Some months ago, I found myself in a panel discussion with three politicians - a Congress member of parliament, a Bharatiya Janata Party MP and the president of one of the smaller regional parties. In the course of the conversation, I found reason to criticize all three for their partisan stands. As the argument grew more heated, I found myself ignoring the others and turning on the Congressman in particular.

Coming out of the studio, and driving home, I later reflected on this partisanship of my own. Why had I been less harsh on the other fellows? It may have been because from them a historian can expect no better. Despite its occasional disavowal of the Hindutva programme, the BJP is in essence a party of bigots who detest minorities and atheists - as its defence of Varun Gandhi's hate speech has recently demonstrated. On their part, the smaller, regional and sectarian parties have no ideology to profess - all they stand for is personal advancement.

The case of the Congress is different. This was the 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 best leaders had a universalist vision. Its ministers and legislators were once men and women of high personal integrity. When confronted with the Congress of today, an Indian who knows some history cannot but be struck by the chasm between the past and the present. Hence the savagery with which I turned on the Congressman in the television studio. Unlike the BJP man or the lady from a regional party, he should have known better than to defend dynastic rule, duck the question of the massacre of Sikhs in 1984, disregard the growing evidence of corruption in a Congress-led government and so on.

Despite what it has done to itself in recent years, history should still remember the Indian National Congress as one of the great political parties of the modern world. It has a lineage and record of achievement comparable to that of the Labour Party in Great Britain, the Social Democratic Party in Germany and the Democratic Party in the United States of America. From its foundation in 1885, its ambitions were immense, these contained in its very title, with the last, definitive word indicating that it would not be sectarian, but embrace Indians of all kinds.

In the first few decades of its existence, the Indian National Congress built up a network of branches spread across the country. It produced some impressive and very focused leaders - among them those great Bengalis, Surendranath Banerjee and Bipin Chandra Pal. The most intense Congress activity was in eastern as well as in western India, where the stars were Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gopal Krishna Gokhale. With their sophisticated intellectual cultures, Bengal and Maharashtra were naturally in the vanguard - but the Congress had a reach and presence in north and south India as well.

By the time Mohandas Gandhi returned home from South Africa, the Congress was a genuinely national organization. Still, it had two major, and interrelated, weaknesses it was active only in the major cities, and its debates and proceedings were conducted only in English. Gandhi quickly and definitively remedied these deficiencies. He encouraged the different branches of the Congress to think, write and act in the major language of the region in which they operated. The Congress organization was itself reconstituted, so that, instead of following the administrative divisions of the British raj, party units were structured on the basis of language - thus, for example, there was one unit for Kannada speakers, another for Marathi speakers, a third for Oriya speakers, and so on.

The encouragement of political debate in the vernacular allowed the Congress to expand its base beyond the middle classes in the Presidency cities. Clerks, workers, lawyers and other residents of small-town British India flocked to the nationalist cause. So did very many unlettered peasants, who were attracted as much to the great leader as to the organization he represented. Dressing simply, living a life of exemplary honesty and integrity, Gandhi carried an extraordinary appeal for the ordinary villager who now joined his urban compatriots in movements of protest against British colonial rule.

Gandhi's genius lay not merely in his constructing a mass base for the freedom struggle. Far more than other Congress leaders, he alerted the nationalists to the deep fissures and divisions within Indian society. If the Congress sought to represent India, he argued, then it had to work overtime to incorporate Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Sikhs within its ambit. If India was to be fit for self-rule, he went on, then the Hindus in particular had to rid themselves of the execresence of Untouchability. For how could a community that treated its own members so abominably claim deliverance from foreign rule?

Picture source: Congress party web site.

It was also Gandhi who did the most to bring women into public life and the nationalist movement. Feminists have taken issue with his ambivalence about women's work and his eccentric ideas on sex and marriage. Whatever the theory, however, in practice Gandhi did a great deal for women's emancipation. As Madhu Kishwar once pointed out, many more women participated in the Mahatma's movements than in the political campaigns led by Mao or Lenin. By bringing women out of purdah into the streets, the Congress under Gandhi's leadership prepared the way for their later emergence as doctors, teachers, lawyers, and, not least, political leaders.

A unique and very appealing aspect of Congress nationalism was that it did not demonize the foreigner or the alien. Here, Gandhi and his colleagues were acting under the inspiration of Rabindranath Tagore, who made a necessary distinction between the Nation of the West and the Spirit of the West. The former had resulted in pillage and imperial exploitation, and had to be resisted. The latter had promoted freedom of expression, equal rights for all, and the spirit of scientific enquiry - all this had to be made India's own.

To be sure, there was often a slippage between the ideal and the practice. Dalits and Muslims did not always feel at home in the Gandhian Congress - hence the appeal of rival leaders like B R Ambedkar and M A Jinnah. While emphasizing freedom, the Congress did not lay adequate stress on equality - thus industrial workers and rural labourers did not feature strongly in its programmes. Among the Congress leaders in the Gandhian era were several Hindu conservatives, and even some West-hating xenophobes.

Withal, despite its failures and its inconsistencies, the Congress that brought India freedom was a party of distinction and achievement. It had many imitators - among them the African National Congress. Across the colonized countries of Asia and Africa, the party of Gandhi and Nehru acted as a beacon of hope and inspiration. Even when they did not mimic its name or its methods, anti-colonial nationalists remained in thrall to it (thus a great admirer of Gandhi and company was the gun-toting Marxist revolutionary, Ho Chi Minh). Within India, of course, the Congress did more than lead the independence movement. In a subsequent column, I shall speak of its contributions to the nation in the decades following the British withdrawal from the subcontinent.

Meanwhile, from the history recounted in this column, the reader might get a better sense of why, when confronted with politicians of arguably even more debased formations, I chose to focus my anger on the Congressman instead. For the other parties in the debate had no history to honour, no ideals to live up to or to betray.