India’s oldest party at the crossroads — faces existential crisis

Supporters of Karnataka Congress and Janatha Dal (Secular) coalition government participate in a demonstration staged by the parties coalition government against the Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) and its alleged horse trading, in Bangalore on July 10, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 10 July 2019

India’s oldest party at the crossroads — faces existential crisis

  • Congress finding it difficult to hold on to party cadres and legislators

NEW DELHI: The opposition Congress party staged protests in different parts of the country on Wednesday over what it called an attempt by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to topple its coalition government in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. The party also staged a walkout in both houses of Parliament.

The party alleges that the BJP is trying to break party legislators in Karnataka by offering them huge sums of money. It blames the Hindu rightwing outfit for keeping eight of its lawmakers hostage in a hotel in Mumbai.

Ever since it lost its second general election in the past five years, the oldest political outfit in India has been in a state of disarray, with the Congress finding it difficult to hold on to its party cadres and legislators.

The crisis has deepened with the resignation of its president, Rahul Gandhi, who took responsibility for the party’s defeat in the elections.

Established in 1885, the Congress played a pivotal role in India’s struggle for independence. Gandhi’s family has been heading the party since 1947, except for a brief period in the 1990s.

India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was Gandhi’s grandfather. Two years after Nehru’s death in 1964, his daughter Indira Gandhi became the premier and ruled the country almost unchallenged until 1984. Her son Rajiv Gandhi, father of Rahul Gandhi, then assumed power and led the country until 1989.

Rahul’s mother, Sonia Gandhi, assumed the mantle of the party in 1998 and remained party president until 2017. Rahul succeeded her.

In 2019, his younger sister Priyanka Gandhi also made an entry into the party by becoming one of its regional general secretaries.

The party now faces a situation where it has the challenge of electing a leader who does not belong to the dynasty.

Political analysts say that the crisis in the southern Indian state is more to do with the party’s state of affairs at the national level than the BJP’s attempt to break the state unit.

Top-rung leaders of the party are divided over the process of electing a new president.

On Tuesday, a senior party leader, Janardan Dwivedi, questioned the consultative mechanism of its highest decision-making body, the Congress Working Committee (CWC), and its power to elect a new leader.

His questioning of the CWC’s power has intensified the battle between young and old within the Congress party.

The party is also in a confusion about the future role of Rahul Gandhi in the party. In his resignation letter, the 49-year-old leader talked about fighting the BJP with renewed strength in the time to come.

Some Congress leaders feel that this is the time for the party to regroup and re-energize itself for future challenges.

“I feel that Rahul Gandhi has taken a very courageous step by resigning from the post and he has set a great example for the young cadres of the party,” said Angellica Aribam, a young Congress leader.

“The party is not facing an existential crisis. The Congress has lived without the Gandhi dynasty in the past and it can do the same even now,” said Aribam, who started her career as a student leader.

She told Arab News: “The Gandhi family remains very much active in the party with Sonia Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi all very much busy with their political activism. Two days ago Rahul Gandhi addressed the new parliamentarians in Delhi.”

She said, however that “the party needs the change at every level of the organization. The leadership will emerge through consensus.”

“The nation needs the Congress and it is the only outfit that can challenge the rising rightwing forces and provide a counter to the BJP’s narrative. The people of the country will not allow the party to fritter away,” she said.

Some political analysts see “a big opportunity for the Congress party to reorganize itself anew.”

“Rahul Gandhi’s resignation has provided the Congress party with a historic opportunity for a dramatic reinvention as an institutionalized modern political party,” said Prof. Zoya Hasan of the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

“The Congress party will have to democratize the party’s structure and hold elections for all the important posts, starting from the post of the party president,” she said. “The Congress has faced many crises in its long history and it has survived those situations.”

She told Arab News that the situation this time was different. “In the past they were in power when they faced the conflict, now they are out of power. Besides, they face a powerful opponent in the BJP, which is very well entrenched and uses all the state institutions to expand its presence.”

“Rahul Gandhi will remain an important leader. He will set the political narrative of the party. He will clearly be engaging in mass politics. His resignation will enhance his prestige not only in the party but also outside,” Hasan said.

“Democracy needs an opposition and the Congress is the only party with an all-India presence. It is the only principal opposition party that has the potential to take on the BJP,” she said.


A tale of two cities: Project aims to retell lost stories from Lahore, Delhi

Updated 22 January 2020

A tale of two cities: Project aims to retell lost stories from Lahore, Delhi

  • Will give migrants a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes torn apart by partition of 1947

NEW DELHI: Sparsh Ahuja and Ameena Malak grew up listening to their grandparents narrate stories of the partition from 1947.
Ahuja’s grandfather, Ishar Das Arora, was 7 years old when the Indian subcontinent was divided into two by the British, creating India and Pakistan. 
More than 14 million people were displaced at the time, and about one million perished in the fighting that followed.
Arora moved from a Pakistani village, named Bela, to Delhi after living in several refugee camps and escaping the violence.
Meanwhile, Malak’s grandfather, Ahmed Rafiq, moved from the Indian city of Hoshiarpur to Pakistan’s Lahore.
Now in their 70s, both the grandparents yearn to go back home and see the places where they were born and spent their childhoods. 
However, the constant uncertainty in the relationship between India and Pakistan and their old age has made the task of visiting their respective birthplaces extremely difficult.
To fulfill the wishes of their grandparents, and several others who yearn to visit their ancestral homelands, Ahuja and Malak decided to launch Project Dastaan (story).
“What started as an idea for a student project last year at Oxford University became a larger peace-building venture,” Ahuja, the director of the project, said.
Project Dastaan is a university-backed virtual reality (VR) peace-building initiative reconnecting displaced survivors of partition with their childhood through bespoke 360-degree digital experiences.
Backed by the South Asia Programme at Oxford, it uses VR headsets to give these migrants, who are often over 80 years old, a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes. It shows them the people and places they most want to see again by finding the exact locations and memories that the survivors seek to revisit, and recreates them.
“It is a creative effort to start a new kind of conversation based on the direct experience of a now-foreign country in the present, rather than relying upon records and memories from the past,” Ahuja told Arab News.
He added that Pakistan-based Khalid Bashir Rai “teared up after his VR experience, and told us we had transported him back” to his childhood.
“At its heart, the project is a poignant commentary on its own absurdity. By taking these refugees back we are trying to highlight the cultural impact of decades of divisive foreign policy and sectarian conflict on the subcontinent. This is a task for policymakers, not university students. In an ideal world, a project like this shouldn’t exist,” Ahuja said.
Other members of Project Dastaan — Saadia Gardezi and Sam Dalrymple — have a connection with partition, too. Gardezi grew up with partition stories; her grandmother volunteered at refugee camps in Lahore, and her grandfather witnessed terrible violence as a young man.
Dalrymple’s grandfather had been a British officer in India during the twilight years of the British Empire. So scarred was he by the partition that he never visited Dalrymple’s family in Delhi, even after 30 years of them living there.
“I think Dastaan is ultimately about stripping away the layers of politics and trying to solve a very simple problem: That children forced to leave their homes, have never been able to go back again,” Dalrymple told Arab News.
Ahuja added: “The partition projects are a peace offering in the heart of hostility. It is an attempt at creating a wider cultural dialogue between citizens and policymakers of the three countries.”
The project aims to reconnect 75 survivors of the partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh with their childhood memories, when the subcontinent observes 75 years of partition in 2022.
Project Dastaan is also producing a documentary called “Child of Empire” that will put viewers in the shoes of a 1947 partition migrant, and will be shown at film festivals and museums.