Unlike standard detective novels, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold is not a whodunnit. It does not investigate the murder Santiago Nasar by the Vicario twins, which is made clear from the first sentence. Instead, the mystery revolves around why the whole town allowed the murder to take place, making only half-hearted attempts to stop it.

Likewise is the death foretold of India’s Grand Old Party, the Indian National Congress. Though many liberal-minded Indians want the Congress to survive, the party’s own leadership is making only half-hearted attempts, at best, to stop its imminent death.

As writer Ramachandra Guha pointed out in his essay “The Long Life and Lingering Death of the Indian National Congress”, the party is unique in the Indian political constellation:

“The Congress is a party that led the movement for freedom, the party that united India and brought people of different religions and languages into a single political project. Its finest leaders were not confined by national boundaries; they had universal vision. And they were men and women of high personal integrity.”

Guha notes that the Congress today would shock anyone with a sense of history, given the chasm between the party’s past and present. The Congress of today is a Brobdingnag – the fictitious land of giants – invaded by Lilliputians.

The Congress leadership has failed to learn from history and is repeating mistakes of the past.

A shadow of itself

The party’s reigning dynasty resembles the later Mughals, a shadow of their forebears. Congress nobles are busy building their fiefdoms while the Sangh Parivaar, like the East India Company in the 1700s, is expanding its clout by leaps and bounds. Many are hand in glove with the “Company Bahadur”, a continuation of the vestiges of Mughal rule but under British control, waiting for the right time to switch allegiance.

In the early 1900s, the British wondered if the moderate Congress would be a sitting duck for its guns. “The Congress is tottering to its fall, and one of my greatest ambitions while in India is to assist it to a peaceful demise,’’ declared the viceroy, Lord Curzon.

The political opponents of the Congress today have similar Curzonian dreams of a “Congress-free India” and await its “peaceful demise”.

Presidential hunt or a futile exercise?

In-fighting and factionalism is a part of the Congress DNA. Its most heated intra-party elections resulted in internal strife and sometimes led to splits in the Congress.

In 1905-’07, for instance, two groups in the party – the Moderates and the Extremists – were engaged in a war to gain control of the Congress. In 1907, the Extremists led by Aurobindo Ghose, felt that that time had come to part company with the Moderates and push them out of the leadership.

If the Moderates could not be deposed, they wanted to split the organisation. The Moderates were led by Gopal Krishna Gokhale while the Extremists by Bal Gangadhar Tilak.

At the party’s Surat session in 1907, the Extremists objected to the election of Rash Behari Ghose as Congress president. It ended in a tussle between the two groups and the party split. Viceroy Lord Minto wrote to the Secretary of State for India Lord Morley that the “Congress collapse at Surat was a great triumph for the British”.

In the early 1920s, the Congress was again split between the Changers and No-Changers. The Changers, led by CR Das and Motilal Nehru, formed the Swaraj Party in 1923 to overcome the slump in the freedom struggle after the Non-Cooperation Movement was halted by MK Gandhi in 1922 following the Chauri Chaura incident, when police fired on protesters killing three. Enraged, the protesters set fire to a police station, resulting in the death of 23 personnel.

The Swaraj Party members and the No-Changers were engaged in a fierce political struggle, but were determined to avoid the disastrous experience of the 1907 Surat split. On the advice of Mohandas Gandhi, the two groups decided to remain in the Congress but to work separately.

Then, in 1939, the Congress witnessed one of its most heated presidential contests. Gandhi had chosen Pattabhi Sitaramaiah as his candidate, but incumbent president Subhash Chandra Bose wanted to contest again. Gandhi was opposed to this. Bose, who went on to become a leader of the Indian National Army, had always held radical views.

Mohandas Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel at a Congress meeting in 1938. Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

When the votes were counted, Gandhi’s candidate Pattabhi Sitaramaiah had garnered 1,375 votes to Bose’s 1,580. In 1939, however, Bose resigned as Congress president and founded the Forward Bloc.

The splits and in-fighting in the Congress weakened the party, but often helped it stay in sync with the zeitgeist.

In the current party election, Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor holds charisma and appeal, like Bose. He is up against Mallikarjun Kharge, who seems to have the backing of the Gandhi family. Tharoor may not win the race, but he may perhaps capture the mood for change. He should create a sphere of influence of his own, either within the party, like CR Das’s Swaraj Party, or outside like Bose’s Forward Bloc. Without such a positive outcome, the party’s election would be an exercise in futility.

The clergy vs the laity

It is said that when Napoleon Bonaparte was fighting with a Roman Catholic cardinal, the French military leader said: “Your eminence, are you not aware that I have the power to destroy the Catholic Church?” The cardinal is said to have replied: “Your majesty, we, the Catholic clergy, have done our best to destroy the church for the last 1,800 years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.”

The cardinals of the Congress, too, have been doing their best to bring down their party. But the Congress is a microcosm of India and the Indian laity does not want the Grand Old Party to succumb to its death foretold. Because, as Guha concluded, future historians shall record that while it lived and before it died, the Indian National Congress helped make India a less divided, less violent, less hierarchical, less patriarchal, less intolerant and less unequal unfree society than it might have otherwise been.

Faisal CK is an independent researcher.

Also read:

Why the messiness of the Congress election offers a glimmer of hope for Indian democracy

From ‘pappu’ to popular: Can the Bharat Jodo Yatra remake Rahul Gandhi’s image?

Protesting shrinking freedoms, walking for hope: What I saw on the Bharat Jodo Yatra