| Continuing saga
The first and last time I was in the same room as any member of the Nehru-Gandhi family was back in the year 1971. I was then thirteen, sent against my will to study ' if that is the word ' at a public school in Dehradun, among whose alumni were Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi. It was in the late autumn that Indira Gandhi came visiting. Earlier that year her party had comfortably won a general election; before the new year was rung, in her nation would win a bigger victory still, on the battle-field and against the old enemy, Pakistan.
Never had Indira Gandhi's stock been higher; she was verily what both her friends and opponents called her, the Empress of India. She had come to the Valley on vacation, but was persuaded to speak to the boys. I remember little of her talk, but do recall that when she had finished, the prime minister called a man onto the stage and introduced him to us. 'Inka naam Ram Niwas Mirdha hai', she said: 'Ye hamare neta hai. Unko aap sab namaste kijiye'. We obediently stood up and saluted the minister, while he preened, like a pet poodle petted by his mistress.
I had quite forgotten that incident till, this past June, I was forced away from my home town, Bangalore ' at its balmy best in that month ' to attend a meeting in New Delhi. When I boarded the plane the outside temperature was 22 degrees Celsius; when I disembarked in Palam it was 45 degrees. I was muttering imprecations to myself through the ride into the city, through the meeting in Shastri Bhavan, through dinner at the boarding-house where I was staying and, for all I know, right through my sleep as well. It was only next morning that I cheered up. For one thing, before noon I would be winging my way back to cool Bangalore. For another, the newspaper that day printed a photograph of a group of young Indians who were much more under the weather than I was. And apparently quite willingly, too.
These were a band of Congress chamchas who had gathered outside 10, Janpath to greet Rahul Gandhi on his 36th birthday. Dressed in white, they were lined up in rows, the vanguard holding up, for the photographers to see, a 50 kilogram cake inscribed for their beloved leader.
The chamchas had gathered around the Gandhi home early in the morning, and stayed on until dusk. My meeting had been rather dreary, but I noted (to my satisfaction) that these fellows had a duller day still. (As well as a much hotter one ' at least my room was air-conditioned.) They had periodically sent messages through the watchmen asking their hero to step out, and periodically stirred themselves to shout: 'Desh ka neta kaisa ho/Rahul Gandhi jaisa ho.' But however hard they tried Rahul bhaiya would not come, though whether it was out of embarrassment (justified) or fear of the heat (even more justified) the report did not say. By the time the chamchas departed, the remains of their cake were seen to be running a rather gooey line from 10, Janpath quite a long way down in the direction of Connaught Place.
Not that the cake-carriers could ever bring themselves to refer to that part of New Delhi by its original name. Connaught place and Connaught Circus is how I know those graceful rings, but these names were changed in an earlier Congress regime to 'Rajiv Chowk' (the inner ring) and 'Indira Chowk' (the outer one). In a tearful speech in Parliament, a Congress member of parliament announced that this was done so that in death, as in life, Indira would forever hold Rajiv in her embrace. For the ordinary folk of Delhi, Connaught Place (and Circus) remain de rigeur, but for all members of the Congress those older names are, of course, verboten.
And the rush to name ever more places after the Family continues. Not long ago, I was a participant in a TV debate on the renaming of the new Hyderabad airport after Rajiv Gandhi. I argued that one should name this airport after a genuinely great figure, such as the composer Thyagaraja, a choice that would be applauded across party-political lines. In any case, it was time we went beyond remembering only one family. Somewhere along the line, in response to a term I had used, the other member of the panel, a still serving Union minister, said: 'We are happy to be Congress chamchas.'
The term the minister proudly owned up to is part of our political lexicon. I have myself used it here in the knowledge that my readers shall know exactly what I am referring to. Still, it might be helpful to more precisely date and define it. 'Chamcha' is a Hindustani word whose nearest English equivalent is 'sycophant'. There have been chamchas since the birth of the Indic civilization ' the Lords Ram and Krishna are alleged to have had countless such ' but there have been Congress chamchas only since about the year 1969. Contrary to what the term might suggest, it does not connote loyalty to the party in general but to the family which now leads it in particular.
Most Indians are too young to know this, but the truth is that till about 1969 the Congress was a more-or-less democratic party. The great leaders of the freedom struggle ' Gokhale, Tilak, Bose, Gandhi, and others ' had followers and admirers, but these were not publicly slavish in their sycophancy. The same was the case with Jawaharlal Nehru, who kept his distance from courtiers and flatterers. In his long tenure as prime minister, Nehru did not impose chief ministers of his liking on Congress-ruled states; these were chosen by the local legislators alone.
However, after Indira Gandhi split the party in 1969, the Congress became, in effect, an extension of herself. I recently came across an article entitled 'Mummy knows best', published in the now defunct New Delhi journal, Thought, in October 1971. In recent weeks, Mrs Gandhi had sacked two chief ministers. First it was Mohan Lal Sukhadia in Rajasthan, then Brahmananda Reddy in Andhra Pradesh. As Thought wrote, it mattered little who would succeed Reddy in Andhra. For 'he that ascends the gaddi will have to look for his survival to the lady in Delhi rather than to the Legislators in Hyderabad or the Constituents in Andhra at large'.
So it has remained in the Congress, except that from 1984 to 1991 lesser leaders have looked for their survival to Indira Gandhi's elder son, and from 1998 to date to that son's wife. I remember Rajiv Gandhi visiting Bangalore in the late Eighties, and giving a press conference at the airport on his way out. At some stage a journalist summarized the views on some subject of the chief minister of Karnataka, Veerendra Patil, a veteran freedom fighter and first-rate administrator. Rajiv Gandhi's response was to say: if that is what Patil believed, he would no longer be chief minister. Within a day or two this indeed came to pass.
The greatly reduced majorities of the Congress now mean that its leader cannot be anywhere near as arrogant. Yet crucial positions are still decided on the basis of personal loyalty rather than professional competence. To get their job and retain it, Union ministers and chief ministers have to depend on the will and whim of the First Family. But the culture of sycophancy percolates right through the party and into the wider world beyond. Thus high posts in the civil service and diplomatic corps, as well as prestigious academic positions, are often allocated on the basis of a candidate's closeness ' real or imagined ' to the Family. Say you are a professor or judge who is keen on a particular job. Then, if you lobby A who is close to B who is friendly with C who is known to be in the inner circles of the First Family ' then, if you work away and are fortunate, you might even get that assignment.
The Congress once had high ideals and ' under the leadership of Gandhi and Nehru ' even attempted, with some success, to realize them. Before 1947, the party was in the vanguard of the freedom struggle. After 1947, and till about 1970, it struggled to safeguard and deepen our independence. But its identification with a single family in the decades since has damaged the party, and hurt the nation as well. Institutions such as the bureaucracy, the judiciary, and the academy have been corroded and undermined by the placement of loyalty over competence.
I started this article on a somewhat jokey note, but it should be clear that this is no laughing matter. For over the course of these past thirty-five years, the Congress culture of chamchagiri has made a major contribution to the degradation of Indian democracy.