November 19 marks the 101st birth anniversary of Indira Gandhi, one of the most impactful leaders of the Indian National Congress (INC) party. The INC will once again immerse itself in its annual obeisance to her. But despite the party’s visibly boisterous glorification of its legendary leader, its tribute to Indira remains largely tokenistic and inconsequential. This is primarily because the Congress party has perpetually failed to learn the appropriate lessons from Indira’s political legacy — a legacy which looms large on the party’s shoulders even today.
It is urgent to take a fresh look at Indira’s legacy and its bearing on the fate of her party at this juncture. Today the INC is at a political nadir since its inception and struggling tremendously for its political survival in the face of the ascendant Hindu nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its charismatic demagogue, Narendra Modi. A tribute to Indira Gandhi would be complete and sincere only if the Congress embarks upon a process of holistic and dispassionate assessment of her legacy that would not only encapsulate her mammoth achievements but also essentially underscore her gruesome failings.
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Besides hurling showers of praise over its towering leader, it is an imperative for the Congress at this moment to take a pause to internalize and learn from two of her most crucial strengths, which guaranteed her success and longevity in the political realm.
First, Indira’s deep and unique understanding of the social fabric of the nation and her unique connection with the people of India remained the key to her domineering position in Indian politics. Indira, throughout her political career, consistently remained attentive to the changing expectations of the ordinary populace. In 1971, she grasped the pulse of the majority of the poverty-stricken people with her simple yet electrifying slogan “Garibi Hatao” (Remove Poverty). Whereas, in the 1980 elections, she changed her political nomenclature in accordance with the changing times. Against the backdrop of ineffective governance by the Janata government, she jettisoned her ambitious claims of poverty eradication from the 1971 elections and replaced it with a simpler assurance of giving people “a government that works.” And in both the elections, her magic worked fabulously. Over the years, the Congress Party has been gradually alienated from the masses. But, in the light of brewing disillusionment with the Modi regime, reviving the lost bond with the public won’t be a herculean task for the Congress if they strike up the right chord with the people.
Second, Indira’s unflinching political resilience, energy, courage, and exquisite sense of political timing is a far cry from the crestfallen, mortified, underconfident, and confused political leadership that Congress has today. Indira Gandhi’s stunning political comeback after her devastating defeat in 1977 and an eventual party split is an incredible story of her political grit. Her historic visit to the riot-torn and flood-affected remote village, Belchi and her tactful masterstroke of derailing the Janata party’s malicious attempts of denigrating her in every possible way and emerging victorious out of the crisis is an inspirational template of political resurrection that Congress must embrace immediately to ascertain its speedy political recovery. The lackadaisical and indistinctive approach of the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress party must shed all its inhibitions and take a leaf out of Indira’s resilient, innovative, and energetic leadership to fight back in the political realm in order to stall the BJP juggernaut.
The Cobwebs of Power and Insecurity
On the obverse side of her unique political acumen and indomitable courage stands the notorious shadow of Indira’s deep insecurity and paranoia. It was her political insecurity that culminated into her inexorable penchant for centralization of personalized power, from which we can trace the genesis of the crisis that has engulfed the Congress today. In her zealousness to upend all her political adversaries within the party, Indira orchestrated a systematic dismantling of the decentralized organizational party structure that had been the hallmark of the “rainbow-like coalition” that Congress was known to be. Her deep-seated paranoia of safeguarding her authority led her to the ruthless crushing of state-level regional stalwarts with a substantial mass base, who had served as the organizational bulwark of the party. Such mindless aggregation of power not only eroded the grassroots-level organizational strength of the party but also eventually destroyed the second rung of political leadership, which turned the party into an all-pervasive Gandhi family enterprise.
Today, as India has moved beyond the era of unquestioning admiration for the Gandhi dynasty which is so far palpable in the lackluster political record of its incumbent party chief Rahul Gandhi, it is undeniably crucial for the party to undo the damage that was inflicted during the Indira regime. If Congress is to survive, it is indispensable for the party to revamp its robust organizational structure and rejuvenate its democratic functioning in order to accommodate efficient, dynamic, and energetic leadership within its fold with a distinctive mass base — and move beyond the shackles of its dynastic and nepotistic coterie.
The Shadow of Soft Hindutva
Besides personal appropriation of the party, another of Indira’s far-reaching failures — one that ultimately claimed her own life — was her massive ideological compromises and her venomous sojourn into communal politics. Her deviation from the creed of secularism, which has been the Congress’ manifestation of constitutional high-standing since its inception, not only tarnished the party’s credentials but also vitiated the political fabric of the nation beyond redemption. Her sectarian designs, which caused the Kashmir, Assam, and Punjab imbroglio at the close of her career, have corrosive repercussions even today. The contemporary Congress leadership stands on the brink of repeating Indira’s blunder by further aggravating sectarian Hindutva politics instead of building a counternarrative to vanquish the communal designs of the BJP. Carving out a distinctive constructive developmental agenda as an antidote to the communal peril that the incumbent ruling party attempts to disseminate ahead of the impending 2019 elections should be the fountainhead of Congress’ electoral strategy.
Given the colossal political inheritance that Indira has left for the party, deconstructing her legacy and weighing its ramifications is of paramount importance of INC. If Congress of today wants to quell the ever-increasing apprehensions of its near political marginalization, drawing appropriate lessons from her strengths and rectifying her flaws is the highest tribute that her party can offer her at this juncture.
Ambar Kumar Ghosh is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, India.