The last time voices of dissent emerged in Congress, three of its leaders broke away to form the Nationalist Congress Party
Sonia Gandhi will continue to serve as the interim chief of the Indian National Congress for the next six months, in which time her successor will be chosen, the party decided at the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting held on Monday. However, a letter signed by 23 senior leaders, seeking “sweeping changes” in the organisation, and the party leadership’s reaction to it has raised concerns about how dissenting voices are treated in the party, and more importantly, the place accorded to non-Gandhi leaders in its top ranks.
Even as most people urged either Sonia to continue as the interim chief or Rahul Gandhi to take the reins of the party, the fact that leaders like Ghulam Nabi Azad, Bhupinder Hooda, Kapil Sibal and Shashi Tharoor, who have spent decades in the party, were called “agents of the BJP” for being signatories in the letter, has brought to light how the party treated dissent in the past.
After independence, Congress has been headed by five people from the Nehru-Gandhi family, and 13 who were not. Congress president B Pattabhi Sitaramayya (1948) was followed by Purushottam Das Tandon (1949) and UN Dhebar (1955-59). The others were N Sanjiva Reddy (1960-62), K Kamaraj (1964-66), S Nijalingappa (1968-69), Jagjivan Ram (1969), Shankar Dayal Sharma (1972), DK Barooah (1975), PV Narasimha Rao (1992-96), and Sitaram Kesri (1997-98).
Jawaharlal Nehru was the president of the party in 1929, 1936 and 1951-53. Indira Gandhi held the post in 1959 and then between 1978 and 1984, her son Rajiv Gandhi was Congress president between 1984 to 91, daughter-in-law Sonia from 1998 till 2017 and Rahul Gandhi from 2017 till 2019.
After independecne, the first time differences in opinion came to the fore duing the election of a Congress president was in 1949.
While Vallabbhai Patel backed Purushottam Tandon for the role of Congress president, Nehru was against his nomination. This was the time when Nehru was the Prime Minister of India while Patel was the home minister.
In 1969, S Nijalingappa expelled Indira Gandhi from the party’s primary membership for violating the party discipline. Indira, who was also the Prime of India, had supported VV Giri (an independent candidate) during the election for the President of India as opposed to party’s candidate Nilam Sanjiva Reddy.
“When Indira was prime minister, she was sacked as a primary member of the Congress by then party president Nijalingappa,” political commentator Kumar Ketkar told PTI. The party then split into two branches — one featuring Indira and her supporters, and the led by K Kamaraj and Morarji Desai.
In the next decade (and through Emergency), Indira consolidated power and the Congress led by her became the default Indian National Congress.
“It was only after Indira came that dynasty took root in the Congress and the mantle was passed on to Rajiv,” Suhas Palshikar, political analyst and co-director of the Lokniti programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, told PTI.
Rao’s clout plummeted as Sonia fortified presence in AICC
A change in status quo was attempted in 1992 when then Congress chief Rao decided to hold organisational elections for the first time since 1973, a period in which leadership was dominated by Indira, Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi.
Arjun Singh, Rajesh Pilot and Sharad Pawar rose up to contest. Rao’s move was called an important step to ensure Congress was a national party and “not one identified with any one individual or family”, Sanjaya Baru wrote in his book 1991: How PV Narasimha Rao Made History.
However, when Rao’s critics were elected to the CWC, he nullified the elections on the pretext that no Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe and women candidates were elected. He went on to reconstitute a CWC with members of his choice onboard.
Rao, who was also the prime minister, was criticised for the state of affairs in the country, especially the scams, resignations by ministers and the Babri Masjid demolition. The bitterness in the relationship between Rao and Sonia festered in 1995 when the latter openly accused Rao’s government of allowing the investigation into Rajiv Gandhi’s death to continue at a slow pace.
Sonia’s biographer Rani Singh, in her book Sonia Gandhi: An extraordinary life, an India destiny, mentions her attending AICC meets as a ‘special invitee’, when she was not a primary member.
