Has the Congress party virtually given up on the urban middle-class voter?
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The trajectory followed by the Congress since its defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha election shows that the grand old party remains convinced that its most ardent supporters live in rural India even as the urban middle class remains smitten by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charms.

Consequently, the party is persisting with the agenda it followed during the 10 years when the United Progressive Alliance government was in power, taking up issues and programmes that impact farmers and marginalised sections like the Dalits, scheduled tribes, women and rural poor.

Having steered the UPA government’s “aam admi” agenda for a decade, Congress president Sonia Gandhi has passed on the baton to her son and party vice-president Rahul Gandhi who is now leading this campaign.

Suit boot ki sarkar

He started by espousing the cause of farmers with his high-pitched campaign against the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government’s move to amend the land acquisition act.

Positioning the Congress as “pro-poor”, Rahul Gandhi kick-started his campaign against the Modi government last year by taking up the issue of the controversial land acquisition bill. He succeeded in painting the Modi government as “anti-famer and pro-corporate” and his description of the ruling dispensation as a “suit boot ki sarkar” hit the bull’s eye. The Congress was vindicated when the NDA government backtracked in the face of stiff opposition and put the amended land acquisition bill on hold.

After its success on the land bill, the Congress was emboldened enough to continue on this track when the BJP was routed in last year’s crucial Bihar assembly elections. While there is no denying that the Janata Dal (United)- Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress alliance was helped by caste arithmetic, the three partners were also able to convince Bihar’s largely rural electorate that the BJP only cared for rich industrialists. The alliance consolidated the Dalit and Other Backward Classes vote in its favour when Rashtriya Swamaymsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat declared that he favoured a review of the reservation policy for marginalised communities.

The Congress resolve was further strengthened when the party started winning local body elections in the rural areas of Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.

Rahul Gandhi has since followed it up by attempting to woo the scheduled castes by making two trips to Hyderabad University last month to support the students protesting the suicide of Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula. At the same time, Gandhi is also working on a special Dalit agenda to win back the support of the scheduled castes that had once constituted the Congress party’s core constituency.

The Congress vice president is now preparing to reach out to the scheduled tribes with a proposed year-long campaign to put the Modi government in the dock for diluting the UPA government’s Forest Rights Act to deny forest rights to tribals.

Employment guarantee scheme

On Tuesday, the entire Congress machinery was galvanised to claim ownership of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act on the 10th anniversary of the UPA government’s flagship programme and to showcase its commitment to welfare of the rural poor.

The party also chose to use this occasion to hit out at the the NDA government for suddenly discovering the virtues of MNREGA after Prime Minister Narendra Modi had initially mocked the programme, describing it as a “living monument” of the failures of the previous government. The Congress put out exhaustive details to dispute the Modi government’s claims that it had further strengthened MNREGA and to underline that the ruling alliance had actually destroyed the programme.

Rahul Gandhi specially travelled to Bandlapalli village of Andhra Pradesh’s Anantpur district from where Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had launched MGNREGA in 2006. He was accompanied by the former prime minister and a galaxy of senior leaders including Ambika Soni, Digvijaya Singh and Mukul Wasnik. At the same time, the party’s state units held special conventions to spread the word that this pro-poor scheme was the brainchild of the Congress. Rahul Gandhi will review the implementation of the programme with all state unit chiefs in Delhi on Friday.

Consolidation first

Congress leaders maintain that since the urban middle class remains favourably inclined to the BJP, it makes political sense to strengthen and consolidate its support in the rural hinterland where people are still willing to give it another chance though they too had turned their back on it in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. “The middle class is, by nature, fickle,” said a senior Congress leader. “It was the biggest beneficiary of economic reforms but it lost no time in shifting its loyalties to the BJP.”

The same urban middle class, which is today mesmerised by Modi magic, had come out in overwhelming support of the Congress in 2009, enabling the UPA government to have a second term. The party notched up big victories in semi-urban centres and cities, thanks largely to Manmohan Singh who had then emerged as a middle class icon, just like Modi is at present.

Although there is overwhelming support in the party for its move to concentrate on the rural hinterland, there is also a growing view in the Congress that it cannot afford to ignore the urban middle class, especially when Rahul Gandhi is making a concerted effort to win over young people.

The vocal urban voter and the country’s growing young population, they emphasise, play a critical role as opinion makers and this vital fact cannot be overlooked. The young voter played a critical role in fashioning Modi’s 2014 victory, just was an important factor in ensuring Aam Admi Party’s successful debut in Delhi.

