| Leading them by the hand
Girl, I like your pretty face…o bladi, o blada — Popular Beatles song.
In a remarkable piece of introspection, Jawaharlal Nehru in 1937 critiqued the latent dictatorial tendencies in himself. The article appeared in Modern Review under the nom de plume, Chanakya. His biographer, S. Gopal, described it as “a narcissist jeu d’ esprit”. Whatever may have been Nehru’s propensities towards being a dictator, imagined or otherwise, he never speculated on setting up dynastic rule in India. If he did, there is no known record of it. He was too much of a democrat to contemplate such an idea.
This might sound erroneous, considering the fact that within two years of his death his daughter became prime minister. But as is well known, Indira Gandhi’s accession to the top job in 1966 was somewhat accidental since nobody had quite reckoned with Lal Bahadur Shastri’s sudden death. Moreover, her coming to power was never a fait accompli. It was debated and contested within the Congress party and she had a formidable rival in Morarji Desai. Further, Indira Gandhi had served her apprenticeship in politics. She had some involvement in the Indian national movement, she had been Congress president (and during her term she had worked to overthrow the first communist government in Kerala) and, as a longstanding hostess for her father, she had known the Indian political scene and Indian politicians inside out. It would be a trifle unfair to say that she became prime minister only because she was the daughter of India’s first prime minister.
The threat of dynastic rule loomed over the republic when Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister following the murder of his mother. During his mother’s prime ministership, especially before the accidental death of his brother, Sanjay, Rajiv was no more than a pilot with Indian Airlines. Both he and his wife, Sonia, stayed scrupulously away from politics. They kept the home fires burning while the mother and her youngest son “looked after” the nation. Things changed after Sanjay’s death. Rajiv entered politics to “help Mummy”. It was clear then that he was being groomed for bigger things. The assassination of Indira Gandhi left the Congress without a leader and the party fell back on the dynasty. It will not be an exaggeration to suggest that even Rajiv was surprised by the decision and was unprepared to take on the responsibility. His wife was opposed to the idea and, if stories are to be believed, she pleaded with her husband not to take the job and risk his and his family’s lives.
Rajiv Gandhi’s death, again sudden, brutal and violent, like the deaths of his mother and brother, made P.V. Narasimha Rao the prime minister and leader of the Congress. It seemed India and the Congress had escaped dynastic rule. The assumption was proved to be wrong. In a crisis, the Congress fell back on its first family and Rajiv’s widow — a reluctant entrant into politics, if ever there was one — took over the reins of the party. Things have remained thus, even as Congress electoral fortunes have fluctuated in assembly and Lok Sabha polls. Questions about Sonia Gandhi’s leadership have remained. The most irrelevant of these is the one relating to her foreign origins. And the most relevant is the one about her abilities. Can she lead the country' Even more enigmatic is the answer to the question, will she lead the country' Is she the prime minister-in-waiting' Nobody quite knows.
The question marks over her abilities grow largely from her inability to speak except from a prepared script. The doubts are related to her failure to appear decisive and the absence of any direction within the Congress. She is a draw in public meetings but this is seen as a function of the special halo that the common people of India endow on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. It is not a reflection of Sonia Gandhi’s own stature as a leader. Despite the charisma of the family, there are many who believe that in a straight contest between her and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the latter would win, to use a racing term, at a canter. This is a view that is held by even those who have no time for Vajpayee, his party and its ideology. Dynasty is at the root of Sonia Gandhi’s claims to popularity and power.
The tendency towards perpetuating a dynasty is manifest in the attempts being made to draw in Rajiv Gandhi’s two children into politics. The announcement that both of them are primary members of the Congress could not have been better timed. It has fuelled speculation about whether Priyanka and/or Rahul will contest the elections. Like their mother, the Gandhi children have had no previous exposure to politics. Yet they are seen as potential campaign leaders and vote catchers. It will not surprise anybody if a group of Congressmen announces that one of the Gandhi siblings should be prime minister. Such claims and beliefs have no other basis save the dynasty to which the young man and the young lady belong. Their other qualities and virtues are unknown. Except that Priyanka, according to many, has a pretty face. Helen’s face did launch a thousand ships in ancient Troy. But it would be a pity if a pretty face won an election in modern India.
The thrust towards dynasty is as much a comment on the pathetic state of the Congress as on the scale of ambition of the Gandhi family. The latter has certainly projected itself as India’s eminence grise. The family’s sacrifices have been drummed in often enough in statements and in public rallies. The Congress has been craven in its loyalty to its chosen dynasty. After the departure of Sharad Pawar, who had the temerity to challenge the dynasty, even murmurs of dissent have been muted. Even known mavericks within the Congress keep their mouths shut lest they earn their leader’s displeasure. Dynasty does not encourage independent thinking and democracy.
The republic will be 54 tomorrow. Nobody denies that with all its drawbacks, the Congress spearheaded the movement that made India into a vibrant democracy and a proud republic. But pride in the republic has to have a little more substance than watching the parade on the 26th morning and having a lump in one’s throat when the ceremony, “beating the retreat”, takes place and the bells play “Abide with me”. It means a self-conscious attempt to promote merit above birth and family background. Does India believe in this' If it does, how does one explain Sonia Gandhi’s popularity and the enormous interest surrounding Priyanka’s and Rahul’s joining the election fray'