neither does it talk about the 1999 fiasco when she declared that we have the numbers [272] to form the government when in reality the party did not have the numbers. It also does not deal with the split in the party when Sharad Pawar, P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar left to form the Nationalist Congress Party in 1999 on the issue of her foreign origins.

The book extols Sonia's leadership qualities that took the party's tally of 141 in the 1998 Lok Sabha to 206 in the present Lok Sabha, in the process carrying along coalition partners as well. Her contribution to path-breaking legislation such as the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and her support to the proposed Food Security Bill have been lauded. Not to mention the Great Renunciation in 2004 when she declined to be the Prime Minister and instead named Manmohan Singh as her choice for the Prime Minister.

Manmohan Singh himself has been given only a line and a half as the book speaks about providing an image of stability and sobriety to the government. This is vital for the Congress at a time when it is projecting itself as a party of responsible governance.

Certainly, a book that seeks to explore the 125 glorious years of a party, traversing the path of nation-building through extremely difficult challenges, both internal and external, ought to have offered more.

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