In 1906, an Allahabad lawyer named Motilal Nehru wrote to his son Jawaharlal, then a student at Harrow, “I think I can without vanity say that I am the founder of the Nehru family. I look upon you, my dear son, as the man who will build upon the foundations I have laid and have the satisfaction of seeing a noble structure of renown rearing up its head to the skies.”
The words were prophetic. For close to a century, Motilal’s descendants exercised a powerful and often dominant influence on Indian politics. The family produced three prime ministers and five Congress presidents. Now, however, their prestige has been dealt a decisive blow. For the clearest loser in the general elections of 2014 have been the Nehru-Gandhi family. Their Congress party, once accustomed to having a commanding majority in Parliament, has fallen below 50 seats.
Some Congressmen, in a characteristic show of sycophancy, are saying this is a failure of the “collective leadership”, of the Union government, of the media — of anyone but Rahul Gandhi himself. It is true that corruption scandals and the economic slowdown have played their part in voter disenchantment with the ruling party. However, the party’s vice-president must also take a fair share of the blame, as the person who fronted and led the Congress election campaign. Would the Congress have lost so badly had Rahul Gandhi not been its chief campaigner?
In the 2009 general elections, party posters had three faces: those of the prime minister, the party president, and the heir-apparent. This time, however, Dr Singh and Mrs Gandhi did not feature. The posters had Rahul in the middle, surrounded by a crowd of unknown Indians, dressed so as to denote their ethnic origins — a Sikh boy in a turban, a Muslim girl in a headscarf, an adivasi in a dhoti.
Rahul Gandhi’s mother, father, grandmother and great-grandfather all led successful election campaigns. Why has he failed where previous generations succeeded? There are two fundamental reasons: his individual incapacities, and a steadily declining appeal, for sociological reasons, of the First Family of Congress politics. As the charisma of the Nehru-Gandhis fails, it is useful to remind ourselves of why it was once so high. As India’s first and longest-serving prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru helped lay the foundations of a democratic and united India. He promoted religious and linguistic freedom, built modern scientific institutions, and respected the autonomy of the bureaucracy and the judiciary. Although his economic and foreign policies were contentious, his commitment to his country was unquestioned.
In a book published in 1960, Frank Moraes remarked that “there is no question of [Jawaharlal] Nehru’s attempting to create a dynasty of his own; it would be inconsistent with his character and career”. When Nehru died in May 1964, his daughter Indira was in private life. The senior Congress leader, Lal Bahadur Shastri, became prime minister, and, in an act of magnanimity, invited her to take a post in his cabinet. When Shastri died prematurely in January 1966, the Congress bosses chose Nehru’s daughter to succeed him. They saw her as a unifying symbol in a country disturbed by two quick deaths of prime ministers in office.
In power, Indira Gandhi fashioned herself as the champion of the underprivileged. She nationalized banks, and introduced a slew of welfarist schemes. Yet her greatest achievement was during the East Pakistan crisis of 1970-71, when India gave refuge to millions of refugees and helped create, through military intervention, the independent Republic of Bangladesh.
Unlike her father, Indira Gandhi had no ambivalence about creating a dynasty. Her son Sanjay was her closest adviser during the infamous Emergency of 1975-7, and was general secretary of the Congress at the time of his death in June, 1980. Indira Gandhi now brought her other son, Rajiv (previously an airline pilot) into politics. After she was assassinated in 1984, he became prime minister. Rajiv’s record in office was mixed — while he promoted technological modernization and better relations with China, he also pandered, successively, to Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists.
Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991. His widow Sonia was appointed Congress president seven years later. She has since promoted a cult of her dead husband and mother-in-law. Because of their sacrifices for the nation, and the brutal manner of their deaths, Indians are asked to remain loyal to the Family and hence to the Congress. The appeal has increasingly worn thin, for younger voters — who make up an ever greater proportion of the electorate — do not remember the achievements of an earlier generation of Nehru-Gandhis. Economic growth and social mobility have radically transformed how younger Indians think and behave. No longer so deferential or unquestioning, they ask for evidence of Rahul Gandhi’s own contributions apart from his family lineage. These are few. In two terms in Parliament, he has rarely spoken. He has shied away from a cabinet post.
