Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 51, Dated December 25, 2010
125 ways the Congress changed the country
BY VIJAY SIMHA
IT’S ONLY 125 years in a civilisation that dates back thousands of years. But, it’s these frenetic years that will be recalled most when India is discussed. A political party all dressed up and nowhere to go might as well be dead. Better to eat on the run, as the Congress has done. In each of its phases, the Congress has impacted India in many ways, some easily understood, some not even noticed. It’s the strength of a party, to be shaping life for better or for worse, in good health or poor. We owe the Congress much, just as the Congress owes us far more. It’s an ongoing dynamic. For now, here are the many ways the party has affected a nation it has grown in.
1885 FORMS AN ORGANISATION TO TRIGGER CHANGE
Allan Octavian Hume, a British ornithologist and civil servant, was demoted in 1879 for apparently being too independent. He stayed in service because he needed the money to fund a book on birds. In 1883, he wrote an open letter to Calcutta University graduates asking them to form their own political movement. This, curiously, was what the British wanted, in a milder form, so they could control the disaffection among the intelligentsia against the British. In December 1885, the first session of the Indian National Congress was held in Bombay (right). WC Banerjee was chosen the first president. The Congress would go on to win Independence.
1885-2010 MAINTAINS IDEOLOGICAL FLEXIBILITY
Because of which India hasn’t become a Marxist or theocratic State.
1907 RECOGNISES POLITICAL FACTIONS
Bal Gangadhar Tilak (below right) and Gopal Krishna Gokhale led the hardline and moderate factions in the Congress. Tilak wanted swaraj while Gokhale wanted to reform the system from within its institutions. By 1907, the Congress was fully divided among these two groups. Tilak introduced the concept of freedom. The concept of factions within the party was born of this. Till today, factions dominate the Indian polity.
1915 TAKES GANDHI ON BOARD
Gokhale took Gandhi to Congress convention after Gandhi (below left) came to India from South Africa in 1915. Gandhian thought drove the freedom struggle and still guides us.
1920s CREATES A WHITE DRESS FOR POLITICIANS
Started with khadi and has now become a colour of choice for most Indian politicians. Can be worn of cheap cloth or pricey stuff.
1930 MAKES NON-VIOLENCE AN EFFECTIVE FORM OF PROTEST
The high point of the Civil Disobedience movement, its spectacular success convinced India that non-violence is a powerful tool. It is still a favoured form of protest.
1937 RECOGNISES ROLE OF MONEY IN ELECTIONS
The 1937 provincial elections were crucial because the Congress looked at a candidate’s ability to fund an election before it gave them a ticket. The role of money was thus recognised for the first time.
1939 BRINGS BUSINESS GROUPS CLOSE TO PARTY
Not many in the pro-Gandhi group liked the socialist Subhas Chandra Bose. Though he won the Congress president’s election in 1939, Bose was forced to quit. This was when the Birlas and the Bajajs moved in. Big business has since been influencing much of policy.
1946 DOESN’T ACCOMMODATE RADICAL MUSLIM VIEWS
In his campaign for Pakistan, Jinnah asked Muslims to launch what he called Direct Action on 16 August. Riots and murder followed. It became a method of resolving Hindu-Muslim disputes, which now takes the form of communal riots in India.
1947 CHOOSES A PRIME MINISTER MAINLY FOR SECULAR VIEWS
Jawaharlal Nehru (right) was picked over Vallabhbhai Patel mainly because of his talent for being religion-neutral. It gave the unexpected benefit of gaining an international presence because of Nehru. Even today, secularism is an accepted requirement for prime ministers.
1947 GIVES THE COUNTRY ITS FLAG
The Tricolour came from the Congress flag. The Ashoka Chakra replaced the Congress’ spinning wheel, and India had a flag.
1947-1948 FORGES A UNITED INDIA
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel carried out a hugely complex task of crafting a united India, involving 565 princely states and colonial provinces. An enormously stressful task, it might have contributed to his death two years later. But while he was at it, Patel did an extraordinary job. He gave modern India its shape and map.
