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On Gandhi Jayanti, Rahul Gandhi Squandered Historic Opportunity at Birthplace of Quit India Movement

The Congress Working Committee meeting at Sevagram Ashram on October 2 turned out to be yet another symbolic event.

Jaideep Hardikar |

Updated:October 7, 2018, 10:54 AM IST
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On Gandhi Jayanti, Rahul Gandhi Squandered Historic Opportunity at Birthplace of Quit India Movement
Congress president Rahul Gandhi with former party chief Sonia Gandhi and ex-prime minister Manmohan Singh at the Sevagram Ashram on October 2. (PTI)
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Sevagram (Maharashtra): On October 2, the Indian National Congress (INC) virtually launched its 2019 General Elections campaign by re-committing itself to walk the path shown by Mahatma Gandhi and by crafting the battle between Congress and the BJP-RSS as one of conflicting ideas which has been going on for ages. An inclusive and equitable India versus a divided India that stood on hubris and hatred.

The party voiced an urgent need for “a new freedom struggle” — a massive movement to combat the forces of divisiveness and prejudice, the Modi government’s politics of “hate and vendetta”.

For the first time in independent India, the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the apex decision-making body of the grand old party, met at Sevagram to avowedly espouse the ideals and ways of the Mahatma on his 149th birth anniversary. The Congress termed as “historic” its CWC meeting that lasted less than two hours.

Whatever its symbolism, the Congress clearly missed out on a historic opportunity to lay a roadmap to reconnect with masses, a new vision for India, a concrete programme that would be a significant departure from the past, and strike a chord with its potential political allies to form the broadest possible alliance against the current regime. The following day, Mayawati said she was not aligning with the Congress ahead of the five state Assembly polls, the dates for which were announced by the Election Commission on Saturday.

The Congress also missed out on an opportunity to pick pieces of its lost glory in a place where Mahatma Gandhi spent eventful years steering the national struggle and laying foundations of his constructive work.

The CWC passed two resolutions. One, invoking the legacy of the Mahatma. Second, to stand in solidarity with the beleaguered farmers in light of a police lathicharge on farmers marching to New Delhi as part of the Kisan Kranti Yatra. In that sense, the CWC meeting turned out to be an event without any substantial message. Remember, the CWC would not meet anytime soon again before the crucial Assembly elections in states where the Congress has high stakes, in the run-up to the 2019 General Elections.

The spokesperson of the party said there are two separate committees to deal with the promise for farmers and the unemployed, and the question of striking alliances, but those issues would draw from the CWC’s two resolutions that were passed in Tuesday’s meet. This means we will have to wait to know how the Congress aims to tackle the question of agrarian crisis and unemployment.

The CWC also failed to answer one crucial question — why should the common man or woman support the party again? Where is the place for that common man in the party’s scheme of things?

For, despite Rahul Gandhi’s ruminations and efforts to go back to the people, his organisational apparatus is either empty or full of people who are part of his Delhi Durbar. For three decades now, the Congress hasn’t been known to have led a single mass movement that brought about a radical but positive social change.

The void in mass movements, which the opposition party is unable to fill, is now springing new socio-political splinters in different parts of the country.

During the post-CWC briefing, the party’s spokesperson told a battery of reporters that it intends to launch small and big agitations along Gandhiji’s principle of non-violence. The Congress carried out a foot-march which culminated at a public rally where Rahul Gandhi launched the 2019 campaign by asking the people to return to the Congress since the Narendra Modi-government had “failed on all fronts”.

The Congress’ intent was all right, but its CWC did not address the daunting challenges before the party with regard to its organisational structure, vision and programme for a new India and how it intends to re-establish bonds with the masses that have long been severed.

Speaking about it is one thing, realistically following Bapu is quite another. This was for the first time in ages that the Congress leaders were visiting Sevagram ashram. This was the place from where Gandhi’s Congress launched in July 1942 the ‘Bharat Chodo Andolan’ (Quit India Movement).

It was on Friday at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit that the Congress chief outlined three of his top priorities if he returned to power — strengthening small and medium enterprises; making farmers feel that they too are important (it must mean sustained upward economic mobility), and building low cost-high quality health and education system.

Now turn the clock back. From March 11 to 15, 1948, over 150 stalwarts from the extended family of Mahatma Gandhi were closeted for five days at the same Mahadev Smarak Bhavan where the CWC met to deliberate on one question — after Bapu, what?

