Friday, March 29, 2013

India and the Nehru-Gandhis: A Love Story

(First published on NewsYaps)

Pictures of Rahul Gandhi at his father’s funeral have him dressed in a white kurta-pajama as he goes about conducting the last rites. He is 20. A thick mop off curly hair and oversized spectacles make him look like a high school nerd. In spite of his square jaws he looks shy, timid; vulnerable even. Even at that weakest of moment though, he is one of the most powerful people in India. His father, grandmother and great-grandfather have been prime ministers. In the future, his mother would rule India by proxy. As a Nehru-Gandhi, Rahul’s path to power was already laid out. All he had to do was set out on it.

It took Rahul another 13 years to take the plunge and contest Lok Sabha elections. His diffidence , though, had still stuck with him and his decision to enter politics was greeted with surprise—everyone had expected his charismatic sister to take over the Gandhi family’s reigns instead. Nevertheless, as a Gandhi, expectations were high and Rahul Gandhi consistently failed to deliver on them. In 2012, he managed the UP state elections for the Congress and it was a disaster—his biggest amongst numerous failures. Non-performance though is minor impedance for a Gandhi. In spite of his failures, every move that Rahul made hit the headlines. We were treated to a ringside view of his visits to Dalit homes in UP as well as local train rides in Bombay. And during the whole Anna saga, Rahul’s speech on the matter garnered far more attention than anyone else’s. In spite of no concrete successes to back him, the Nehru-Gandhi mystique ensured that Rahul was made Congress Vice President a month back, signalling that the Congress would, if all went well, project him as prime minster for the 2014 General Elections. If he succeeds, he would be the 4th (or 5th if you count his mother) Nehru-Gandhi to rule Delhi.


The Nehru-Gandhi hold on Delhi was in a way portended by Gangadhar Nehru’s choice of career. Grandfather of Jawaharlal, Gangadhar was kotwal (police chief) of Delhi just before and during the Revolt of 1857. Post the fall of Delhi, Gangadhar fled to Agra thus escaping the massacres carried out by the victorious British in the city.

His son, Motilal Nehru, was academically brilliant, topping the Vakil’s (lawyer’s) examination at Kanpur and later shifting practice to Allahabad. Motilal’s practise was wildly successful. In 1900, he built the palatial Anand Bhawan in Allahabad and it was said that he ordered clothes directly from England . As his practise expanded, as was common for lawyers at the time (Gandhi, Patel and Jinnah were all lawyers), he dabbled in politics taking up membership of the Congress, Home Rule League and Swaraj party at various points in time. The high point of his career was producing the Nehru Report, an alternate constitution for free India drawn up by Indians as a response to the Simon Commission not including any Indian members.

By the time of Motilal’s death in 1931, his son Jawaharlal had made a name for himself as a national politician. During the Indian Provincial elections of 1937, Jawaharlal was the Congress’ most popular leader and it was principally his work and campaigning that enabled the party to come to power in 8 out of 11 provinces. By the time of Independence, Nehru had been chosen prime minister and used his unparalleled power in the Government to act as the architect of modern India as well as of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. The latter point, though, is far from uncontested. Many commentators hold that it was Indira who started the Dynasty and her father did nothing explicit to further Indira’s political career. The facts though speak a different story. In the 50s, Nehru’s only child, Indira acted as his Chief of Staff and wielded enormous power in a government that centred around Nehru. Most egregiously, Indira was elected Congress President in 1959 while Nehru was at the peak of his power. On Nehru’s death, Indira was appointed minister in Shastri’s cabinet. After Shastri’s death, Indira was appointed prime minister by a Congress cabal known as the Syndicate who wanted to use her brand name as Nehru’s daughter (clearly, the Dynasty has already taken root) to rule from behind the scenes.

The way Indira outsmarted the Syndicate is a matter of legend and soon she came to wield an enormous amount of personal power. She used this power with brutal efficiency to push her sons into politics. When she declared a state of Emergency in 1975, Sanjay Gandhi, her younger son (who held no constitutional post whatsoever) started to run the country as though it were his personal fiefdom. Even though Sanjay’s excesses were partly to blame for Indira’s crushing defeat post the Emergency, by then the power of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty was too strong to be ignored. After Indira’s assassination, President Zail Singh (who once said he would sweep floors for Mrs Gandhi) appointed Rajiv as Prime Minister. This was arguably the apogee of the Nehru-Gandhi mystique.

