By shash

20 April 2014

In many countries, a very curious, odd phenomenon can be observed; on top of a republican, often even a democratic system, complete with elections, a parliament and rival political parties, sits a powerful family. In various places we have the Bhuttos in Pakistan, the Peron in Argentina, Mujibur Rehman's family in Bangladesh, the Lees of Singapore.

The one that stands out the most is our own home-grown Dynasty, the Nehru-Gandhis whom we all love to hate. The historian Ramachandra Guha has often been quoted saying that his dream is of a "Congress without the Gandhis and a BJP without the RSS". It's very easy to just hate them, but can we understand them? What keeps them in power generation after generation (counting Nehru, it's the fourth generation now). How do they come to power, and how do they retain it?

What makes them tick?

A detractor would simply say that it's the "decadence of the Congress". A Dan Brown reader might say that it's all a big conspiracy. We may ridicule the Congress for their repeated return to the same family. Their political opponents may say that it simply reflects the lack of leadership in the party. We may lament that other, good leaders are never allowed to come up to the top.

But none of that really explains anything. Those are more or less effects, not the cause.

So, all this came up on Facebook, when we were (heatedly) discussing something entirely different to do with the elections (I don't even really remember the subject of that discussion anymore). I started indulging in a Socratic investigation starting with the question, "Why is the Congress so bent upon dynasty?" What follows is a summary of the discussion, and perhaps, a model - a Unified Theory of Political Dynasty if I may be so bold.

First, the family seems important in getting votes. People hero worship them. The name of Indira Gandhi is still a vote getter, and so is Rajiv. Decades after their deaths. Even Nehru is still a revered figure everywhere.

Part of the answer of course is their martyrdom - Indira and Rajiv's, that is. Both were killed by terrorists while (apparently) serving their country. But again, why is this so powerful that any attempt to replace it with something else has failed miserably? Most notably, such an effort was undertaken in the 1990s, during the Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesari periods. It also happened in the 1960s, after Nehru's death, when Indira Gandhi became Party President and PM of India, splitting the so-called Old Congress away from her loyalists. Why, in that time, did the bulk of the party defect with her and not stay with the Congress(O)?

Let's start with the progenitor - Jawaharlal Nehru himself: After independence, Nehru and Rajaji were the only ones left of the top echelons of the freedom movement. Gandhi had been shot, the Sardar died early on. And Rajaji had left the party to create an opposition. So, Nehru was the last remaining symbol of the movement. Moreover, he was the Mahatma's chosen successor, and also the first person to whom power was divested after the British. He held legitimacy in several dimensions. Apart from that, many of his policies were really actually good ones; many of the things he did needed to be done at the time he did them.

I don't think anyone can seriously question this; it was on merits that the Congress was elected for several successive terms under his leadership. There really was no force strong enough to oppose him in that era.

In his essay "A short history of Congress Chamchagiri"[1], Ramachandra Guha argues as follows:

Nehru did not much like chamchas; and, contrary to a widely accepted myth, Nehru did not start a 'dynasty'; either. He had no wish, nor desire, nor hope, nor expectation, that his daughter Indira would ever become prime minister. In a book published in 1960, the respected editor Frank Moraes wrote that 'there is no question of Nehru's attempting to create a dynasty of his own; it would be insconsistent with his character and career'. This was (and is) entirely correct

But If Nehru didn't establish it, how did Indira manage to do so?

In 1963, while Nehru was still alive but reeling from the 1962 war with China, a horrible economy, the prospect of new and delibitating taxes, and his own failing health, Kamaraj proposed his famous Plan. Six Union ministers and six CMs - all multi-termers - would resign and take up party work, to re-connect with the public and to revitalize the cadre. Soon enough, one of the ministers who resigned, Shastri, was brought back as virtual Deputy PM (he was designated Minister without portfolio), and virtual heir apparent. But in 1966, with both Nehru and Shastri dead, there was a minor crisis.[2]

I've already said that Nehru was pretty much the only top-ranked freedom fighter left in the 50s. Everyone else was below him, and thus, pretty much equal to each other. On top of that, his immediate successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, died in a couple of years, and the next in line, President of the Party K. Kamaraj, refused to take up the mantle on the grounds that he "No speak English. No become PM" (his words). That puts everyone else - Morarji Desai, Kamaraj, Jagjivan Ram, Biju Patnaik, all of them in the same rank, all of them equally legitimate successors to Nehru.

Why should any one of them accept the pre-eminence of the others? Why should Kamaraj, even given that he'd declined the top job, accept to be placed under Morarji Desai? What was it that actually made Kamaraj a better candidate for the top job than Jagjivan Ram, for example?

And so, Kamaraj's next idea - Indira Gandhi.

She was already Panditji's virtual PA, hostess and head of the household at Teen Murthi Bhavan (the PM's residence). She had also been Minister for Information and Broadcasting under Shastri, and Party Presidency in 1959. Bringing her in, he felt that the second echelon leaders like himself and Morarji needn't vie for the top job; they could go on ruling _through_ Indira instead. With a reputation for being the Gungi Gudiya (dumb doll), it would be easy enough to control her.

The best laid plans of mice and men being what they are, things didn't really work out that way. She ended up breaking with the old leaders, splitting the Congress into two factions - the Congress(R) (hers) and the Congress(O) (the others'). From 1969 to 1971, she ruled with outside support from the Communists, the Sikhs, and other parties - the first time that this had happened in Indian history. In 1971, she won the election with a ridiculous majority. Several leaders of the next generation rode the Indira wave to power - people like Pranab Mukherjee, Narasimha Rao and others.

Towards the end of her life, she turned to her sons - first Sanjay, and when he died, Rajiv - to support her, as she increasingly needed someone whom she could trust implicitly to run things she couldn't attend to. At the time of her death, Rajiv had only been her (very reluctant) helper for four years - still an outsider, still "Mr. Clean". Again, though there were other leaders, nobody was tall enough to be a clear succesor to Indira Gandhi, _except_ her son. For pretty much the same reasons as his mother had succeeded her father.

Rajiv Gandhi led the Congress to victory in the 1984 general elections, and was elected PM.

He didn't really have much time as PM. Just one term, during which he managed to induct his own people - Natwar Singh, P. Chidambaram, Mani Shankar Aiyar, and others, who put a very Rajiv face to the Congress.

On his death, there was no convenient Nehru-Gandhi to take over. More to the point, enough leaders of the previous generation were still alive and kicking, and the rest of the party could easily look up to one of them.

Narasimha Rao was pretty much about to retire in 1991. But after Rajiv was assassinated, he was senior enough, and wily enough to be acceptable as leader to the rest of the party. His term was important for many political reasons, apart from the liberalisation that occurred during it (though it had started during Rajiv's tenure). He was the first non-dynast to be PM for a full term. It was also the first full term of a minority government. The era of coalition politics begins with Narasimha Rao.

But he was already old - he had been due to retire before his term started, and he was in no condition to lead the party after the loss in the 1996 elections. Sitaram Kesri, a minor leader from two generations ago, became the President. During his tenure, the party lost quite a bit of its sheen, bleeding away splinter groups such as the Tamil Manila Congress of Moopanar in 1966, the Trinamool Congress of Mamata Banerjee - a giant killer in her own right, and Rajiv's hand-picked candidate to break the Communist fortress in Bengal, Madhavrao Scindia's Madhya Pradesh Vikas Congress, and so on.

Again, the reason is quite obvious; none of these leaders - powerful and legitimate in their own rights - felt the need to subordinate themselves to a relative nobody from Bihar. Why should Mamata or Madhavrao Scindia, hand-picked by Rajiv himself, kowtow to the tactics that kept Sitaram Kesri's power intact?

The party lost the 1998 General Election, Sitaram Kesri was kicked out and Sonia Gandhi was brought in as President. Soon, most of the prodigal children returned home (exception: the Trinamool Congress). Again, she was elected to Parliament, and went on to remain President of the party for a whopping 16 years - the longest in its 130 year history.

Now, it's Sonia's turn to retire as President. Again, no leaders of the Sonia era stands tall enough above the others to keep the rest in line. If any one of them were to become Party President, the rest would start revolting, just as they did in 1996, or in-fighting as they did in 1964, and the party would crumble. And so, we have another compromise from the Nehru Gandhi family. This time, Rahul is anointed Yuvaraja - just a few years before his mother retires, just like his father and uncle, and accidentally, his grandmother before all of them.

The common thread that emerges from all of the above is this: it's not that the Congress has too _few_ leaders, it's that there are just too _many_ of them, and none of them can stand any of the others holding the top job. So, in each generation, they turn to a Nehru-Gandhi to act as a figurehead and keep them from fighting among themselves.

But the Gandhis have this nasty habit of refusing to remain figureheads. All three of the successors to date - Indira, Rajiv and Sonia - have managed to leave a mark, to throw out their would-be controllers and detractors from the party, and make themselves indispensable. So, how have they managed to do this?

Let's take a look at the policies that the family has championed over the years:

In 1969, Indira's slogan - the first one that comes up if you Google "Indira Gandhi slogan" - was Garibi Hatao - eradicate poverty. Look at her policies; bank nationalisation, land reforms, abolition of the privy purse,... All populist measures.

What about Rajiv? Reduced tariffs, taxes and quotas, expanded educatiojn programmes,... Also, in his address to the party's centenary session, there's this little jewel:

But they (party workers) are handicapped, for on their backs ride the brokers of power and influence, who dispense patronage to convert a mass movement into a feudal oligarchy. They are self-perpetuating cliques who thrive by invoking the slogans of caste and religion and by enmeshing the living body of the Congress in their net of avarice. For such persons the masses do not count. Their lifestyle, their thinking - or the lack of it, their self-aggrandisement, their corrupt ways, their linkages with the vested interests in society, and their sanctimonious posturing are wholly incompatible with work among the people. They are reducing the Congress organisation to a shell from which the spirit of service and sacrifice has been emptied. We talk of the high principles and lofty ideals needed to build a strong and prosperous India. But we obey no discipline, no rule; follow no principle of public weal. Corruption is not only tolerated but even regarded as the hallmark of leadership. Flagrant contradiction between what we say and what we do has become our way of life.

Why is India's biggest political dynast railing against feudal oligarchy?

Now, look at the policies that we know were Sonia's pet projects - MNREGA, RTE, RTI, Food Security,... Again, all populist measures.

Rahul's current obsession? Empowerment, especially of women, promotion of younger leaders, but above all, holding primaries for candidate selection (as opposed to the current High-Command driven method). Go back up and read Rajiv's speech against feudal oligarchies, and Sonia's empowerment projects. This goes all the way back to Nehru.

We can be skeptical of Rahul's efforts, as many in the media have been[3], but that's missing the forest for the trees. The point is that the family's personal pet projects have mostly been populist and cadre-oriented, often opposed to their own party hierarchy.

There's some amount of Noblesse Oblige in all this. The dynasty, or rather, the current heir apparent, makes a pact with the people, _against_ the leaders of the last generation. He or she promises to throw out the oligarchy, to promote from the cadre and the ordinary masses, to get things done for the people. In general, the promise is that they will be the people's protector against the oligarchs who have, by now, become completely removed from those they are supposed to represent, and who raised up the heir apparent in the first place. Or, to summarize, the pattern is as follows:

Latest heir apparent plays with pro-poor and pro-cadre reforms. He or she promotes people from the ranks, throws out the apparatchiks of the previous generation. Wins power, wins adulation,...

He/she grows old and dies (or in 50% of surveyed cases, dies before growing significantly old). The promoted people start in-fighting, organization becomes oligarchic. They settle back on the Nehru-Gandhis because they think they can control them. The current heir soon decides "to hell with these guys" and goes directly to the people and cadre. Rinse, repeat.

I think this will continue for a while longer. The Congress is only one of two truly national parties in India, and their power, while reduced, hasn't really gone away. They still need the family to keep them united, and they all so desperately _want_ to stay united. However, there are challenges. When Indira and Rajiv succeeded, they came with relatively clean, outsider images. Even Sonia was a complete outsider, not having been part of the party apparatus _ever_. Rahul, on the other hand, has been Vice President for a while, and an MP for longer. There is also much more skepticism about the family, and the party in general, today.

Here, I think, Rahul's perceived lack of experience may actually work in his favour. He can be seen to grow into the role, and he doesn't really have the baggage of having worked on all the policies of his mother's era. If he's smart, he can certainly pull it off. Maybe (most probably) not in the 2014 elections, but in the next ones, whenever they happen. If his ideas can revitalise the cadre, and, assuming it's not the Congress, the next government's track record is questionable (as it's most likely to be), he stands a real chance.

Another point needs to be addressed: Why not Priyanka? To begin with, she's got too much of her husband's, and her mother's, baggage. But more importantly, Rahul is already party VP, and he has already started filling those shoes. There may still be a role for her, but it most probably won't be as the Designated Heir Apparent. Like Sonia, she can stay in the background as a spare, in case anything happens to him, or he screws up too much.

I don't think this theory is completely accurate; there are far too many variables for _any_ theory to be that accurate. However, I think this is a reasonable approximation. Most of all, it doesn't require a decades-long Nehru Gandhi conspiracy to hold the country hostage, no complicated manuveuring long ago that somehow accurately predicted all the mis-steps along the way. Nor does it require the (generally rather smart and capable) members and leaders of the Congress party to suddenly go stupid and become sycophants of a single family. All it requires is that there's a convenient heir standing by when the oligarchs inevitably screw up. It just requires that all the actors - the hierarchy, the cadre, and above all, the family - act in their own self-interest, and possibly in the interest of the party.

Of course, there are differences - Rajiv is an exception because of the relatively short time he had to be independent in; the 90s could still be considered his era. Sonia never could become PM - she remained President of the Party, and made Manmohan Singh PM. Indira had the whole Emergency thing, where she apparently lost her mind (not to mention the heir she was originally grooming). Now, Rahul has much tougher challengers in the form of the Modi era BJP and the AAP.

It'll be interesting to see how this all plays out now.

Postscript: In all this, I do not intend to endorse any party, or to talk in any way about who is a better candidate in 2014. This is purely about analysing an important piece of Indian history. I do not intend to hurt anyone in this analysis, and if anyone feels wronged, I sincerely apologise. This is also about as political as I ever intend to let this blog become.


[1] Guha, Patriots and Partisans

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