My father was a professor of economics and our house was a chaotic mess at most times. Piles of paper were usually stacked carelessly one on top of the other: it was like Trump Towers meets Antilia. There was a library of sorts, which basically meant that there were voluminous books on agriculture, industry and cooperatives (the professor’s area of specialisation) each competing with the other to exasperate my mother’s fragile sensibilities.
Occasionally, a slight tremor would cause a mountainous collapse. I used to joke with my friends that I went to Switzerland often to see an avalanche. Like all teachers, Diwakar Jha was absent-minded, abstract and astonishingly unruffled by his wife’s nagging, which she had allegedly inherited as a family hand-me-down and was perpetuating as a fine art for future generations.
But there was one thing that my father never forgot: buying me books for my birthday. I thought that was my dad’s way of dodging giving me the more expensive sports car that some of my friends haughtily flaunted. I grew up reading (rather reluctantly, I admit) Mahatma Gandhi’s My Experiments With Truth and Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India,and several books on India’s freedom struggle.
The Indian National Congress was centrifugal to the Independence movement and the stories of stalwarts such as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Dr BR Ambedkar, Lokmanya Tilak, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose made for a fascinating narrative. I was hooked. I was still not eligible to vote when I became the Congress’s most passionate salesman.
When Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi was going to drive past Pune’s Ganesh Khind Road in an open cavalcade following the 1971 war triumph, I was so excited I could not sleep well the night before.
On June 17, 2020 , Congress President Sonia Gandhi abruptly sacked me as the National Spokesperson of the party with immediate effect in a press release released at 8 pm. The terseness of the language indicated that I had evidently committed apostasy and the Congress was appalled at my chutzpah.
I had been spokesperson for seven years, sometimes appearing in ten shows a day (on election result days, in particular) from morning to late night. My social life during weekdays was virtually non-existent. I had cut down my corporate commitments to a company of which I was a co-founder by 75%. In the press release, there was not a line of appreciation or gratitude. Clearly, I had gravely violated some sacrosanct standards. So what were they?
In two articles written in The Times of India in March and June, I had expressed angst at the fact that the Congress seemed unprepared to prevent the escalating sectarianism, rising intolerance and brazen authoritarianism that were visible manifestations since the Bharatiya Janata Party made a triumphant comeback in 2014. In 2019, the BJP consolidated its stranglehold.
The extraordinary hurry to implement the Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register was an unambiguous strategy to marginalise Muslims in our country. It was bare-faced religious polarisation at work. After the outbreak of the pandemic, the callous indifference towards 85 million migrants, a destroyed economy, ballooning infections crossing 6 lakh cases and the ham-handed handling of border dispute with China in Eastern Ladakh reflected the dysfunctional political administration in the country.
The Congress, which has governed India for 55 years out of India’s 73-year existence since Independence had to step up not through an occasional sugar-rush or Twitter tantrums, but a bold imaginative structural transformation that would tap into its collective brilliance. The BJP is the LeBron James of election management and organisational agility. By comparison, we look like dilly-dallying dilettantes. It is an asymmetrical war.
To protect India’s constitutional democracy and to espouse the Congress ideology of liberalism, secularism, progressiveness and inclusive growth, the Congress needs political power. And to become a strong national alternative, India’s most powerful brand needs a dramatic reinvention.
A revitalisation plan
I am convinced my recommendations (a transparent election to Congress Working Committee and the post of Congress President), a limited term for the Congress President (an initial three years extendable by one more additional tenure, if approved), appointing Regional Vice-Presidents, having a Westminster-style shadow cabinet and taking the bold step of coming under the Right to Information Act would give the Congress the edge and energy it needed to renew itself.
I wrote the articles because, honestly, as a genuine Congressman, I was discomposed by how the Congress had been pushed to the margins by the BJP (I am not joining BJP or any other party, rest assured). It was worrying. And no one seemed to care. And no one wanted to listen. And frankly I was bored of the perpetual grumbling in private and become a silent fawner in public. Gandhi and Nehru’s writing did not teach me that.
I don’t think many of those in the Congress who have criticised me for speaking out the truth to power have read my pieces – or cared to comprehend them. But they will help the Congress tremendously by reading My Experiments With Truth and Discovery of India. It is never too late to make a new beginning. The ostrich is the fastest animal on two legs, reportedly clocking a mind-numbing 75 km an hour. The giant bird is also known for burying its head in the sand. The Congress must make a choice.
Sanjay Jha is a member of the Congress and former National Spokesperson . The views are his own.