THE cries of “Congress-mukt” (Congress-free) Bharat and “Congress must die” have gained momentum as the grand old party faced its second consecutive debacle in a parliamentary election. This makes it imperative to study the trajectory of the Congress in India from its heyday of one-party dominance, described by the political scientist Rajni Kothari as “the Congress system”, to its low point of 2019. In the two consecutive Lok Sabha elections, in 2014 and 2019, the party could not secure even 10 per cent of the total seats. This essay traces the circumstances under which the seeds of political dynasties were sown in India, particularly in the Congress, post Independence.
In a draft constitution written a few days before his assissination on January 30, 1948, Mahatma Gandhi proposed that in independent India the Congress should be disbanded and made to flower into a “Lok Sewak Sangh”, a social service organisation. The February 1948 issue of Harijan published it as “His Last Will and Testament”. However, the issue also carried another statement by Gandhi: “Indian National Congress, which is the oldest national political organisation and which has after many battles fought her non-violent way to freedom, cannot be allowed to die. It can only die with the nation.”
Of the two statements, the former has been widely circulated and used by detractors of the Congress, calling for a “Congress-free India” as Gandhi’s last wish.
However, unlike the political motives of the Congress’ opponents for making such a plea, Gandhi’s proposal was rooted in his deep concerns about the growing corruption and scramble for power in the party. He wanted the Congress to continue contributing in the same manner to the moral awakening and socio-economic independence of India, but not as a political organisation anymore. Nonetheless, Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s “political heir”, dismissed his last wish as utterly naïve, and expanded the Congress into a full-fledged political party engaged in the competitive struggle for power.
The Congress under Nehru continued to be popular among the masses. Nehru was elected for three consecutive terms from the first Lok Sabha election in 1951. By the early 1960s, with Nehru’s failing health, the query “After Nehru who” gained ground in political circles after his daughter Indira Gandhi became the Congress president in 1959. Although Nehru showed his displeasure about his daughter being made the party president when he was the Prime Minister, it is difficult to believe that he had no say in this.
While historians like Tariq Ali and Ramachandra Guha absolve Nehru of nurturing his daughter as successor, the journalists Kuldip Nayar and B.G. Verghese in their respective autobiographies, Beyond The Lines and First Draft, contradict it. When G.B. Pant had opposed Indira Gandhi’s nomination at the Congress Working Committee meet of 1959, Nehru defended his daughter’s capabilities. Nayar uses an interesting personal anecdote to shed light on the issue of political succession.
Once during his interaction with Lal Bahadur Shastri, when Nayar asked him: “Who do you think Nehru has in mind as his successor?” Shastri answered sarcastically: “Unke dil mei toh unki suputri hain” (He has his daughter in his heart). When Nayar told Shastri that as a staunch supporter of Nehru, people thought that he might propose Indira Gandhi’s name as Nehru’s political heir, Shashtri retorted: “I am not that much of a sadhu as you imagine me to be. Who would not like to be India’s Prime Minister?” (page 131).
Assertiveness of dynasty
While one might give Nehru the benefit of the doubt, Indira Gandhi’s grooming of her sons as her political successors was out in the open. Another instance of the assertiveness of dynasty was evident from the tussle between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the Syndicate’s over the candidature for President of India, resulting in the split of the Congress in 1969. Her preference for V.V. Giri over the Syndicates’ choice of Neelam Sanjiva Reddy for the coveted post, followed by her appeal to Congressmen to “vote according to their conscience”, created a strife.
This culminated in her expulsion from the party “for fostering a cult of personality”. Indira Gandhi’s ascension to the office of Prime Minister and her victory in the 1969 general election reinforced her transformed image from “goongi gudiya” (dumb doll) to “Indira is India”. Initially, her opponents ridiculed cow and calf as the election symbol of her party, Congress (R), as representing Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi. In spite of this, her party’s slogan, “vote for calf and cow, forget all others now”, reverberated with the masses.
Despite her popularity, the culture of sycophancy and personalisation of power tainted her image. “Loyalty above all” became the norm in the Congress, and the party machinery was manoeuvred as a family firm. However, the masses were soon to forget the excesses perpetrated during the Emergency during 1975-77, and they re-elected her in 1980 after a brief hiatus of Janata Party rule. In his work The Nehrus and the Gandhis: An Indian Dynasty, Tariq Ali contends that after Sanjay Gandhi’s sudden death, there was no one Indira Gandhi could fully rely on and hence “Rajiv [Gandhi] was needed for strictly dynastic purposes. She felt that she needed a Nehru-Gandhi by her side” (138-39). Over-centralisation of power and mistrust on the part of the dynasts hindered the growth of a second-line leadership in the party.
The fact that dynasticism has deep roots in the Congress can be further testified by the incidents that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination. President Giani Zail Singh, a loyalist of Indira Gandhi, immediately declared that her son, Rajiv Gandhi, should succeed her. This was decided without a formal election of its parliamentary party leader and despite the dissenting voices of Pranab Mukherjee and Arjun Singh. Both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi’s practice of keeping a coterie of advisers comprising close friends and family members firmly established the culture of sycophancy. The hangers-on were able to secure political dividends for their kith and kin. This propagated and entrenched what Ramchandra Guha calls darbari democracy in his book Patriots and Partisans.