In his campaign speeches, Narendra Modi regularly targeted Rahul Gandhi’s privileged upbringing and his lack of administrative experience. He drew attention to his own humble origins and his extended chief ministership of Gujarat. Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi’s family background precluded him from attacking Narendra Modi at his weakest point. Since Rahul’s father had done nothing to stop the pogrom against Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, he could scarcely chastise Modi from doing nothing to stop the pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002.
Between 1885 and 1975, the Congress played (on the whole) a progressive role in Indian history. Congressmen such as Gokhale, Gandhi, Nehru and Patel took the party (and country) beyond sectarian divides. Before and after Independence, the Congress promoted social equality and cultural pluralism. Its best leaders challenged embedded hierarchies of caste and gender, and embraced new ideas and new technologies. However, its conversion, post-1975, into a family firm has increasingly hurt the Congress’s credibility. Talented individuals seeking a political career have been reluctant to join a party where preferment is so crucially dependent on the patronage of the Nehru-Gandhis who head it.
By all accounts, Rahul Gandhi is a likeable man. But as a political leader he lacks conviction. Jawaharlal Nehru evoked admiration for his role in the freedom struggle and his commitment to multi-party democracy; Indira Gandhi for her pro-poor orientation and ability to lead from the front; Rajiv Gandhi for his emphasis on information technology; Sonia Gandhi for her capacity for hard work. Speaking to Congressmen, one gets the sense that Rahul is the first member of his family not to command the respect even of his party men.
Back in January 2013, I wrote in these columns that “Rahul Gandhi has been an unwilling and undistinguished parliamentarian, diffident or nervous about assuming ministerial responsibility, and not very effective at winning votes or seats for his party”. In fact, Rahul’s limitations were, by then, evident to many supporters of the Congress as well. But not apparently to the party president, who decided that her son, and he alone, must lead the Congress into the general elections. The results of that decision are now plainly evident. Unlike his mother, father, grandmother or great-grandfather, Rahul Gandhi cannot effectively lead his party or win elections. This is in part a product of his own deficiencies; and in part a product of the fact that India has moved on.
In state or local elections dynastic politics may still have some salience. But those who seek a national role cannot rely on their lineage alone. Indians now demand from their leaders that they work hard, that they assume tough responsibilities, that they take personal risks, and that they offer hope for a better future. Being from a family of former prime ministers is no longer enough to make one a candidate for the office.
Where, then, does the Congress go from here? One option may be to bring Rahul’s sister, Priyanka, into politics. She is a more spontaneous (and polemical) speaker. Yet, she brings with her the baggage of her husband. In any case, the sociological factors that have led to a diminution of the family’s lustre apply to her too. She has no professional or political achievements of her own to draw upon — all she can say is, “I am a Nehru-Gandhi too.”
A second route would be to promote other leaders in the party. This could take the form of an outright revolt against the family — or, what may be more likely, the emergence of a form of collective leadership, whereby Congressmen more capable and credible than Rahul are presented as policy-shapers and vote-catchers. In the run-up to the elections, some Delhi-based commentators claimed that “the Congress needs the Nehru-Gandhis more than they need the Congress”. Those of us who live outside Delhi could see this was facile. Whatever the halo around it in the past, the Family was now being subject to searching scrutiny — and its latest member especially had been found wanting.
To this writer, it has been evident for some time that the only real route to revival for the Congress is a diminished — or even extinguished — role for the Family. The results of this general election confirm me in this view. The sometimes noble, sometimes ignoble, “structure of renown” erected by Motilal Nehru and his descendants is now merely a heap of rubble.