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BOUND TOGETHER

- A party that cannot tear itself away from a family and a family on which a party has been thrust
Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi head to the Congress headquarters for the CWC meeting on Monday. (PTI)

New Delhi, May 19: Lesson No. 1 from today’s Congress Working Committee meeting: no disaster is strong enough to provoke the party and its dynasty to cut free of each other — even if they sometimes have half a mind to.

If this time-tested bond had frayed a bit at the edges in 1977, it has escaped without a scratch 37 years later.

Congress leaders had gathered at today’s meeting amid rumblings over Rahul Gandhi’s style of functioning and whispers that some of them might demand action.

The only action to come was a chorused declaration of faith in Sonia-Rahul’s leadership, which persuaded them to withdraw their resignation offers and paved the way for Rahul to carry on with his experiments to revamp the party.

An equally gut-wrenching fall from power in 1977 had seen Congress leaders and officials leaving the party in droves — after a similar pre-poll exodus following the lifting of the Emergency.

An estimated 60 per cent of members had quit overall — for the Janata Party and myriad splinter groups — before Indira Gandhi reinforced the old embrace between the family and the party in its Congress-I avatar.

This time, there was no hint of rebellion after the party’s worst-ever poll results, and no call for an All India Congress Committee session or a workers’ convention to revisit the leadership question or fix blame for the defeat.

Lacking in stature and short on resources, few Congress leaders would have the gumption to even think of floating new parties. And with most of the non-NDA parties routed, even the options for defections appear limited.

As for Sonia and Rahul, they would have felt they had little choice but to continue to helm the party — as several Gandhis before them had felt.

For here lies a historical irony behind the perceptions of “dynastic rule” in the Congress. It’s that most of the “dynasts” were reluctant politicians who had yielded to pressure, or their own sense of duty or destiny. And once they took on the mantle, there was no way out.

This aspect of Congress history assumes special significance at a time there’s a clamour for Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to join the party despite her stated reservations.

For, not only were both of Priyanka’s parents and — by some accounts (and Twitter jokes)— her brother initially hesitant about taking a similar plunge, so was the grandmother she is often compared to by the most effusive among her fans.

In 1963, as speculation about Indira succeeding a dispirited and aging Jawaharlal Nehru swirled, she had contemplated an escape from the constraints of political life.

Indira had confided to friend Dorothy Norman, an American photographer and writer, that her greatest desire was to start life afresh in London. She had even identified the house where she planned to live, sustaining herself by letting out rooms to Indian students.

The course of India’s history, however, sucked her into its orbit and she stamped her mark on a political terrain she dominated for nearly two decades.

If Indira was a reluctant politician, son Rajiv Gandhi was an accidental one.

Giant killer flattened giants
Amarinder Singh, who defeated BJP leader Arun Jaitley in Amritsar, arrives for the CWC meeting. (PTI) Ahmed Patel (right), considered one of the closest aides of Sonia Gandhi, and Congress veteran Motilal Vora wait for the meeting to begin. (PTI)

Rajiv, then an Indian Airlines pilot, and wife Sonia were unhappy when the Emergency was imposed in 1975. They were alarmed at Sanjay Gandhi’s influence on Indira that led to the curbing of civil rights and press freedom.

One day when Rajiv was returning from Delhi’s Palam Airport, the police herded him and his colleagues off the main thoroughfare into a service lane.

“Sanjay is coming,” a cop told them, prompting a hearty laugh among Rajiv’s colleagues and jokes about the younger brother “ousting” the elder brother.

If that comical incident did not deepen Rajiv’s distaste for political power, the apprehensions generated after Indira’s 1977 defeat would surely have.

Amid fears of the Janata Party turning vindictive, unsubstantiated reports say, Rajiv and Sonia took shelter in a Swedish diplomat’s home in Delhi for a while.

But after Sanjay’s death in an air crash in 1980, Rajiv felt obliged to step into his brother’s shoes and stand by his mother’s side.

Sonia, always against Rajiv becoming a politician, put her foot down when the Congress asked him to become Prime Minister after Indira’s assassination in 1984.

“I fought like a tigress — for him, for us and our children, for the life we had made together,” Sonia wrote after Rajiv’s death.

“I was angry and resentful towards a system which, as I saw it, demanded him as a sacrificial lamb. It would crush him and destroy him — of that I was absolutely certain.”

Rajiv, according to Sonia, held her hand. “He hugged me, tried to soothe my desperation. He had no choice, he said, he would be killed anyway.”

Seven years later, Rajiv was assassinated while campaigning for the 1991 summer polls.

On May 22, 1991, as Rajiv’s body awaited Rahul’s arrival from London, the Congress Working Committee met and authorised Pranab Mukherjee and Ghulam Nabi Azad to persuade Sonia to accept the post of party president.

Sonia was then not even a “char anna” (25-paise) member of the Congress — a concept of primary membership started by the Mahatma to give the party a mass base during the freedom struggle.

No thought was given to Sonia’s complete unfamiliarity with the methods and machinations of India’s political system. She declined.

But when the party began tottering under Sitaram Kesri’s leadership in 1997, Sonia shed her inhibitions.

She said that each time she passed by the portrait of a smiling Rajiv in 10 Janpath’s living room, she felt pangs of guilt. Jagmohan Mundhra, a filmmaker, used to say that Sonia’s decision to join the Congress was an extension of her love for Rajiv.

By early 2004, Sonia was fighting a lonely battle against Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA. Rahul gave up his London job with a global consultancy firm to assist his mother but was always seen as a half-hearted if not reluctant politician.

Friday’s verdict has put Rahul back on the crossroads. He stays on but the majority in the party would prefer Priyanka to lead them.

Priyanka has repeatedly expressed her reservations about joining active politics.

“Frankly, I’m not sure I’ve figured out why myself, but I’m very clear I don’t want to be in politics,” she recently told an interviewer.

“I’m very happy living my life the way I am. I think there are certain aspects of politics which I’m just not suited to.”

Half a century of Congress history, however, suggests that those comments will do little to stop the “will she, won’t she” buzz.