When Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her bodyguards on October 31, 1984, the instant elevation of her son Rajiv to the post of prime minister appeared to confirm her family’s status as India’s natural-born rulers.
But three decades on from the assassination of India’s ‘Iron Lady’, even members of her Congress party are beginning to question whether they may now have to look beyond the Nehru-Gandhi clan for survival.
After a crushing defeat in 2014 general election, things hit a new low by repeatedly losing state by state with Rahul Gandhi — the dynasty’s latest scion — having all but disappeared from view.
One can say that Indira Gandhi was the real architect of the Congress party’s expansion. She had the ability to directly speak to the masses across India and get votes. But for the first time, instead of the party depending on the family, the family depends on it for its survival.
The Congress is facing an “existential crisis” and its leaders behave like “Sultans” even with the sultanate gone, one of its seniormost leaders Jairam Ramesh has said – his words a glancing blow for the grand old party on a day it was struggling to win a five-time Rajya Sabha seat. “The sultanate has gone, but we behave as if we are sultans still. We have to completely redo the way of thinking, the way of acting, the way of projecting, the way of communicating. I think there is a lot of goodwill for the Congress, a lot of support for the Congress but people want to see a new Congress. They don’t want to see old mantras, old slogans. We must recognise this is a big challenge. Huge challenge for us,” he said.
The centre-left Congress has ruled India for more than 50 of the 67 years since independence, while a member of the family has been at the helm of the party for all but a handful of those years. Indira’s father Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s first prime minister from 1947 to 1964. Two years after his death, Indira became the premier from 1966 to 1977 and then again from 1980 before a grieving Rajiv then took up the mantle.
Such was the sympathy towards Rajiv that Congress recorded its best-ever showing in elections soon after he took office, reinforcing the notion that the family was destined to rule the world’s largest democracy. After Rajiv was assassinated in a Tamil suicide attack in 1991, Congress turned to his Italian-born widow Sonia who led the party back to power in a shock 2004 election victory.
She declined to become premier, installing the mild-mannered Manmohan Singh instead, but was seen as the power behind the throne until 2014 defeat after a lacklustre campaign led by her son Rahul.
While few within Congress speak out against the family, analysts say there can be no illusions about the scale of its troubles. While Rajiv and Sonia were reluctant leaders, both showed an aptitude for politics that their daughter Priyanka seems to have inherited. Although Priyanka is seen as an alternative leader, she says she is dedicated to raising her children and is hampered by controversy over her husband’s property business dealings.
Rahul — once described in a US diplomatic cable as “an empty suit” — has shown no such appetite and likened power to “poison” before being persuaded to become Congress’s election frontman. His mother remains party president. While the victory chariot of the Bharatiya Janata Party is marching with triumph across the country, the Grand Old Party cut a sorry figure in front of its opponents. In such a critical time, the Congress has no leader to stop its total collapse like a house of cards. The party is witnessing regular exodus of its members since the time it has lost assembly elections in UP and Uttarakhand and outwitted by the BJP in Goa and Manipur as the Congress failed to form its governments in these two states in spite of getting maximum seats in the elections. Right from veteran Congress leaders like SM Krishna joining the BJP in Karnataka recently or the 23 Congress councillors of Itanagar Municipal Council joining the BJP Arunachal Pradesh on Thursday, members after members are deserting the sinking ship called ‘Congress’. If things continue like this, a day is not far behind, when Rahul would perhaps be left alone in the Congress to ‘introspect’ its fate.
Generation gap riles the Dynasty
The Nehru-Gandhi family has dominated Congress politics for the past four decades. The charisma of the Nehru-Gandhi family has been steadily declining over time. A majority of voters were born after Indira Gandhi died. Her father is even further removed from public memory. Nehru’s contributions towards nurturing a democratic India, or Indira’s successful handling of the Bangladesh crisis, are not remembered or recognised. No voter under 30 remembers Rajiv either.
An ever younger electorate tends to judge the Nehru-Gandhi family by their own experiences. They note that the corrupt UPA was headed by Sonia Gandhi. And they see that the person slated to succeed her, her son Rahul, has done little in his decade in politics. He has scarcely been visible in Parliament and shied away from ministerial responsibility. In his rare public speeches, he has not offered a single new idea on economics, politics or governance, preferring instead to praise his father, mother, or grandmother.
The decline of the Congress as an electoral force in state and national politics is clearly in part a consequence of ineffective leadership. Compared to Indira and Sonia, who campaigned tirelessly across the country, Rahul is seldom seen and rarely heard. Compared to Nehru and Rajiv, he has no original ideas on how to modernise Indian society. As a politician he has been disappointing. Whether other Indian leaders are ambitious and hardworking, Rahul seems apathetic and listless. This has an impact on voters, as the polls show. Meanwhile, Rahul’s incapacities are compounded by the steady decline over time of the (once considerable) appeal of his ancestors.
The Congress was founded as far back as 1885. The conversion of the party into a family firm is therefore of relatively recent origin. It is also a product of historical accident. Had Shastri lived another five years, Indira Gandhi would never have become prime minister. Then her sons Rajiv and Sanjay might still be alive, but with no connection to the party.
The Congress still has many able leaders in the states as well as at the Centre. Many voters are still attracted to it because it remains the only all-India party and because they cannot abide the sectarianism of the BJP. However, many other voters are turned away by the dynasty’s stranglehold. Meanwhile, Rahul’s (unearned) pre-eminence within the party means that more capable men and women do not get their due. It is surely no accident that in the nine years of this Congress-led government no leader younger or of the same age as Rahul has been promoted to full cabinet rank.
It appears that the Congress under the stewardship of Rahul Gandhi has the Bhasmasura touch: anything it touches burns to ashes. Its alliance with the Left in West Bengal decimated both parties. In Tamil Nadu, it appears that allying with the Congress badly singed the DMK.
This is unsurprising given his record even when the UPA was at the height of its power. In the 2010 Bihar elections, he reduced the Congress to just three seats and his high-powered UP campaign in 2016 resulted in a similar fate. Rahul Gandhi eminently symbolises the larger phenomenon of the Congress facing the real prospect of extinction. He has in many ways, been an enabler of that extinction.
One of the fundamental reasons for the rise of regional parties in the country is the Congress itself. By initially crushing eminent regional Congress leaders at the altar of the all-powerful Nehru dynasty, it sent out the message to other deserving hopefuls that they had no future in the party.
And so, some of them carved out their own fiefdoms through a combination of grassroots work and personal charisma. In doing so, they borrowed generously from the Congress script of divisiveness, and creating and pandering to various vote banks. Almost in all cases, these were former Congress vote banks.
And as it must, the wheel turned a full circle. Starting around two decades ago, it’s the Congress that has increasingly leaned on these regional leaders, not the other way round. Today, there is not a single state in India where the Congress has a leader who can ensure a comprehensive victory for the party.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the said prospect of the Congress’ extinction than an interview to NDTV by BJP’s Himanta Biswas Sarma, widely perceived as a key driving force behind the party’s thumping victory in Assam. This former three-term Congress MLA and minister tore into Rahul Gandhi, characterising him as “arrogant”, “plays with his dog during serious discussions,” “treats party workers like his servants,” and basically reeled out a whole litany of severely damaging indictments against him. This would’ve been unthinkable just three years ago.
Indeed, as it stands, the Congress as a national (?) party is caught in an existential dilemma: it cannot let go of the first family at the risk of splintering into pieces and neither can it hold on to it at the risk of wholesale extinction.
By Nilabh Krishna