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Congress again clings to the past with its ‘do not drink’ debate

The Grand Old Party continues to be deeply reluctant to chart a new course and face up to fresh challenges with creative ideas.

October 28, 2021 / 01:22 PM IST
Representational Image

Representational Image

Attending his first meeting of the Congress Working Committee after his appointment as party general secretary in 2007, Rahul Gandhi had drawn attention to the archaic preconditions laid down for enrolment of newcomers and suggested that these be amended and made more flexible.

The Nehru-Gandhi scion’s proposition had generated a heated debate in the party then, reflecting the grand old party’s dogged refusal to evolve and adapt to changing times. More than that, this seemingly minor issue, flagged tentatively by the debutant Congress general secretary and dismissed by party seniors as the young leader’s fanciful idea, set the stage for Rahul Gandhi’s prolonged battle with the old guard which went on to clash with him on various counts in the years to follow.

The ten-point declaration, enshrined in the constitution of the 135-year-old Congress when it was battling against British rule, requires members to wear khadi, refrain from the consumption of alcohol, undertake minimum hours of manual labour, not own land beyond ceiling laws, believe in secularism and not practice untouchability.

“Everyone drinks”

This issue was in the news once again when these pre-conditions or “ten commandments” as they are often referred to, came in for a brief discussion at Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s recent meeting with party office bearers and state unit presidents.


Navjot Singh Sidhu, the newly-appointed president of Punjab Congress, created a bit of a ripple when he pointed out that “everyone in his state drinks”  in response to Rahul Gandhi’s reference to these guidelines, especially the clause on the consumption of alcohol, during a conversation on the party’s forthcoming membership drive.

Sidhu’s open acknowledgement validated Rahul Gandhi's initial argument that some of these rules are not practical and need to be done away. However, this does not necessarily mean Congress is in any hurry to amend them. This is despite the fact that the one-page dustbin and flouted with impunity.

And yet any suggestion that these rules be done away with in step with changing times is met with stiff resistance, especially from the party’s old-timers who are outraged at any such proposal. This is exactly what happened 14 years ago when Rahul Gandhi commented that this declaration is made more flexible. Senior leaders such as Priya Ranjan Dasmushi, Janardan Dwivedi, Kumari Selja and several others had argued vehemently and passionately against any change as these guidelines reflected the party’s ethos and identity.

These norms cannot and should not be diluted, it was argued, as these were laid down by Gandhi and were a product of the freedom struggle. While accepting that preconditions like consumption of alcohol and the requirement of doing manual labour were not practical, old-timers maintained these provisions are ideals which members should aspire to adopt. It does not mean they should be done away with merely because these are being routinely violated, it was pointed out.

On the contrary, the old-timers maintained, with members straying from the party’s ideals it has become even more important to remind them where they are coming from.  Khadi, they said, is not just a piece of hand-spun fabric but denotes simplicity and austerity and is a constant reminder about Gandhi’s ideals which members ought to emulate. “How can we ask our members to forget khadi,” asked outraged Congress leaders.

Younger members or the pro-changers were quick to point to the futility of continuing with guidelines that were introduced in another age, are out of sync with present times and are nothing more than an exercise in hypocrisy.

The counter-argument ran as follows: people who don khadi don’t acquire saintly qualities while those who do not sports khadi are not necessarily corrupt, that seventy years ago drinking was taboo but no longer, asking members to do manual labour is a farce as none of the members have done so and that laying down that members should not possess land exceeding what is specified in the ceiling laws has not worked as documents and laws are easily manipulated by owners to retain their large landholdings. Terms like austerity and simplicity have been rendered redundant If the ostentatious weddings and the open display of wealth by politicians is anything to go by.

Part of a larger problem

This back-and-forth on the declaration did not blow up into a major confrontation but it did provide an early indication of the fault lines in the Congress. These became more pronounced when Rahul Gandhi wanted to implement far-reaching changes in the Congress organisation in his attempt to introduce inner-party democracy.

He experimented first with the conduct of internal elections in the Youth Congress. This move elicited a hugely sceptical response from the seniors who were quick to point to the liberal use of muscle and money power in these elections to underline that this was not a workable idea. Similarly, the Nehru-Gandhi scion’s move to introduce the system of holding US-style primaries in the selection of candidates also failed to take off.

In fact, this tug-a-war with the old-timers has been a constant since Rahul Gandhi was given greater functional autonomy by his mother and Congress president Sonia Gandhi. His frustration and anger with the seniors were on full display following the party’s drubbing in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections when Rahul Gandhi openly accused Congress seniors of not supporting his campaign against Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the Rafale deal.

In fact, it has been an uphill task for the Nehru-Gandhi scion to even appoint functionaries of his choice. As a result, the much-needed generational change in the Congress has been a messy affair.

The latest example of this tension was witnessed in Punjab when Rahul Gandhi’s decision to appoint Navjot Singh Sidhu as Punjab Congress chief was openly challenged by the former chief minister Amarinder Singh who was eventually shown the door in an unseemly manner.

Inherent in this clash with Congress old-timers and those with vested interests is a deep reluctance by the latter to chart a new course and face up to fresh challenges with creative ideas. Bogged down by its legacy, the grand old party continues to live in the past, preferring to maintain the status quo. In fact, it has failed to acknowledge that the steady decline of the Congress is precisely due to its unwillingness to change its style of functioning and sharpen its messaging to be able to retain its old constituencies and draw in fresh ones.

The Congress first lost out to regional parties such as the Telugu Desam Party when it failed to meet the specific demands of different states. It then ceded ground to Mandal parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samaj Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal for its failure to address the needs of particular caste groups and go in for social engineering. And finally, Congress has been replaced as the country’s major political force by a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party which has successfully managed to capture the imagination of the people and expand its social base with its messages of Hindu nationalism, majoritarianism and social engineering.
Anita Katyal
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