In just over 40 years, politics in India seems to have turned on its head. Earlier, it was the Congress that set the agenda and all other parties responded to it. It appeared to be an eternal ruling party, and all opposition parties seemed to be condemned for eternity never to reach the treasury benches.
Rajani Kothari, the renowned political sociologist and intellectual, called it the “Congress system”. It also came to be known as the “Congress culture”.
Recently, in an interview, Prime Minister Narendra Modi explained that when he says “Congress-mukt Bharat”, he actually means “Congress culture-mukt”.
I am sure he is aware that his critics within the Sangh Parivar have started saying that there is rapid “Congressisation” of the BJP. There are also comments that under him and Amit Shah, the party is becoming “Congress-yukt” – a reference to the fact that a lot of Congress leaders have joined the BJP, either because they fear blackmail, IT or ED raids, persecution, or have just been lured by power. There are many among them who are known corrupt faces, but they have been put through Amit Shah’s version of the 36th Chamber of Shaolin!
Now, we are witnessing a mirror image of that “Congress system” – the so-called notion of “opposition unity” was born out of that Congress monopoly. The only difference is that it was anti-Congressism then, it’s anti-BJPism now.
Last week, there was a 17-party conclave organised by Sonia Gandhi, in her capacity as chairperson of the UPA. Just two days before this meeting, four opposition leaders met at Sharad Pawar’s residence. The underlying story was that Pawar’s invitation was cold-shouldered by most parties; the Delhi grapevine said he is not trusted by most of the opposition, because of his hobnobbing with Modi, and Modi’s public reference to him as his guru.
Be that as it may, and without sounding cynical, one can say that while the cast and some situations have changed, it’s déjà vu for journalists like me who have covered such opposition conclaves in the 1970s.
The original copyright of creating a “Congress-mukt” Bharat belonged to Ram Manohar Lohia. He used to argue that the Congress never received more than 50 per cent of the votes polled – its vote share fluctuated between 41 per cent to 47 per cent. Therefore, there is about 60 per cent vote waiting to be picked up by the opposition, if it is united. Only under Rajiv Gandhi in 1984-85 did the Congress secure 49 per cent vote share.
The idea of “anti-Congressism” was picked up by most opposition parties after Jawaharlal Nehru’s death in 1964. Lal Bahadur Shastri never faced the electorate as prime minister; he became PM in May 1964 and died in January 1966. The 1967 election became Indira Gandhi’s burden. Lohiaites called her “goongi gudiya” and argued that now anti-Congressism could win, since the colossus called Nehru was no more.
Indeed, it worked – in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab, multiple faces of “anti-Congressism” surfaced in the form of the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal, United Front and so on. In West Bengal, even the CPI(M) joined hands with the Bangla Congress (a breakaway of the Congress), with Ajoy Mukherjee as chief minister and Jyoti Basu as deputy CM. If the Congress could be defeated in as many as eight states, then it could be routed even at the Centre, said Lohia. But he died in October 1967.
His followers improvised the idea further, and it was tested again in 1971 by a coalition knows as the ‘grand alliance’ against Indira Gandhi. The campaign was titled ‘Indira hatao’, and the parties that joined hands were the Swatantra Party, the Jana Sangh, Lohia’s Samyukta Socialist Party, and the Congress (O), popularly known as the Syndicate Congress. The opposition was reasonably strong in the Lok Sabha in 1967 – Swatantra had 44 seats, Jana Sangh had 35, and the Congress monolith was split.
This split forced Indira Gandhi to run a government without majority, with support from communists and other Left parties, who supported her because she had nationalized banks, abolished privy purses, and campaigned for land reforms. But the phenomenon of Indira Gandhi was yet to arrive – the elections of March 1971 would decide the political direction and the fate of alliances.
There was no culture of public opinion polls back then; there was only the redoubtable F.W. D’Costa, who ran an outfit called the Indian Institute of Public Opinion. His research-based findings predicted a massive victory for the grand alliance.
However, on the back of her ‘garibi hatao’ campaign, Indira stormed to a stunning majority; the grand alliance was routed. Fernandes, who had earned the nickname ‘George the giant-killer’ for defeating the uncrowned king of Mumbai S.K. Patil in 1967, lost in the same city.
The rejuvenated Congress in 1971 looked invincible, particularly later in the year after the defeat of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. But in politics, no one is invincible – not Indira, not the Janata Party which defeated her and claimed to bring ‘second freedom’ to India. The Janata collapsed within 17 months, again exposing the hollowness of the Lohia formula.
The tables have turned, and Janata Party constituent Jana Sangh, in its BJP avatar, is now facing the multi-party unity challenge.
The slogans are similar, the campaigns are identical, the strategies are the same, as are the illusions. No matter how much the political ecosystem has changed, all of them carry the baggage of the 1970s.

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