Phulpur bypoll: How politics have changed since Nehru's time

Rasheed Kidwai | 11 Mar 2018 04:55 PM

Image: ANI

As Phulpur gets ready to vote, here is an excerpt from author-journalist Rasheed Kidwai's recently released book  "Ballot: Ten Episodes that Have Shaped India’s Democracy (published by Hachette India) where the author has taken a 360 degree view of Phulpur polls and how history is repeating itself with significant results:

One of  Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s opponent for the Phulpur Lok Sabha seat was Swami Prabhu Dutt Brahmachari, who fought the election on the plank of cow protection. Brahmachari was supported by the Akhil Bharatiya Ram Rajya Parishad and the All India Hindu Mahasabha, two radical Right-wing groups. Though he had a vow of silence, his pamphlet denounced Nehru as being guilty of allowing cow slaughter in independent India. In the election, Brahmachari garnered only 56,718 votes as compared to the 2,33,571 votes Nehru received, and he lost his security deposit.

In some ways, Phulpur showed the fluctuating fortunes of the Congress and the efficacy of Nehruvian socialist and secular ideology. Situated barely 35 kilometres from Nehru’s place of birth Allahabad, Phulpur held pride of place in the annals of Congress's electoral history. Nehru kept on winning Phulpur till his death in 1964 but when five decades later, the 2014 general election saw the Congress suffering its worst-ever electoral defeat, for the first time since 1952, a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) full-timer, Keshav Prasad Maurya, won with ease.

At a public meeting held at Delhi’s Ram Lila grounds on Gandhi Jayanti in 1951, just a little while before the first general election, Nehru had pronounced the bottom line of the party’s secular creed, saying, "If any man raises his hand against another in the name of religion, I shall fight him till the last breath of my life, whether from within the government or outside." It is these words that have defined secularism in India for seven decades.

Secularism, or the separation of religion from politics, has been an integral part of Congress ideology. In the Indian context, the Congress’s definition of secularism meant equal respect for all faiths and the protection of all religious minorities. The concept of equal respect for all religions was highlighted in Nehru’s report of 1928, and by Mahatma Gandhi at the Second Round Table Conference in London in 1931, where he showcased the Congress as India’s most national and secular organisation.

Successive Congress resolutions kept proclaiming that the Congress would translate into reality the guarantees given in the Indian Constitution.

Yet, when the issue of cow slaughter staged a noisy comeback in 2014,  opposition parties in Parliament, including the Congress, reacted with caution. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), continuing the political legacy of the Jana Sangh, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Ram Rajya Parishad, won a handsome mandate in the 16th Lok Sabha. Soon after, violent and reckless groups of gau rakshaks or cow vigilante outfits emerged and, in the name of protecting cattle, targeted Muslims and Dalits. What was worse was that in many instances, the police and district administration remained mute witness to an orgy of violence and even tried to shield those who were clearly on the wrong side of law.

The Congress party's mild reaction to the unfolding events and other significant issues such as religious conversion, which are in themselves an attack on the principles of democracy that its founders held close to their hearts, points to a significant shift from its ideological position under Nehru.

Since the first election, Indian democracy has seen more than its share of ups and downs. Yet, if one thing is clear, it is that, no political party is above the peoples' mandate.

(Excerpted with permission from ‘Ballot: Ten Episodes that Have Shaped India’s Democracy’ by Rasheed Kidwai, published by Hachette India)

Rasheed Kidwai is the Associate Editor with The Telegraph. His Twitter handle is @rasheedkidwai

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