1948 GOES TO THE UN ON KASHMIR
The then Congress government went to the UN Security Council after the first Kashmir war, after which the Council passed a resolution calling for plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir. India is still paying the price.
1950 BRINGS THE CONSTITUTION INTO EFFECT
The Congress first invited BR Ambedkar (left) to be India’s first law minister and then gave him charge of the Drafting Committee of the constitution. India’s supreme law came into effect on 26 January 1950, making us a Republic. It is our supreme law.
1950 FORMALISES RESERVATION POLICY
The Constitution gave reservation for 10 years to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes to ensure their political representation. It has since been extended through amendments to the Constitution. India’s biggest social policy.
1950 PLANS FOR EVERY FIVE-YEAR PERIOD
Nehru created the Planning Commission by an Executive Order and since then, it has been making development plans and allocating expenditure for states.
1950s DOESN’T STAND BY A PATRIOT
In what was seen as an early act of betrayal, Vallabhbhai Patel, then Congress home minister, worked towards the jailing of Major Jaipal Singh, who rebelled against the British Army and told the Congress leaders of an Army plan to assassinate them. Gave the Congress an untrustworthy reputation, which continues. Also helped the communists hate the Congress, which in turn has affected politics since.
1950s MAKES SOCIALISM A GUIDING FORCE
Nehru chose a mixed economy, which has since been described as an accurate understanding of India’s needs. India is still not fully capitalist.
1956 GRANTS WOMEN EQUAL INHERITANCE RIGHTS
In the face of resistance from orthodox Hindus, Nehru got the Hindu Succession Act into being, which grants equal inheritance rights to sons and daughters. Huge.
1951-2009 THE IITS COME UP
The Kharagpur was the first, the newest being in Indore. There are 15 now, some of them reputed the world over for their ability to train skilled scientists and engineers. Some of India’s best citizens come from these institutes.
1956 CREATES STATES ON THE BASIS OF LANGUAGE
Andhra Pradesh was the first. Many others followed, changing the map of the country.
1956 SETS UP HIGH-CLASS MEDICAL EDUCATION
The All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) came up in Delhi after West Bengal said no. It has since grown into a trusted centre with a global reputation for cheap and excellent care. It’s become so popular that finding a doctor with time or a bed is next to impossible.
1958 BEGINS CANAL TO GREEN THE DESERT
It was the single biggest project in saving Rajasthan. The state was a desert and turning into a wasteland when it was decided to have the Canal. It has since helped green Rajasthan, save lives and employ thousands.
1959 DISMISSES A STATE GOVERNMENT
The Congress couldn’t believe the communists had won an election in 1957. EMS Namboodiripad became Kerala’s first chief minister, head of the world’s first democratically elected Left government. Nehru’s Cabinet used Article 356 to dismiss the Left government. For decades, Article 356 was used and it soured Centre-state relations since.
1961 KEEPS INDIA NON-ALIGNED
A masterstroke from Nehru. He chose the middle path, not aligning with either the eastern or the western blocs. Helped create a role for India internationally.
1962 DOESN’T WIN THE WAR WITH CHINA
It built up after the Congress government offered refuge to the Dalai Lama. Indian and Chinese forces clashed after China moved into Indian territory (right). The ease with which China got the upper hand left a big scar on Indian psyche. We are still wary.
1961-2010 THE IIMs ARE HERE
Ahmedabad was the first, Raipur is the newest. Their aim: to train the best minds in the country in the best management techniques so they could help a growing economy. The standards have been high.
1964 BEGINS BACKDOOR ENTRY INTO UNION CABINET
It was an early instance of backdoor entry as the Congress picked Indira after Nehru’s death. Soon after, she was made Minister of Information and Broadcasting and became Prime Minister after that. Till today, many parties follow this route when they want to pick Union ministers who do not want to face elections.
1965 INTRODUCES GREEN REVOLUTION
High yield seeds came in with more fertiliser and more irrigation (right). Increased the output in north and northwestern India, but now the legacy is being felt. Overloaded soil has stripped it of life and questions are being asked if it was the right thing to do.
