The absence of a number of senior leaders at the international conference organised by the Congress to mark the 125th birth anniversary celebrations of India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru has again demonstrated that all is not well with the grand old party. While many functionaries are attempting to cover up the goof up, it is evident that those responsible for the meet lacked organisational skills or deliberately kept out leaders whose compatibility was not consistent with their own.
The meet also coincided with Narendra Modi's Australia visit, particularly his public felicitation in Sydney and thus did not attract much media attention. The highlight of the conference, as reported by the press, had nothing to do with what Nehru stood for, but pertained to the possibility of the Left parties and some others coming closer to the Congress to combat the growing influence of the saffron brigade. However, it is unlikely that any of the political leaders who were present at the Vigyan Bhawan would ever be prepared to work under the overall leadership of Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi. Their presence was symbolic as of now and if and when there is future communication between the leaders, their views on the overall leadership to counter Modi and the NDA shall be in public domain.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley rightly pointed out that many of the parties that were represented in the birthday celebrations of the Congress were principally opposed to it. The socialists, who drew inspiration from Ram Manohar Lohia, have always been critical of the Congress and for Lohia personally, Nehru was someone he opposed during his own lifetime.
But socialists have been hobnobbing with different players at different times during the past 40 years and have lost much of their ideological significance ever since they became a part of the J.P. movement and helped in granting political legitimacy to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. They forgot that for Lohia, communalism was a bigger opponent than Congress and this is what Raj Narain perhaps realised earlier than others and raised the issue of dual membership during the Janata Party rule post 1977 defeat of Indira Gandhi. The demand led to the collapse of the Morarji Desai government, which was replaced by the shortlived Charan Singh regime, paving the way for polls which brought Indira Gandhi back to power in 1980. The members of the erstwhile Jana Sangh, led by Atal Behari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi then founded the Bharatiya Janata Party. Though Raj Narain passed away, followed by Madhu Limaye, the greatest socialist ideologue after Lohia, the socialists have been trying to search for their identity. They were let down by George Fernandes and by others. They have now decided to regroup to take on the might of the BJP in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to begin with.
Coming back to the Nehru birthday celebrations, the prominent leaders who perhaps never got the invite or opted to skip the function included A.K. Antony, P. Chidambaram, Sushilkumar Shinde, Salman Khurshid and Kapil Sibal. The absence of two other prominent faces associated with the Nehru family —Makhan Lal Fotedar and R.K. Dhawan was also noticed. While Fotedar had met Nehru during his student days for the first time, Dhawan had joined the PMO of the late Prime Minister in the early 1960s on the recommendations of his cousin Yashpal Kapoor. Also missing from the celebrations was the country's senior most Congress leader, who has worked with all Prime Ministers till this date. The obvious reference is to Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, who was handpicked by Nehru when he was in his 20s and given the ticket to contest for Lok Sabha in 1962 from the hilly area which was part of undivided Punjab at that time. It is possible that the present Congress leadership is not aware of Singh's seniority or decided to overlook it, since he does not get along too well with Anand Sharma, the chief organiser who is also from Himachal Pradesh. Dr Karan Singh is another prominent leader who had worked with Nehru as a young man before being elected to Parliament for the first time in 1967, during Indira Gandhi's first tenure.
The audience, which included several dignitaries from abroad, realised that the present Congress leadership has nothing much to do with Nehru except being related to him. In trying to reclaim his legacy, the leadership forgot to put equal emphasis on Indira Gandhi's birthday celebrations on 19 November, even though it is her legacy that brought first Rajiv Gandhi to power in 1984 and subsequently, made Sonia Gandhi the party president in 1998. Nehru stood for so many things but the Congress leaders focused only on his commitment to secularism as if that was his only virtue. The Congress needs to revert to secularism itself and correct its tilt towards the minorities. Between us.