“Each time Sonia Gandhi arrived, a crowd of enthusiasts and sycophants would start shouting and interrupt proceedings, sometimes for more than 10 minutes, and once right in the middle of one of Rao’s speeches. He was forced to stand and wait on the stage while delegates chanted for Sonia and pleaded with her to come to the aid of the party,” she writes.
Congress’ defeat in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections sounded the death knell for Rao’s leadership in the party. The Congress was wiped out in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, winning just 140 seats in the elections, its lowest tally ever till then. Rao was replaced by Kesri as the Congress president, who announced that the former prime minister will not be given a ticket for the 1998 general elections to Lok Sabha.
Rao then did not find his place in the AICC and CWC meetings either, and remained sidelined till his death in December 2004.
A day after his death, his body was brought to the gates of the Congress headquarters but was not allowed to be kept inside for people to pay their last respects. The reason given was that the body was so heavy that it was difficult to lift it off the gun carriage and place it inside the Congress headquarters.
Rao continues to be the only prime minister who does not have a memorial in Delhi.
Sitaram Kesri: A bloodless coup
After expressing reluctance to enter politics after Rajiv Gandhi’s death, Sonia in 1997 announced that she would campaign for the Congress for the 1998 Lok Sabha polls. Kesri was the party chief at that time. Sonia began addressing rallies and leading the campaign, prompting Kesri to call her “a saviour”, India Today reported.
Soon, demands surfaced to make Sonia the party chief, a post Kesri wanted to hold on to even as support for him dwindled within the party. The CWC passed a resolution on 14 March, 1998, asking Kesri to step down as the party president.
Kesri’s removal is often called a bloodless coup, as reports claim that he was locked in a room in the Congress’ Akbar Road headquarters as Sonia entered with the supporters and assumed the party president’s office.
Sonia then served at the top party post till 2017 and led the party to two Lok Sabha victories in 2004 and 2009. Gandhi, overtook as an interim chief after her son Rahul Gandhi resigned from the top post in the party following a poor show in the 2019 General Elections to Lok Sabha.
The letter, which was discussed at the 24 August CWC meet, is among the rare instances of dissent put forth by Congress leaders, and is the first since 1999 when without hesitation Sharad Pawar, PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar broke away to form the Nationalist Congress Party, refusing to accept the leadership of a person not born in India.
In response, Sonia had stepped down from the Congress chief’s post, writing in a letter to the CWC, “Although born in a foreign land, I chose India as my country and would remain an Indian till my last breath. India is my motherland, dearer to me than my own life.”
However, her letter was followed by protests by Congress workers and a spate of resignations from then chief ministers Digvijaya Singh, Sheila Dikshit, Ashok Gehlot and Giridhar Gamang, after which she withdrew her resignation.
In the last challenge to the post of Congress chief, Rajesh Pilot and Jitendra Prasada entered the race for the position in 2000. They ultimately lost, but lent credibility to the process of electing and not nominating a leader.
In 2017, even though elections for positions of office bearers were held from the block level to the national level, Rahul was elected unopposed amid demands by party leaders.
Though, he resigned from the post after the party received a major drubbing in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the passage of time seems to have subdued voices within the party, with most accepting lying down the Nehru-Gandhi leadership.
Leaders like Sanjay Jha, Jyotiraditya Scindia (now a member of the BJP) and Sachin Pilot, who recently spoke up about the party’s functioning, were also silenced or met with punitive action.
The problem is not the electoral process but the questions raised on democracy within the party. In the absence of this, the letter’s recommendations, including internal elections according to the Congress constitution and establishing an institutional leadership mechanism, will be reduced to token procedures.
Sanjay K Pandey, a political commentator and a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), said the problem lies not just with the family, but with the rest of the leaders who can’t see beyond the family.
“They (Congress leaders) don’t have the confidence and are accustomed to piggy riding with the family,” he told PTI.
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