1971 MIDWIVES A NEIGHBOUR
Indira Gandhi’s government retaliated after Pakistan’s strike on Indian air bases. It was a short war, barely 13 days, and led to the creation of Bangladesh from the eastern areas of Pakistan (left). Bangladesh is now a crucial neighbour, where militant Indian groups tend to operate from.
1968 IMPLEMENTS THREE-LANGUAGE FORMULA IN SCHOOLS
Children had to be taught English, Hindi and their mother tongue. Helped greatly in imparting skills.
1969 NATIONALISES BANKS
In 1969, Indira had a slim majority and needed the support of communist and socialist parties. She responded by nationalising 14 banks owned and run by businessmen. It changed the banking sector in India.
1970-2010 REDUCES NAMING TO A JOKE
Almost all streets, airports and government programmes are named after dead Congressmen. Reduces the nation as a whole.
1970-1996 CREATES A WHITE REVOLUTION
One of the most ambitious programmes, Operation Flood, has created a national milk grid. It has also made India the largest producer of milk and milk products in the world. Plus, Amul is still an adored brand. The three-phase Operation Flood ended in 1996, having done its job.
1971 REINFORCES THAT ALL PEOPLE ARE CREATED EQUAL
The privy purses are abolished in the 26th Amendment to the Constitution. It ended the practice of paying royal families of princely states in lieu of their merging their states with India. Indira said the privy purse went against the notion of equal rights for all.
1971 CLEARS PEOPLE’S CAR
The Congress Cabinet cleared a major proposal to build a car that majority Indians can afford. Sanjay Gandhi followed up by founding the Maruti Udyog Ltd. The car (right) came years later and there was one in many houses.
1971 DECLARES WAR ON POVERTY
Fighting an election, Indira came up with a simple and telling slogan: Garibi Hatao (remove poverty). It gave her a divine image, got the poor on her side, and enabled her to allocate government resources for poverty projects. But, it was a deadly template. Till now, Indian governments tend to allocate huge funds for the poor, which rarely reach them.
1972 SIGNS PEACE WITH PAKISTAN
The other major move on Kashmir, which too left the issue open. The agreement, between the head of the Congress government, Indira Gandhi, and her Pakistani counterpart Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, said India and Pakistan would resolve issues through bilateral negotiations. While it did take the UN out of the immediate perspective, it kept things open by talking of “recognised positions” and “Line of Control”. It has been the basis of all talks between India and Pakistan since.
1972 HELPS PROTECT WILDLIFE
Without the Wildlife Protection Act, we’d have no wildlife left.
1975 MAKES ELECTORAL MALPRACTICE COMMON CONVERSATION
Probably the first such instance of a powerful politician paying for malpractices. Led to tumultuous events in our history.
1975 MAKES US WARY OF NEW DELHI
The Indira-led Congress government imposed Emergency under Article 352, following large-scale unrest in the country aer Indira was found guilty of malpractice. Huge moment that created a whole generation of non- Congress politicians who are still around.
1974 PUTS INDIA IN NUCLEAR CLUB
Pokhran I, which catapulted India into the nuclear club. Indira started the nuclear programme in 1967 and the first test happened seven years later (right). Has affected our foreign policy ever after.
1975 MAKES SPACE FOR SIKKIM
Trouble among local politicians drove a section of them to seek merger with India. A referendum followed in which the people of Sikkim agreed to be part of India. It was a peaceful addition to the family.
1976 CREATES AVERSION TO FAMILY PLANNING
It was forced sterilisation, mostly of the poor. Turned India almost permanently against population control, though we may be rethinking our numbers now.
1980 FORMALISES DYNASTY POLITICS
Sanjay Gandhi died in an air crash and Indira chose her elder son Rajiv, a pilot then, as her successor. Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister and initiated many programmes that changed many things for us.
1980 HELPS SAVE THE FORESTS
Creates Forest Protection Act without which we might have no forests.