Matters went downhill from there. Rajiv enjoyed a short stint in the sun before being embroiled in the Bofors scam (that a Gandhi could be accused of corruption showed how hard times had become). After Rajiv’s assassination the Congress, still star struck by the Dynasty, pleaded with his widow to lead them. The Congress, once the vanguard of the freedom movement, had been reduced to being dependent on one family for its survival. Without the Gandhi’s, the Congress—led by 82 year old Sitaram Kesri—was reduced to 140 seats in the 1998 elections. Enough was enough. The Gandhi’s had to come back. Sonia Gandhi was appointed party president soon after the elections.

In 2004, everyone had written off the Congress. Yet it won. And won handsomely coming back to power as head of a coalition. The Gandhi family, this time in the avatar of Sonia Gandhi, had miraculously defeated the BJP in an election where it was thought to be invincible. As a certain White rapper might say: “Guess who’s back, back again, Gandhi’s back”.

The Nehru-Gandhi mystique had triumphed yet again. Even if not PM, a Gandhi was yet again the most powerful person in the land. And as her predecessors had done before her, Sonia Gandhi would do her utmost to ensure that the next generation of Nehru-Gandhi’s would continue to enjoy the same hold over India as they had done for the last 65 years.


If you count Motilal’s career, Indians have had a fascination for the Nehru-Gandhi family for more than a century now. That is a long time for anything. Additionally, Indians not only revere the Nehru-Gandhi’s but go for a range of dynasties from the Badals in the North to the Reddy’s in the South. What explains this phenomenon?

The simplistic—almost Orientalist—view is that Indians, are by nature undemocratic. Elections, parliaments and ballot boxes are Western imports and deep down inside every Indian is a heart that longs for monarchy in a throwback to the way India was always ruled.  The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, so the narrative goes, fulfils this long held desire. The Indians long for kings but, by a quirk of history—British Rule—are “burdened” with democracy. So they subvert this “foreign system” by electing one single family to power again and again. Monarchy in democracy’s clothing. Aren’t we smart?

Unfortunately, this ignores the fact that elements of family rule are more than present in the West. Britain’s House of Lords still has 92 members chosen on the basis of nothing else but hereditary privilege and if Hillary Clinton’s bid for president had succeeded in 2008, either a Clinton or a Bush would have ruled the US continuously for 16 years! Dynasty and a (blind) belief in its virtues is present in varying degrees in all societies, India included.

Why the situation gets exacerbated in a place like India is that our political systems are still nascent. Our institutions aren’t strong enough and need to be buttressed by personalities. In that case what better way to build personalities than by using dynasty? Dynasty provides the edifice to power that institutions never can in a place like India. In the UK, you trust Parliament to govern the country. India’s Parliament—barely 60 years old—and its workings are largely unknown to the layman in India. For him, the face of power is not an institution but a personality. And genealogy helps to burnish that personality. As the Hindi proverb goes: “baap ka beta, sipahai ka ghoda, kucch nahi to thoda thoda” (like father, like son).

This reason largely explains the preponderance of dynasty in a number of developing countries. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka all turn to dynasty due to lack of strong institutions. As and when strong institutions develop, the importance of dynasty will decrease on its own.

Specifically for India though, its sheer size is another factor responsible for the longevity of the Gandhi family. It is often said that India’s general elections aren’t so much a nationwide election as much as it is a series of simultaneous state elections. Under the rubric of its being one country, we often forget just how big India is. It’s so big that the word ‘big’ doesn’t even cut it: try humungous instead. Europe, a region with half of India’s population consists of 50 countries. The US population is only one-fourth of India’s. China is our only real competitor when it comes to size but even there, given China’s remarkable ethnic homogeneity (92% of the population is Han Chinese) India’s problems still seem much bigger. Add to that the fact that while India (like China) has had, since millennia, a unique form of cultural unity, unlike China, that unity does not extend into the political sphere. Rarely has a significant portion of what currently constitutes India been under a single political centre. Naturally, post-1947, from a political point of view, it was difficult finding factors that united us politically. For some time, the Congress Party, riding on the back of the Freedom Struggle provided that unity but that magic started fading in the 60s as a number of non-Congress state governments took power. At that time it was only natural that the Dynasty stood up to claim its space at the political Centre. For better or for worse, the Gandhi family was a major factor that united India politically. People voted for the Dynasty in the absence of any other pan-India political factors. It was the classic TINA—There Is No Alternative—strategy given India’s size. Cleverly, the Dynasty has also appropriated two pan-India factors—socialism and identity politics—that could have challenged its hold on the Centre. Indira Gandhi was an unabashed populist and made a garbled form of socialism the state ideology. Her son, Rajiv, dabbled in religion-based identity politics alternately appeasing both Muslim (Shah Bano) and Hindu (opened Babri Masjid Gates) fundamentalists. Till today the Congress plays both Right and Left in a deft show of political manoeuvring which often leaves its far less experienced rival, the BJP at sixes and sevens.

