Patna: The questions being raised by the group of 23 Congress veterans, known as G-23, including Kapil Sibal and Ghulam Nabi Azad, over Rahul Gandhi’s leadership appear unjust if the grand old party’s plight is scrutinised in the context of its recent history in Bihar in particular and the Hindi heartland in general.
There is hard evidence to suggest that the fall of the Congress – particularly in Bihar, which like many other states was a bastion of the party prior to the emergence of Lalu Prasad Yadav as its chief minister in 1990 – began in the 1980s and culminated in the early 1990s when neither Rahul Gandhi nor Sonia Gandhi were in picture.
And there is equally hard evidence to suggest that whatever strength the Congress has regained in the state has happened under the stewardship of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. The Congress has 19 MLAs in the current assembly and had 27 in the preceding one – numbers that eluded the party all through the 1990s.
“The so-called G-23 leaders who have been raising questions on Rahul’s leadership are simply blind to the ground reality. In fact, they and their likes who have been huge beneficiaries of the Congress’s heydays are, actually, responsible for the weakening of the Congress. Without wasting too much time, Rahul should come back as the Congress’s president and correct the course,” said Sameer Kumar Singh, Bihar Congress’s working president.
Sameer’s observations can hardly be wished away given his pedigree – he is a third generation Congress leader. His grandfather, Banarsi Prasad Singh, was a member of the constituent assembly and an associate of Jawaharlal Nehru. Banarsi won the Mungher Lok Sabha seat in the first general election in 1950 and represented it for his entire life. After Banarsi, his son, Rajendra Singh – also a dyed-in-the-wool Gandhian –represented Mungher and joined as minister in the then Congress-ruled Bihar.
Sameer is Rajendra’s son and a member of legislative council (MLC) in Bihar. Sameer’s family has over 108 years of unbroken association with the Congress. “I can’t imagine life beyond Congress,” Sameer, who saw many party stalwarts drifting away over the years, told The Wire.
Historical reasons for Congress’s fall
The process of the Congress’s decline began in the 1980s, particularly after the death of Indira Gandhi. The late 1980s witnessed communal riots in Bhagalpur, the assertion of the backward classes and the emergence of Hindutva under the stewardship of L.K. Advani.
The Bihar Congress’s leadership that comprised Jagannath Mishra, Bhagwat Jha Azad, Satyendra Narayan Sinha, Chandra Shekhar Singh, Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav and Tariq Anwar miserably failed to read the social churning, adjust to the winds of change and respond to the situation.
The Congress was basking in the glory of the stupendous victory that Rajiv Gandhi notched up after the death of Indira in the Lok Sabha and assembly elections of 1984 and 1985. This was when Vishwanath Pratap Singh, formerly a Rajiv loyalist, deserted the Congress and played up the Bofors scam. But more than Bofors, what actually worked to his advantage was his move to join hands with the Socialist forces that represented the aspirations of the upwardly mobile backward classes.
The Janata Dal under V.P Singh’s stewardship did phenomenally well in Bihar and the ‘Raja of Manda’ replaced Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister in the 1989 elections. The quick turn of events that unfolded after that saw the ‘demise’ of the Congress in Bihar. March 1990 saw the emergence of Lalu Prasad Yadav – an aggressive champion of Mandal politics and die-hard opponent of Hindutva – as Bihar chief minister.
Soon after taking over, Lalu turned the heat on the ‘upper’ castes that prospered under the Congress regime and kept the backward classes on the periphery. These ‘upper’ castes strongly opposed Lalu. Incidentally, all of Lalu’s immediate predecessors – Jagannath Mishra, Bindeshwari Dubey, Bhawat Jha Azad and Satyendra Narayan Sinha – were ‘upper’ castes.
The ‘upper’ castes, who were used to having ‘their own’ as CM, suddenly found themselves replaced by OBCs and Dalits in the political, social and economic power structure from grassroots to top level. These ‘upper’ castes found their ‘saviour’ in the RSS-BJP which was aggressively pursuing Ram mandir politics and lampooning Lalu.
The Congress, traditionally, had a viable support base among the backwards and Dalits despite the Socialists mobilising the backward classes for over two decades. The presence in the Congress of Jagjivan Ram, a Dalit leader, Daroga Prasad Rai (a Yadav and former Bihar chief minister), Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav and Sitaram Kesri – all backward class leaders – worked as an ‘antidote’ against socialist politics.