1980S BEGINS THE COMMUNICATIONS WAVE MTNL
was set up in 1986, the first cell phone call came nine years later.
1982 MAKES US A BIG SPORTS NATION
The first big ticket sports event in the country. There was an Asiad in Delhi 1951 but the 1982 version established us. Colour televisions too made an entry at this time.
1983 SETS IN PLACE A SATELLITE SYSTEM
INSAT was commissioned to improve telecommunications, broadcasting and meteorology. It did.
1984 CLEARS OPERATION BLUE STAR
The Congress government led by Indira Gandhi sent the army into Golden Temple to flush out militants led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who were working for a separate Khalistan state from the temple. The operation scarred the temple and the Sikh psyche. Led to Indira’s assassination a few months later. Has become an indelible part of our history.
1984 CREATES AVERSION TO LARGE MAJORITIES
Rajiv got 411 seats in the Lok Sabha, launched a series of steps, overdid many things and created an aversion to one-party majority. Thus laid the seeds of multi-party parliaments.
1980s INTRODUCES US TO BIG SCAMS
The Rajiv government was engulfed by charges that Rajiv and others received kickbacks from Swedish company Bofors AB for a contract to supply howitzers to India (right). Rajiv lost his image as Mr Clean and later lost an election as well. Was an early scam, of which many were to follow.
1984 ALIENATES SIKHS
Congress supporters led mobs of violent men seeking revenge (left) after Indira’s Sikh bodyguards shot her dead. Thousands of Sikhs were killed in a horrific reprisal. Still playing out politically.
1985 SIGNS THE PUNJAB ACCORD
To end the Khalistan movement, Rajiv and Akali Dal head Harcharan Singh Longowal agreed on 11 main issues. Not implemented but it gave hope for a while.
1985 ENACTS ANTIDEFECTION LAW
Ending the era of Aya Rams and Gaya Rams.
1985 CREATES SPG, AN ELITE PROTECTION AGENCY
The Special Protection Group has kept the Army and politicians away from each other, helping maintain much-required distance between them.
1986 BOOSTS RADICAL MUSLIM SENTIMENT
In 1985, the Supreme Court ordered that alimony be paid to a poor Muslim woman who was divorced. Rajiv got Parliament to pass an Act that nullified the judgment. It gave impetus to extreme Muslim thought, which has since grown.
1986 BOOSTS RADICAL HINDU SENTIMENT
A group of people went to court saying they couldn’t pray at Ram Janmabhoomi because it was locked. The judge asked the district administration if there was a law and order problem. The administration said no. The judge then ordered the locks to be opened. In the normal course, a district administration wouldn’t decide on such a sensitive issue without New Delhi’s approval. Which is where the Congress government came in. Opening the Ayodhya locks triggered a wave of Hindu radicalism.
1986 HELPS PROTECT THE ENVIRONMENT
The Environment Protection Act. One of the most powerful laws, now in full flow.
1986 ESTABLISHES PEACE IN MIZORAM
Years of strife ended when India and the Mizo National Front agreed to end violence in the interests of the nation. Rajiv had a hand in this, but Laldenga oversaw the accord making the transition from guerrilla to politician.
1991 LIBERALISES ECONOMIC POLICY
Unleashed reforms that put life into a struggling economy.
1987 GETS INTO TRICKY TAMIL POLICY
Rajiv, in a deadly turn of naive goodwill, sent the Indian Peace Keeping Force to Sri Lanka to disarm militant groups there. It turned into a deadly fight with the LTTE, and the IPKF was asked to return by the VP Singh government (above left). But, the LTTE swore revenge and assassinated Rajiv in 1991.
1992 OVERSEES BABRI MASJID DEMOLITION
PV Narasimha Rao watched as radical Hindu organisations brought the structure down (left). Left a big scar.
1992 GRANTS POWERS TO PANCHAYATS
The 73rd Amendment to the Constitution granted economic powers and social responsibilities to panchayats, thus decentralising government.
