In a week when election dates for five assembly polls were announced, and when the G-23 within the Congress went a step further in making the internal faultlines public, Babulal Chourasia joined the Congress ahead of civic polls in Madhya Pradesh (MP). It was a telling event. Chourasia’s main claim to infame is for lending a hand to set up a temple to honour Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse. Chourasia’s induction, and the defence of it, by former Union minister and MP chief minister Kamal Nath, is symptomatic of the deeper malaise that afflicts India’s Grand Old Party: The Congress, in the name of accommodation or other compulsions of playing the political game, seems to have lost its centre. Finding it will be a formidable challenge, especially in times when its main opponent, and the new polity’s central pole, is a party that defines itself by its ideological commitment and clarity.
In its best version, the Congress showed a spirit of accommodation and openness it learnt from Mahatma Gandhi. It was Gandhi who helped it grow from a relatively elite concern in British India to a mass party. In that time, the party was able to draw within its fold the entire spectrum of political belief and opinion, while remaining clear about its ends — Swaraj and a constructive programme to build a more equal country. After Independence, the Congress’s commitments and convictions waxed and waned, but its USP remained that it was an “umbrella party”, which could reconcile seemingly contradictory views within itself, a coalition of interests more than a party. This fuzziness and lack of ideological rigidity served the party, helping it to move to the left, and then swing to the right, when the political climate changed. Underlying the shifts, however, was a centre of gravity which connected the new Congress to the old.
Now by taking on board someone who once celebrated the assassin of its tallest leader, the Congress shows that it is losing touch with itself — what it was and what it wants to be. The party seems desperate to open its doors to anyone who knocks on them. Its attempt at reforms, even by the so-called group of 23, hark back to the time of letter writing and petitioning, before Gandhi made politics a mass movement. Instead of owning its crisis, the party seems determined to cast itself in the role of a lesser player in someone else’s script.