For historical reasons and organisational compulsions of electoral democracy, it appears that the fate of the Congress is invariably linked with the Nehru-Gandhi family. The party needed a Sonia Gandhi to revitalise it out of a period of infighting, factionalism and electoral debacle. In the absence of a Nehru-Gandhi by its side, the P.V. Narsimha Rao led-Congress government lost the 1996 general election. The vacuum created by the absence of a strong leadership in the Congress during this period of interregnum facilitated the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) entry into Congress bastions. After persistent persuasion, Sonia Gandhi joined the Congress in December 1997 and became the party president amidst dramatic resistance from the sitting president, Sitaram Kesri. The 82-year-old leader had to be locked up in a room to facilitate Sonia Gandhi’s crowning. She retained the post for 19 years, becoming the longest-serving president of the Congress.
From Motilal Nehru to Rahul Gandhi, six members of the Nehru-Gandhi family for five generations have headed the Congress so far. The anointment of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as the Congress president and general secretary (in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh) respectively was celebrated in a banner that read, “Aagayi badlaav ki aandhi, Rahul Sang, Priyanka Gandhi” (The storms of change have arrived, with the coming of Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi). Ironically, their succession did not imply any badlaav (change); rather it reiterated the status quo of dynasty in the party. This paradox becomes even more conspicuous in the recent accusations levelled by Rahul Gandhi against some of Congress top brass for promoting their sons at the cost of the party. His offer to step down as the Congress president and his plea that an alternative leader outside his family be chosen has rekindled the debate around the issue of “leadership crisis”. It raises several pertinent questions. Leaders are not born overnight; they are groomed for years. Excessive dependence on one family has been both a boon and a bane for the Congress. A Congress without the Nehru-Gandhi family comes across as a non-entity.
The grand old party has always set its agenda around the personality cult of its dynastic leaders. In the process, there has been a strategic erasure of non-dynast Congress Prime Ministers and leaders from the collective memory of the nation. Narasimha Rao and Lal Bahadur Shastri present two glaring examples of this erasure. Narasimha Rao, a polyglot, has been popular as the “modern day’s Chanakya” for steering the country through the economic reforms of 1991. He also initiated the “Look East” policy of the Government of India. However, he remains an underrated and forgotten figure in the party. Arjun Singh’s autobiography, A Grain of Sand in the Hourglass of Time, reveals that Narasimha Rao was unhappy with the proposal of offering the post of Congress chief to Sonia Gandhi after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991. Dismissing the proposal, he asserted that the Congress should not be hitched to the Nehru-Gandhi family like train compartments to the engine.
Lal Bahadur Shastri, too, had remarkable achievements as Prime Minister, ranging from laying the foundations of the Green Revolution to leading the country through the Indo-Pakistan war in 1965. Indira Gandhi’s hostility towards him was well known. His birth and death anniversaries are hushed-up affairs in the Congress even today as opposed to those of his counterparts from the Nehru-Gandhi family. The dissenters have been obliterated from the memory of the party.
S.S. Gill and Mark Thompson suggest that the Weberian concept of charisma seems to work very well in the case of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty as it resulted in the institutionalisation of the dynastic principle. After providing stability and continuity for a smooth political transition, dynastic charisma eventually becomes a focal point of aura and myth and serves as a political centre. Slogans and myths are created to further glorify the image of the leader. Writing about dynastic parties, Pradeep Chhibber suggests that dynastic succession is linked to weak organisational structure and deinstitutionalisation of the party.
It is high time that the Congress put its house in order. The line between dynasticism and authoritarianism is really tenuous and they often overlap. Concentration of power in an individual for years provides a fertile ground for fostering dynasticism as a principle. Given the current state of chaos and debates triggered by years of dynastic rule, it would be apt to discuss an episode from 1937, when such apprehensions were expressed. An essay titled “Rashtrapati” appeared in Modern Review (a journal published from Kolkata) written by a person named Chanakya. In this essay, the author warned that with a little twist, the popular Congress president Jawaharlal might fancy himself as Caesar and turn a dictator, sweeping aside the paraphernalia of a slow-moving democracy.
At the end of the essay, the author argues that India cannot afford to have him crowned the Congress president for a third year in succession, for by doing so he would be exalted at the cost of the Congress, making way for Caesarism. Interestingly, it was later found that Nehru himself had penned the essay under the pseudonym Chanakya. This episode suggests that Nehru was aware of the possibility of his turning a dictator like Julius Caesar if he remained at the helm of affairs for long. Paradoxically, post-Independence, he became the Congress president in 1951, 1957 and 1962 while serving as India’s Prime Minister.
History has lessons to offer. Unbridled power should not remain in the hands of an individual for years. The Congress must introspect and make the best out of the Nehru-Gandhis’ legacy without downplaying the contributions of several others. The dissenters should also find space in its history of accommodative politics. In the 17th Lok Sabha election, the BJP has become as powerful as the Congress of the 1950s. It has turned into an umbrella organisation, expanding its vote bank. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s neologism of Kaamdaar vs Naamdaar posed a serious threat to the dynastic identity of the Congress. Despite its recent setbacks, the implosion of the Congress is not complete yet. There is still time for it to be regenerated with a better agenda, leadership and vision. The party should take its cue from John Milton’s Paradise Lost and “awake, arise or be forever fallen”.
Anushree teaches political science at Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi. Her doctoral work is on Political Dynasties in India from the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.