The Mahadev Smarak Bhavan has stood as an enduring legacy of Mahatma’s many a political and social ruminations. It was built from 1942 to 1944 as a mark of tribute to Bapu’s close aide and comrade Mahadevbhai Desai, a man of great words and deeds, who died in August 1942 even as Bapu went to prison after the clarion call to the British to quit India. It was in this hall that Gandhiji addressed his first meeting after coming out of prison in 1944.

The March 1948 deliberations have been reconciled into a book titled Gandhi Is Gone. Who Will Guide Us?

The discussants included Jawaharlal Nehru, Acharya Vinoba Bhave (the duo Bapu had christened as the first and the second ‘satyagrahi’, respectively), JC Kumarappa, Thakar Bappa, Kriplani, Jaiprakash Narayan, Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad and Rajendra Prasad.

Bapu had been assassinated and the country was still mourning. Gandhi’s close aides, his comrades, his disciples and his fellow-travellers saw themselves entrapped in darkness. This meeting was originally slated to be held in February 1948. Bapu had wanted his co-fellows to ponder over the dissolution of the INC and formation of a broader umbrella of organisations and the name he had in mind was the ‘Lok Sevak Sangh’.

Those gathered asked themselves and the new nation a question: Do we have the faith to strive towards a society based on equality and justice through means of truth and ahimsa?

Their question was also framed by an organisational dilemma — what kind of an apparatus would help the Congress and the party-led government to move towards a more equitable and just society?

Vinoba was against an organisational, institutionalised Gandhi. JC Kumarappa likened the meeting to the meeting of Jesus’ disciples. With his deep distrust of the extant forms of governance and logic of power, he articulated the need for an organisation that would take forward the true legacy of Gandhi. Others like Pyarelal were torn between Gandhi’s ‘last will and testament’, which called for the dissolution of the Congress and the creation of the Lok Seva Sangh. The deliberations led to the creation of the Sarva Seva Sangh, a non-political organisation committed to a casteless and non-exploitative society through 21 constructive programmes.

The conference displayed a deep antipathy towards politics and governance. It was Nehru who opposed the idea of the dissolution of the Congress and its replacement by a non-political organisation like the Lok Seva Sangh. He spoke candidly about the problems of governance, its limits and constraints, and also acknowledged the need for an organisation that would carry forward the fundamental legacy of Bapu, as the government by itself could not solve everything. But, in his eloquent address to that meeting, he pointed out that Congress and Gandhi had helped create the political realm, arguing that neither can the political realm be wished away nor can political life be brought to an end. He spoke of the need to retain the political character of the Congress while retaining its organic link with the constructive institutions.

The entire Congress leadership must dwell upon the question: why do they share no bonds with the Sarvoday today, as their stalwarts once did, or with the other constructive work that goes on across the country?

The CWC missed that opportunity too — to reconnect with Sarvoday. It must be mentioned here that while the Congress leaders may be unaware of it, it was the Sarva Seva Sangh that saved the day for the party by agreeing to lend its Mahadev Smarak Bhavan for holding the CWC meeting. The CWC should be deeply thankful to this gesture. Days earlier, the Ashram Trust’s executive had flatly refused permission to the Congress to hold its meeting on their premises. Offering prayers was welcome, but they would not allow any political meeting. A section of Gandhians are still unhappy about the CWC meeting at Mahadev Bhavan.

The inorganic nature of the mood that prevailed in Bapu’s serene and peaceful Sevagram ashram for about an hour on Tuesday was unmistakable.
The security began to round up the commoners and drove them out of the ashram premises at the stroke of 11. From another end trickled in a stream of Congress party’s ‘who’s who’. They walked in, in ironed whites, and occupied their places on the just laid down mattresses, in front of the Bapu Kuti, an elegant mud-and-wood structure that once housed the father of the nation.

A singer began to recite bhajans — his mellifluous rendition at odds with the flurry of activities and photo-ops that went on for about an hour. The front row was occupied by Congress president Rahul Gandhi, former party president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and former PM Manmohan Singh. They sat silently, offering their prayers to the soul that the party holds as a guiding force.

Then, they went to the adjoining premises of a school run by the Nai Talim Samiti, another of the five Gandhian institutions that make the Sevagram complex. After eating the food, they washed their utensils as is the integral practice in the ashram’s daily life and Bapu’s teaching — do your dishes and wash your clothes.

It was like a minute-to-minute programme of officialdom, not an organic gathering of a community in search of its soul. Some of the Sevagram’s huts and buildings are dilapidated, some of the people who live there are old and seldom speak to the outside world, but they have many important lessons to offer to the Congress and its current brass. The party leaders might need to find a little more time than two hours to trace those.

(The author is a Nagpur-based journalist. Views are personal.)
| Edited by: Nitya Thirumalai
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