Ten Janpath in Delhi is a fortress. It is surrounded by a high barrier which hides all that goes on inside. The gates are always closed; nothing smaller than a tank could batter them down. Armed guards protect the bungalow round the clock. This is the house to which Sonia Gandhi moved from Race Course Road after Rajiv was assassinated in 1991. This is the house in which her two children grew up.
The high level of security is not abnormal; it is the same as for Central ministers. Nor is it unjustified. Rabid Hindu nationalists have always hated Sonia for not being born in an Indian family. She has faced and continues to face scurrilous attacks; it is reasonable to fear that some amongst the Hindutwits would like to harm her or her children.
Sonia after her widowhood has been an extremely private person. Powerful men always attract a crowd of hangers-on; those who surrounded Rajiv left when he died. Some were dropped by Sonia. The relations between Narasimha Rao and Sonia were never close. He gave her recognition that was proper, but not much more. While he was in power, Congressmen followed his example and avoided Sonia. The press on the whole is as xenophobic as the Hindutwits. Seeing its hostility, Sonia learnt early on to avoid it — as well as anyone who may talk to the press. So she has not had many close friends.
Hence, the Gandhi children grew up with little beyond their own company. Their attitudes were shaped by their sequestration. What did the mother and the children talk about on winter evenings' No doubt, what the children’s ancestors had done for India was one of the topics. In the presence of all the hate and hostility outside the gate, what kept Sonia going — what kept her in India — was undoubtedly a sense of being an heir to the family that lived and died for India. It was the feeling that Rajiv had handed her a legacy of leadership to pass on to her children. Her opponents see a sinister conspiracy to keep the throne for her son; but there can also be an idealistic side to it.
Rahul has been sailing these days in the sea of inhumanity called Uttar Pradesh. He has been making waves there. First he said that if one of his family (meaning Rajiv or Sonia) had been Prime Minister in 1992, he would have prevented Hindu hooligans from destroying Babri Masjid. Then he said that it was one of his family (meaning Indira) that had divided Pakistan in 1971. Both were boasts. But the first was also implicit criticism of Narasimha Rao who, according to some, allowed Babri Masjid to be pulled down by Hindutwit hooligans even though he had received advance information of their plans. It led Manmohan Singh suddenly to shower compliments on Narasimha Rao.
In these remarks, Rahul only repeated what must have been common evening conversation in the drawing room of 10 Janpath when he was growing up. What he said about Indira Gandhi is general knowledge. What he said about Babri Masjid is conjecture, but it is understandable seeing whose son he is. His comments have upset many ranging from Ashok Singhal to Shahbaz Hussain, from Manmohan Singh to Muslim Mullahs. That is only politics; upsetting opponents — and sometimes even allies — is a part of its tactics. They have also brought him considerable publicity, which he can do with at this stage in his career. So I do not think his forays into controversy were unjustified or undesirable. Indira Gandhi also was fond of bragging about her achievements in her election speeches; it did her no harm. She and her father had some achievements to brag about. If one is too young to have any, like Rahul, one can only brag about the achievements of one’s ancestors.
The real question is whether his telling it will bring the Congress votes. Rahul obviously thinks it will. Before the Congress returned to power in 2004, there was general consensus that it was in no condition to win. So everyone gave credit for the win to Sonia Gandhi. More recently, Congress has lost state elections in Punjab, Uttaranchal and Delhi. The situation is reminiscent of the late 1960s; then too Congress lost a number of elections. Congressmen had lost appetite for a fight; Mrs Gandhi marched around the country, gave fiery speeches, and won elections single-handed.
I would not be surprised if the same feeling pervades 10 Janpath. It would be easy to believe just now that the Congress organization everywhere is moribund, that Congressmen are born losers, and it is only the name of Sonia that brings it whatever votes it gets. This is the feeling that is driving Rahul: he is out to save the Congress for the sake of his ancestors.
Is he wrong to appeal to his ancestors' I do not think so. Family loyalties are fierce in India: people do all sorts of things out of family pride. To think that Rahul would be a good patriot because he comes out of a patriotic family is quite a reasonable assumption, at least until he disproves it. There are worse ways of electioneering than reminding people of one’s distinguished ancestors — for instance, abusing and threatening Muslims as the BJP does.
Will it bring Rahul votes' Will it bring him to power' Maybe not. But politics is a gamble; one should not rule out the possibility that his tactic may work, especially in conjunction with his good looks and general air of decency.
But as a long-term strategy, this appeal to dynastic leadership is dubious. For it also sends the message: Sans moi, le deluge — that the Congress will die without the Gandhis. The strategy brought Congress back to power under Sonia. But it made it a party of sycophants. One reason why Sonia does not meet her own partymen is the nauseating way in which they coddle up to her. This worshipful model has made Congress a party of minions, a party without ideology and without second-rank leaders — so much so that when Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister, his ill-wishers attributed his elevation to his loyalty to Sonia, not to his proven ability.
What the Congress needs to survive and succeed is a large number of younger leaders. A sycophantic model will not bring young men and women of energy, passion and imagination to it; if Rahul aims to be the Great Leader — such as Manmohan Singh has anointed him to be — he will have only sycophantic, middle-aged opportunists to follow him.
When he took over the Congress, Rajiv Gandhi was disgusted with such sycophants who surrounded him. He was very rude to them. He wanted younger, more intelligent leaders, and brought in a number of his own, Doon-School types. He had the right idea, but went about it stupidly. His ideal of building a young, democratic, vibrant Congress is as right as it was 25 years ago. Rahul will have a better chance of sustained success if he takes it up again. He should aim to be the first among equals, instead of forming his own one-man band.