As Rachit, a Congress enthusiast I interacted with a long time back on an Orkut forum, once remarked, the Gandhi Family stands for stability. Given the immaturity of our institutions and the lack of a pan-Indian political grammar, for better or for worse, this has been true for most of our post-Independence history.


As Rahul takes firm control of the Congress Party as its Vice President (and, by extension stakes his claim to lead India) we need to ask: what does the future hold for the Gandhi family?

Depends on who you ask, really.

Ask your typical upper-middle class, Twitterer (IT professional, spent 2 years in the US at client site, keenly interested in politics but wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole) and you’d get your typical doomsday scenario. Dynasty is all that’s wrong with Indian politics. Its removal is but a natural process in which Indians, as they get richer and, by extension, smarter, dump this medieval form of government and move on to more evolved things. Let us for a moment, ignore the fact that this more “evolved” option is more often than not Modi whose role (criminal as well as political) in the 2002 Gujarat pogroms is rather incriminating. What’s really interesting is how much in common this view has with the Orientalist view that Indians root for dynasty because they are “un-evolved” beings. Sadly, as we’ve discussed, the Indian voter is far from stupid. He votes for dynasty not because he loves it but because there are a lack of options. Given that the lack of options will persist for some time, our Twitter warrior’s dreams might remain just that: dreams.

The fact is that in the near term, there is no pan-Indian issue that can still take the place of dynasty. The two factors that unseated the Dynasty in the 90s—Mandir (Hindutva) and Mandal (caste-based identity politics)—have both changed hugely. Hard Hindutva is all but dead. The BJP itself has given up on the Mandir card. Even Modi, as he shifts to Delhi, tries his best to hide his right-wing background and projects a “development” face. Caste is more potent a factor and in places like UP, the Congress has all but lost to it (one of the principal reason why the Congress is unable to crack UP is that it does not have a caste base of its own). However, it seems that caste-based identity politics, while a still a solid force, has plateaued. The failure of Mayawati to replicate the Dalit experiment outside of UP and her desperation to build a cross-caste alliance speaks of the low growth prospects of this brand of politics.

 In the medium term, however, two forces will shape India politics and will consequently weaken (but not wipe out) dynasty. One is that as our political institutions mature, our voters will have the option of placing their trust in institutions rather than personalities. Maybe in 50 years, MLAs in UP will be re-elected on the basis of their voting record rather the fact they belong to, say, Mayawati’s party. In such a scenario, the importance of dynasty as a key differentiator will lessen.

The second big trend is one which is already underway: the decentralisation of Indian politics. Till 20 years back all the Big Decisions were taken in Delhi. While this is still largely the case, power is slowly shifting to the states. The BJP is totally dominated by state satraps (Modi, Chauhan) and even the ultra-centrist Congress needs to depend on state leaders to win crucial states like Andhra Pradesh—a scenario that would have been anathema to the party during Indira Gandhi’s time.

As power shifts away from Delhi and our polity becomes more federal the overarching need for a central political unifying force at the Centre—a need fulfilled so well by the Gandhi family—would lessen dramatically. In effect, as Delhi starts to depend on state capitals for support (and not the other way around as it is now), the Gandhi’s would find themselves out of a job.

Both these scenarios though are medium term at best so be prepared in 30 years to see our press go gaga as either Raihan or Miraya Vadra is appointed the new Vice President of the Congress Party while their mother, Priyanka Gandhi looks on indulgently.

1 comment:

Sumanth said...

It's true that we always preferred a person, or a family at best to relate to things. Not just in politics. It's also pretty evident in India's business and other capitalist ventures.
We always liked to talk about Tata's, and now the Ambani's. It's been a last name all the time.
We've always refered to Bill Gates more than Microsoft by its name.
Indian kids know names of politicians, but not their parties.
Film Industry again. People know actors, and directors at best, and not studios or production houses. We know of a lot of single handed music composers, and not bands or groups.

It is time to foster collaboration and get them into the field of view of an average Indian. If it's there everywhere else, I suppose we'll start looking for it in Politics too. Eventually.