Five decades ago, Arjun Singh was struggling to join the Congress. In 1994, he found himself expelled for defending his idea of the Congress party. He is working on his much awaited autobiography. He recalls the Congress’ so-called dark years, between Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination and Sonia Gandhi’s taking over as Congress president.
By Arjun Singh
The Congress party is built in a way that no upheavals or revolutions take place. It is as solid as the country. But, yes, it does reflect the changing mood of the people and the nation. After Rajivji’s untimely death, there were some anxious moments. The demolition of the Babri Masjid was one of the biggest tragedies for the country. It had a terrific impact on the polity. You suddenly lost the confidence of a vast majority of the people, especially the minorities. They felt we could not protect their legitimate interests. That was bound to reflect in the political system.
The wavering attitude of the leadership at that time certainly did not create a good impression. I could see a precipitate decline of the leadership and its commitment to secularism, socialism and to probity. These three things marked the entire history of the Congress party. And I could see the decline in these values, as could a lot number of members who ultimately joined me when I organised a splinter group of the All-India Indira Congress (Tiwari). I never really left the party, I never resigned from my party membership. Congress Pesident PV Narasimha Rao chose to expel me in 1994.
It was surprising, but he thought my remaining in the party would not serve his interests. I tried to avoid the course of collision. On every conceivable occasion, when the time came, I stood by the party, even though the leader of the party at that time did not deserve it. So one fine morning, he decided to get rid of me. Even then, I said my place is in the Congress and I will return to the party. In three years, I was back in the party, when Sitaram Kesri was the president.
Kesri was a silent person. He never objected to anyone, never objected to Rao. But then one fine morning, he developed the will to defy Rao and assume leadership. He was not too different from Rao in the way he led the party. He was never known for his clarity or his commitment. His quality was to manage situations and contradictions without any conviction.
Contrary to what people may say, this was not a very weak period for the Congress. If Rao had played his cards properly he would have gone down as one of the great leaders of the party. But he chose to do it for a very narrow personal perception of men and matters, about secularism and socialism. That is where Rao went awry.
As far as managing a coalition is concerned, it is an action replay of personal relations. It is not something that has a prescribed formula. The leader has to accommodate and guide his colleagues. Rao could see a thing, observe and find out perhaps the right way to go about it. But couldn’t summon the courage to do anything about it. There were innumerable instances when I went to him with something and his lack of courage prevented a good decision.
Take an important thing like the inquiry into Rajivji’s assassination. He was not sure how he stood with regard to it, whether he should support the inquiry or thwart it. This led to a great loss of confidence. And there was no reason for doing what he did. Congressmen felt he was letting down the party’s legacy and that of Rajivji. The consequence was the loss in the 1996 election.
We were left trying to pick up the pieces. Fortunately, Kesri was at the helm for a short duration and Soniaji became the party president. The damage was not irreversible. A lot of liberties had been taken with the organisation and with the idea of the Congress party. It wasn’t merely about getting the right people in key positions. It was about getting back the idea of the Congress party. If the party’s identity as a secular, socialist, forward-looking, liberal organisation vanishes, what difference does it make who is the general secretary of an organisation that has lost its roots?
She was able to reverse the weakening perception of the party. She did not do it by diktat but by actively associating with different parts of the party, and they believed her. This is something that either happens or it doesn’t. If it had not happened, the Congress would not have returned to power. I would not say I was certain that we would return to power in 2004, but I was sure we would bounce back sooner or later. Because there is no other party with a representative in every nook and corner of the country. Every hamlet in India has a Congressman.
Which brings me to the question: is this the party of the future. If the future is going to be thought in terms of America or Russia or Britain, then perhaps no. But if the future is about who we are and where the future can take us, I’m sure this is the party for India. The principles to which it adheres – which have not changed substantially – will definitely pull the country together.
In conversation with Sopan Joshi