But the emergence of Lalu vis-à-vis the proclivity of the Congress’s ‘upper’ caste leaders to target Lalu and the Mandal Commission drove the OBCs into Lalu’s lap. The Muslims who had suffered heavily in the 1989 Bhagalpur riots also saw in Lalu a more powerful leader to oppose the resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and shifted their loyalty to him.
On the other hand, egged on by his jilted upper caste colleagues in Bihar, Rajiv Gandhi opposed the Mandal Commission report in the Lok Sabha in 1990, further alienating OBCs and Dalits from the Congress. Rajiv was assassinated in 1991 before he had a chance to change course.
“It was the collective failure of the then Congress leadership against the winds of change in the 1980s and ’90s that caused the Congress’s fall”, Sameer said, adding, “Jawaharlal Nehru called Banarsi Prasad Singh, my grandfather and Vibhuti Mishra, then Congress MP from Madhubani, to offer them a ministerial position. Both Banarsi and Vibhuti recommended Jagjivan Ram, then a young Dalit leader, for ministership. In keeping with the Congress’s commitment to social justice, Banarsi and Vibhuti preferred Jagjivan over themselves.”
Sameer lamented the fact that the Congress leaders in the 1980s and ’90s lost their commitment to “social justice and secularism” that had been the “edifice” of the party ever since its inception. Sameer and his likes, who are few and far between in the Bihar Congress now, say that the so-called G-23 represents the “stream which benefitted maximally when the party was in good stead under Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi but they are shifting blame on Rahul instead of owning responsibility” for what has happened.
Improvement in Congress’s health under Sonia-Rahul Gandhi
The Congress was reduced to 27 MLAs in the 324-member Bihar assembly in united Bihar in 1990. After that it was a free fall in the Congress. The party was reduced to single digits in the 1995 elections. The grand old party’s health began to improve after Sonia Gandhi took over its reins in late 1990s.
Locked in a ferocious battle against the BJP which was vilifying Sonia, Lalu stood in her support and roared in parliament in 1998, “Sonia is widow of our great martyr Rajiv Gandhi. Sonia Bharat ki bahu hain (Sonia is the daughter-in-law of India). We will not tolerate the communal BJP raising questions on Sonia ji.”
No Congress leader had spoken as strongly in favour of Sonia as Lalu had. Sonia too began trusting Lalu and thus began the era of Congress-Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) friendship in the early 2000s. The more the Congress turned to Lalu, the more its old guard drifted away.
Jagannath Mishra, a three-time chief minister, joined Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), that had broken from the Congress on Sonia’s “foreign origin” issue. Bhagwat Jha Azad in his lifetime showed inclination towards the BJP, and his cricketer son, Kirti Azad is a BJP leader. Jagannath’s son, Nitish Mishra too is a BJP MLA. The children of several Congress stalwarts have either joined the BJP or the Janata Dal (United).
But the Congress under Sonia and Rahul’s stewardship has done reasonably well, of late, in Bihar. The party fared well in Bihar in the 2004 elections that led to the formation of the Manmohan Singh government that lasted for two full terms. The party in alliance with the RJD and later the Left won 27 and 19 assembly seats in the 2015 and 2020 assembly polls, respectively.
The way forward for Rahul
Rahul is, perhaps, the only opposition leader at the top level who has questioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi on facts and exposed him relentlessly. A close scrutiny of his recent tweets and statements make it clear that Rahul keeps close watch on Modi’s functioning and comes out with pointed attacks which the Modi dispensation finds hard to counter.
The way forward for him is to work closer with the RJD, that represents the backward classes and minorities, and the Left – particularly CPI ML-Liberation – which represents the Dalits and deprived classes. Perhaps, Liberation is the only party that is carrying out an effective movement on the ground against the rise in the prices of petroleum products, edible oil and pulses in Bihar.
The Congress has lost its once strong cadre base. Rahul should use the CPI-ML-Liberation and RJD cadres – well drilled and trained in fighting against the RSS-BJP – to revive the Congress’s commitment to social justice and secularism.
Nalin Verma is a senior journalist, author and professor of journalism and mass communications at Invertis University, Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh.