Indira and Rajiv Gandhi
Sept. 27: If you start making small compromises, you end up making compromises everywhere — that was the nub of what Rahul Gandhi said at the Press Club of India today.
Some may say his own family history provides some evidence in support of the maxim.
Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi had all begun their public lives with stated commitment to corruption-free politics, accountability and transparency. But the slippery terrain of politics turned all of them “pragmatic”.
After Jawaharlal Nehru’s death, Indira had faced powerful party factions that pressured her to make “adjustments” and “accommodate” them.
She deftly dealt with the old guard, represented by Morarji Desai, Y.B. Chavan, S.K. Patil and Nijalingappa, using her “young Turks” or “verandah boys” — young socialists such as Chandra Shekhar, Mohan Dharia, Krishan Kant, C. Subramaniam and Chandrajeet Yadav.
She won a proxy battle against the old guard on a matter of principle when the young Turks successfully blocked the entry of Raja Kamakshya Narain Singh of Ramgarh into the Bihar cabinet.
An earlier party decision had laid down that feudal lords who had not risen though the Congress ranks could not be made ministers in party-ruled states, but the then Congress chief minister of Bihar, Hari Har Singh, wanted Kamakshya.
Subramaniam, then Tamil Nadu Congress chief, resigned from the Congress Working Committee in protest. On May 14, 1969, the working committee asked Subramaniam to withdraw his resignation and the Bihar government to drop Kamakshya.
The right to dissent and generate open debate had been a hallmark of Congress politics of that era. Indira encouraged the formation of ginger groups like the Congress Socialistic Forum and Nehru Forum.
But gradually, the Congress under her turned into a private political organisation of the “supreme leader”. Loyalty to Indira became the acid test.
With her younger son Sanjay’s entry into politics, an extra-constitutional centre of power came into being and senior Congress leaders turned into “palace guards”.
In 1975, when Allahabad High Court held her guilty of electoral malpractices, Indira refused to step down. Writer and filmmaker Khawaja Ahmad Abbas, who had advised her to resign, wrote in his book how Sanjay and others had urged her to “fight it out” and not let the country’s “poor” down.
Indira was perhaps unaware that her own house was being used to send out posters and propaganda material to show that the “masses” were behind her.
Even after her 1977 defeat, Indira refused to blame Sanjay, telling Abbas: “Sanjay is a very simple, sincere boy. He does not drink or smoke.”
Instead, she blamed All India Congress Committee officials, working committee members and party chief ministers for the “Sanjay build-up”.
When Rajiv Gandhi assumed charge, he issued a passionate appeal at the Congress centenary celebrations in Mumbai, asking party leaders to change their lifestyles and hitting out at “brokers of power and influence”.
That 1985 speech provided a candid criticism of how the party had been run by his mother and younger brother. By promising to break the nexus between the party and vested interests, Rajiv declared an ideological war of sorts on those exploiting the poor in the name of religion and caste.
But change proved difficult to effect. Rajiv had followed up on his speech by appointing Arjun Singh as party vice-president, but the move achieved little. Rajiv deferred organisational polls, paid scant regard to the working committee, and took several decisions that undermined institutions.
Smarting at the Bofors controversy and other allegations of corruption, Rajiv moved to curtail press freedom. He introduced a defamation bill that sought to create new offences of “criminal imputation” and “scurrilous writings”, before retreating in the face of a nationwide newspaper strike and popular protests.
The government was also forced to withdraw another bill, proposed in 1988, which would have given it the authority to collect extensive technical and financial information from newspaper and book publishers.
Sonia, speaking at Panchmarhi in 1998, had promised to make the Congress a party of the best and brightest. But by 2003, Congress leaders were becoming desperate to taste power.
Sonia crafted a strategy to strike alliances with Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Sharad Pawar and M. Karunanidhi. By 2000, she was ardently backing Lalu Prasad overlooking the corruption charges against him.
In 2005, Rahul gave an interview to a magazine. Some of the comments were found “too hot” and the entire interview was denied.
Among the comments attributed to Rahul in the interview was one about the need to lose two elections before one could become a “complete politician” and some others highlighting the lack of governance in the states ruled by Mulayam and Lalu Prasad.
After being appointed party vice-president last January, Rahul had needed to declare his vision. Several venues were suggested but he chose a meeting of top industry body CII, apparently on the Prime Minister’s advice.
Manmohan Singh’s tip to him was simple: say whatever you want without inhibition.
On April 4, Rahul told the CII meeting: “We should not chase power for the attributes of power. We should only use it to empower the voiceless.”
The sentiment was of a piece with what he had told a party plenary in December 2010: “We will never build a nation until we start recognising and respecting the common man. We will never build a nation until we build a system in which man’s progress is based not on who he knows but on what he knows.”
At Jaipur in January, he said: “The voices of a billion Indians are today telling us that they want a greater say in government, in politics and in administration. They are telling us that the course of their lives cannot be decided by a handful of people behind closed doors who are not fully accountable to them.”
Party sources said Rahul’s “real test” would begin from today since he has for the first time taken a “firm stand” on a government decision.
So far, Rahul had carefully avoided commenting on governance issues and coalition politics. One lobby in the party, optimistic as ever, feels the Press Club remarks signal the beginning of a “new era” that will increasingly bear the stamp of Rahul.