1991-2010 CONVERTS RAIL TRACKS INTO BROAD GAUGE
Project Unigauge seeks to convert almost all of India’s rail tracks to broad gauge, thus increasing comfort and ease of maintenance. So far, 83 percent of route kilometres have been converted. Usually unnoticed but a huge task.
1992 ALLOWS ENTRY OF CABLE TELEVISION
The boom in private television since has expanded our world (right).
1993 BRINGS PM’S OFFICE TO NEW LOW
Rao (below) is accused of bribing JMM MPs to support his government in a vote of confidence. Rao is convicted by a lower court, granted bail by a high court, and cleared of charges in 2002. But the damage is done.
1993 SETS A STANDARD FOR DISASTER MANAGEMENT
The Latur earthquake killed close to 8,000 people. It took a terrific response to put things back the best they could.
1998 INTRODUCES GREEN FUEL
The Congress government in Delhi state starts buses running on CNG, the precursor of similar steps across India.
1998 RAISES LEVEL OF BROADMINDEDNESS IN POLITICS
Italy-born Sonia Gandhi is chosen as Congress president, practically giving her the reins of the country too. Did raise a few protests in the BJP but has been widely accepted.
2002 BEGINS METRO TO EASE PUBLIC TRANSPORT
Congress-led Delhi government flags off metro operations. Today, it’s a role model for the rest of the country.
2004 BRINGS SACRIFICE BACK INTO POLITICS
Sonia Gandhi refuses prime ministership, backs Manmohan Singh instead. She had it for the taking but didn’t.
2004 PUTS CIVIL SOCIETY ON THE AGENDA
The National Advisory Council is formed by UPA 1 to interface with civil society and keep social reform on the priority list.
2005 GOES TO VILLAGES TO IMPROVE HEALTH
The National Rural Health Mission begins, with its aim of galvanising millions of health workers who will reach every house.
2005 INTRODUCES EASIER TAX SYSTEM
VAT comes in. Makes life easier for businessmen.
2005 FACILITATES GUARANTEED WORK FOR RURAL POOR
The Act offers legal guarantee for 100 days of work every year to do manual work in public projects. At Rs. 100 an adult a day (right).
2005 OPENS UP GOVERNMENT FOR SCRUTINY
The Right to Information Act is passed, which mandates timely government response to citizen’s queries.
2005 OPENS UP NUCLEAR ENERGY PROSPECTS
India and the US agree on a civilian nuclear deal that will provide N-energy to India, thus hoping to meet its growing demand.
2005-2010 SLEEPS AS MINERS GO ON A RAMPAGE
Caught in a Centre-state limbo, the mining ministry watched as illegal mining destroyed large tracts across the country. Some of the biggest battles are between villagers and mining companies. India is on a keg here.
2009 OFFERS EDUCATION FOR ALL
The Right to Education Bill is passed, which provides for free and compulsory education for all children between the ages of 6 and 14 (below right).
2009-2010 GIVES MEDICAL TOURISM A FILLIP
Far better urban healthcare, because of modern hospitals, has helped India attract more foreigners for medical treatment. Some hospitals are among the best in the world, helping raise up to $2 billion a year from medical tourists.
2009-2010 GIVES MAOISM TRACTION
Never before was Maoism this discussed in drawing rooms. Manmohan Singh called it the gravest internal threat to the country; the Maoists (below) responded with massacres bigger than ever before. The Naxal is no longer unknown.
2010 PUTS WOMEN’S RESERVATION ON PRIORITY
The Rajya Sabha passed the Women’s Reservation Bill this year, seeking to keep a third seats in assemblies and parliament for women.
2010 FORCES QUESTIONS ON GOVERNANCE MODEL
As a country, Indians began debating on a form of governance that enables so many scams of vast magnitude. No one, it would appear, is able to detect dishonesty and loot.
2010 RAISES QUESTIONS ON FUTURE OF PARLIAMENT
If the House doesn’t function, as it mostly happens with UPA governments, the very future of parliamentary democracy is open. There’s no point in squandering precious crores for nothing, as people are beginning to realise. Could be a transformative debate.