'Politicians Leave Party, But Cadres Stay Committed': A Congress Man's Journey

Kaushik’s active association with the Congress party began in 1989 with Seva Dal, right before the Mandal agitation, which he calls a turning point for the party.

Prashant Kaushik speaking at an event feature

A tamra patra is proudly displayed in Prashant Kaushik’s drawing-room in Meerut’s Brahmpuri, one of the old quarters of the city. The copper plate, with which Kaushik's father was honoured by the government in 1972, and his photographs with Congress leaders on the walls are symbols of the political ideology that runs through the house. Kaushik is the third-generation leader in his family to be associated with the Congress party. He says, “My father and grandfather were both Congress workers and were associated with the Independence movement, so that influenced me as I grew up.”

Kaushik’s active association with the Congress party began in 1989 with Seva Dal, right before the Mandal agitation, which he calls a turning point for the party. Its confluence with the Ram Mandir movement – called Mandal-Kamandal politics – created difficulties for the party, says Kaushik. Later he joined the National Students’ Union of India and went on to be the general secretary of the party's district committee.

The Congress party has shrunk a lot since then.

Kaushik says, “The Congress party dominated the country at the time. The cadres were very strong and there was no dearth of people working at the grassroots. There used to be camps where people were made aware of the party’s contribution to nation-building and training sessions were held for the cadres. That has fallen over the years and we are now seeing its adverse effects.”

The Congress lost power in Uttar Pradesh in 1989, the year Rajiv Gandhi’s government at the Centre also lost the Lok Sabha elections. Several people left over the years as the party declined, but not Kaushik.

He says, “Politicians leave the party for personal gains but cadres stay as they are committed to the ideology. This is the difference between politicians and people working at the grassroots.”

Kaushik describes the Congress party as centrist and compares it with a rainbow incorporating many shades of political thoughts. "This also caused problems with the party as it could not keep up with the aggressive turn Indian politics took," he says. 

Prashant Kaushik with Sonia Gandhi in 1996 Facebook

“The Ayodhya movement polarised the society along religious lines and the Mandal agitation caused a caste-based polarisation. The Congress was unfit for extremist religious and caste politics.”

The Bharatiya Janata Party, riding on the Hindutva wave, and caste-based parties such as Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party came into prominence. Meanwhile, Congress continued to try to stay relevant. While Kaushik may say that Congress chose ethics over extremist politics, it still is a political party that has to contest elections and win. He explains that the party is more than a political force, but an idea for India. 

Following a string of defeats, there have been calls for a change of party leadership. Kaushik understands it’s natural to blame the party leader when the party loses but he does not align himself with the G-23.

He says, “When G-23 members question the party leadership, they should realise they are part of the Congress leadership and have held key posts in governments and have been party strategists. The failure of the party in elections is, therefore, their failure too and not just that of the party president.”

Kaushik also raised the issue of these veteran leaders’ relationship with cadres. “Questioning the party leader will not work. Have they taken to the streets?”

Rather than questioning the party in public, these leaders should travel across states and districts and bring new people into the folds of the party, Kaushik opines. About a non-Gandhi party chief, Kaushik bluntly says, “People in every Indian street know the Nehru-Gandhi family. There have been calls for a non-Gandhi party president. Have they been able to bring anyone who is acceptable to everyone like someone from the Nehru-Gandhi family?”

Some of Kaushik’s most memorable moments from his over three decades of association with the Congress party involve the Gandhi family. He cites an incident from 1989 when Rajiv Gandhi visited Meerut. He recalls, “I was among Seva Dal members who gave him the guard of honour on his arrival. He talked to all of us in person and in detail.”

The party is sinking, but the man is living with a memory.