Rahul Gandhi’s supporters, however, maintain that the Congress has always stepped in to voice the concerns of the people both in rural and urban areas. Former ministers Jitin Prasad and RPN Singh insist that the party vice-president has highlighted issues which are urban-centric and that he is making a serious effort to connect with the youth with his periodic visits to colleges and universities. “He has taken up the issueof net neutrality, intolerance and freedom of speech which concern the youth,” Singh pointed out.


As right-wing BJP seeks to appropriate Bose, a reminder: Congress expelled him for being too left

As right-wing BJP seeks to appropriate Bose, a reminder:  Congress expelled him for being too left
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For some time now, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been on the look out for historical icons. After building an impressive present as India’s largest party, it is only natural that it would now look to construct a notable past. Given the colossal role that the Congress played in the freedom struggle, the BJP has necessarily had to poach some Congressmen for this task, the main figure there being Vallabhbhai Patel. Since Patel leaned to the right, however, his inclusion in the BJP pantheon isn’t all that incongruous ­– after all the Congress that led the freedom struggle is the collective inheritance of all Indians, not just the present Congress party.

What is more difficult to swallow is the BJP’s sudden love for Subhas Chandra Bose. Bose’s popularity has endured despite almost being ignored by the powers-that-be in Delhi since 1947. The BJP has sought to hitch its wagon onto Bose’s appeal and in its latest move declassified papers related to Bose on January 23, his birth anniversary. Unlike Patel, however, Bose was a self-described leftist. What’s more, he was expelled from the Congress precisely because of the extreme left, anti-imperialist positions he took, which threatened the right wing of the party.

Challenging the Congress right wing

The left had been a growing presence in the Congress all through the 1930s. However, the party was still a largely conservative body and Congress pressure groups such as the Congress Socialist Party or the Royists (followers of MN Roy, founder of the Communist Party of India) did not control the levers of the organisation.

In 1938, the left wing achieved a major success with the election of its firebrand leader, Subhas Bose, as Congress president. This was not, however, a break with the right, and Bose had been elected with Gandhi’s support. Matters came to a head in 1939, however, when Gandhi made it clear that he did not want Bose to stand for re-election.

For the first time since 1920, Gandhi, however, was opposed within the party. Bose decided to stand for re-election nevertheless, challenging the Mahatma’s candidate Pattabhi Sitaramayya. Bose’s campaign was centred on an issue that had split the Congress’ left and right wings: cooperation with the British. The right wanted to collaborate with the British and work a new form of government, laid out in the Government of India Act 1935, which promised a substantial measure of democratic government at the provincial level. The Congress left, however, wanted no truck with the Raj at all, and preferred to launch a mass agitation – a demand that had become more urgent given the turmoil in Europe as World War II loomed.

Pyrrhic victory

The election was, therefore, fought on ideological lines. On Gandhi’s side stood the entire old guard of the Congress. In a speech at the time, C Rajagopalachari warned that Bose’s boat was “leaky” and the Congress should trust the “old boat but big boat, piloted by Mahatma Gandhi”. (Nine years later, when Rajaji was made governor of West Bengal, he was taunted with shouts of “leaky boat” in Calcutta).

The Congress, however, was now increasingly growing impatient at the thought of cooperating with the British. The entire Congress left came together to award Bose a stunning win of 1,575 to 1,376 votes.

This was, however, to be a pyrrhic victory for Bose. Gandhi soon announced that this had been a personal defeat for him and, in a typically loaded statement, remarked, “After all, Subhas babu is not an enemy of the country”. In response, the entire Working Committee, loyal to the Mahatma, resigned (the resignation letters had been drafted by Gandhi himself). The only person who remained on, apart from Subhas Bose himself, was his elder brother and a giant of Bengal politics, Sarat Chandra Bose.

Gandhi’s loyalists resign

At Tripuri, as the Congress session got underway, GB Pant, another key member of the Congress right-wing, moved a resolution asking Subhas Bose to appoint a working committee “in accordance with the wishes of Gandhiji”. This was patently undemocratic and practically overturned Bose’s valid election as president. Vallabhbhai Patel, who was a bitter ideological and personal rival of Bose justified this by saying, “The lion becomes a king by birth, not by an election in the jungle”.

Patel might have been brusque but he was not saying something altogether untrue. Election or no election, Gandhi was too big to fall ­– Bose could hardly match up to the Mahatma’s national popularity. Seeing that this would splinter the Congress, large parts of the Left including most significantly, Jawaharlal Nehru decided to abandon Bose. Ram Manohar Lohia’s argument carried the day: “Leftists in the Congress should not aspire to set up an alternative leadership to the present leadership of the ‘Right’”. Later, Bose, bitter at being abandoned by a ideological fellow-traveller, would write privately, “Nobody has done more harm to me personally, and to our cause in this crisis than Pandit Nehru. If he had been with us, we would have had a majority. Even his neutrality would have given us a majority. But he was with the Old Guard at the time.”

Bose forced to resign as President

Bose, now pushed into a corner, sought a rapprochement with Gandhi. He wrote to him, agreeing to resign as long as Gandhi would “resume the struggle for national independence”. Gandhi, though, was in no mood for compromise and now “seemed determined to oust him”. Nehru, still sympathetic to Bose, wrote to Gandhi pleading that to “push him [Bose] out seems to me an exceedingly wrong step”. Gandhi, did not bend, refusing to either launch a mass struggle or work with Bose in the Congress.

Totally outmanoeuvred by Gandhi, Bose resigned from the presidentship of the Congress. Rajendra Prasad, another right-winger, was appointed in his stead. Bose, though, did not give up on his ideology and formed the Forwards Bloc, as an umbrella body for Congress leftists. He also did not abandon his dream of an organised movement against the Raj.

Bose expelled for threatening Satyagaraha

The Congress ­­– still looking to work with the Raj and anxious to crush Bose’s rebellion – now moved to stop any sort of mass movement against the British. Resolutions were passed which declared that no Congressmen could launch Sataygraha without the express permission of the Working Committee ­­– a body firmly loyal to Gandhi. Bose protested against this move and was immediately removed as president of the Bengal Provincial Congress as well as disqualified from holding any Congress post for three years.

Bitterly, Bose wrote:

“I welcome the decision of the Working Committee virtually expelling me for the Congress for three years. This decision is the logical consequence of the process of right-consolidation[…]By trying to warn the country about the continued drift towards Constitutionalism and Reformism, by protesting against resolutions which seek to kill the revolutionary spirit of the Congress, by working for the cause of left- consolidation and, last but not least, by consistently appealing to the country to prepare for the coming struggle ­­– I have committed a crime for which I have to pay the penalty[…]. I feel no doubt in my mind that the cause which we leftists represent is a just cause.”

Bose’s final moves in India

After this final break with the Congress, Bose became increasingly militant in his language even as World War II broke out with in Europe. To consolidate his base in Bengal, he fixed a seat sharing agreement with the Muslim League in the prestigious Congress stronghold of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation. As a first step, he aimed to launch a movement to remove Holwell’s monument, which publicly commemorated the Black Hole incident during the time of Siraj-ud-Daula, the last Nawab of Bengal. It was a strategic issue, chosen to unite Hindus and Muslims against the Raj. The British, alarmed at this and acutely aware of Bose’s popularity in Bengal, decided to arrest him a day before the movement was to start.

Thus ended Bose’s role in the direct politics of India. He would escape from this detention, famously outfoxing the feared Calcutta CID. His radical stand for an uncompromising attitude towards the Raj ­– often derided as hot headed – was actually proven correct when the British brusquely dismissed all offers of Congress cooperation. The mass struggle that Bose had urged in 1939 ultimately came about in 1942 in the form of the Quit India movement.

Bose’s left-wing legacy

After Bose’s death (or, disappearance, if once believes the many conspiracy theories), his elder brother and mentor, Sarat Bose, left the Congress in 1949 after a futile attempt to ensure a united sovereign Bengal (as an inheritor of CR Das’ mantle, the communal partition of Bengal was obviously opposed by him). Sarat Bose then tried to launch a coalition of left parties to take on the Congress in West Bengal as well as SP Mookerjee, the founder of Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the BJP’s earlier avatar. He had some limited success, even winning an Assembly by-election in 1950 against the Congress candidate in Calcutta but died within weeks of the result. The party Subhas Bose founded, the Forward Bloc, would, two decades later, go on to be part of another “left front”, this time led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), that would rule West Bengal till 2009.

Subhas Bose was, therefore, the inheritor of CR Das’s legacy and his politics of Hindu-Muslim accommodation. His own politics was firmly left-wing and Bose saw his expulsion from the Congress as a straight battle with the right. Even his political legacy in West Bengal is staunchly socialist, with his elder brother launching a left-wing coalition and the party he founded being a part of one till today. The fact that Bose is now being used by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party to shore up its historical bench strength is at best an example of intellectual confusion that displays an ignorance of history, or a cynical disregard for it.