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A tradition of adversity and continuity

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RASHEED KIDWAI   |   Published 05.08.11, 12:00 AM

Aug. 4: Rahul Gandhi has been called to steer the Congress — if only for weeks — in line with the pattern of succession in the party since Nehru’s time when ill health or tragedy have pushed the heir apparent forward.

In 1959, when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was getting on in years and was in frail health, daughter Indira Gandhi was elected Congress president amid cries of nepotism. She did not seek re-election at the end of her term and stayed away from an official role after that, but ultimately became Prime Minister in 1966, two years after her father had died and 13 days after the demise of Lal Bahadur Shastri when he was abroad.

In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi stepped into his mother’s shoes after she was assassinated. Another tragedy — the death of his brother Sanjay — had brought him into politics three years earlier.

Sonia Gandhi, whose appointment of Rahul in the core team that will oversee the Congress while she recuperates from surgery is being seen as a strong signal of her future succession plan, was herself pushed into politics by the circumstances that followed the assassination of her husband Rajiv Gandhi.

Even as the Congress prays for her speedy recovery and continuation as president for the next two decades, insiders feel Sonia’s move is aimed at keeping the party’s morale high and providing a sense of continuity.

In 1959, there was a tug of war in the Congress with Leftist elements forming a ginger group to press for the implementation of Nehru’s socialist ideas and others opposing it. Nehru, then touching 70, was said to have wanted Indira as party chief although he later said in public that he had been against the idea.

When, in February 1959, Indira was elected the fourth woman president of the Congress, the Prime Minister’s detractors decried it as his bid to promote his daughter. However, a large section of Congress leaders of that era felt that Indira had earned the post through merit. She quickly proved her worth by playing an active role during the Kerala crisis and recommending the creation of Maharashtra and Gujarat to end the linguistic troubles there.

At present, there is a similar sense of assurance about Rahul’s political acumen and leadership qualities. As AICC general secretary, he has done a reasonably good job in reviving inner-party democracy in the Youth Congress and putting the Congress in the race with the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh. In internal Congress politics, Rahul has avoided factionalism or a coterie.

Many regional satraps, Union ministers and AICC office-bearers are hoping to strike a rapport with Rahul in the same way that they had become part of Team Rajiv in 1981-84 under the watchful eyes of Indira.

When Indira’s one-year term as Congress president ended in February 1960, the Congress Working Committee tried to persuade her to stand for re-election but she refused, paving the way for K. Kamaraj to be elected. Subsequently, she avoided assuming any formal political role but continued to act as a watchdog to keep out Nehru’s fair-weather friends. She was also careful about not letting her political and social work affect her role as a mother.

Indira had turned down requests from the party’s Uttar Pradesh unit to contest the 1952 general elections, saying her children Rajiv and Sanjay were her priority. Years later, granddaughter Priyanka, who has a striking resemblance to Indira, has taken a similar stand. “I have small children and I need to spend time with them, which is my priority,” Priyanka has said, ruling herself out of politics again and again even as her face stares out of countless Congress billboards.

After the Chinese invasion of 1962, Nehru’s health deteriorated and the question “After Nehru, who?” came up repeatedly. A political commentator of the time described the Prime Minister as a “banyan tree” under whose shadow nothing grew, pointing to the absence of any political personality in Nehru’s grand mould who enjoyed acceptability across the country.

Asked if he was grooming Indira as his successor, Nehru told an interviewer: “I am certainly not grooming her for anything of that sort. That does not mean she should not be called to occupy a position of responsibility after me. It is well known that I did not groom her or help her in any way to become the Congress president (in 1959), but she did, and I am told by people who do not like my policies or me that she made a very good president. Sometimes she chooses a line of her own against my way of thinking, which was the right thing to do, but what I want to point out is the fact that I did not choose or groom her for that high post. The Congress did so…. In fact, for some time, I was mentally opposed to the idea, but she was chosen and we worked more like normal political colleagues than a father-daughter combination. We agreed on some things. We differed on others.”

The day Nehru died — May 27, 1964 — the cabinet appointed the senior-most minister, Gulzari Lal Nanda, as acting Prime Minister. Subsequently, party chief Kamaraj picked Lal Bahadur Shastri as Prime Minister over Morarji Desai. Shastri insisted on Indira’s inclusion in his cabinet arguing that as Nehru’s daughter, her presence in the Union cabinet would lend it prestige and help him carry out his responsibilities. She became minister for information and broadcasting. After Shastri’s death in 1966, she took over as Prime Minister.

Indira rose in stature and many in the Congress old guard who had thought of manipulating her to their advantage were in for a shock. Kamaraj, who had played a role in shaping Indira’s career, was disappointed when he discovered she had a mind of her own, and famously described her as “a big man’s daughter, a little man’s mistake” — the second reference was to himself.

Unlike Nehru’s clear reluctance to anoint his daughter his successor, Indira had no such qualms and enshrined the dynastic principle by first promoting younger son Sanjay (who called the shots during the infamous Emergency) and upon his death, getting her thoroughly apolitical elder son Rajiv to come to the fore.

Sonia has followed her mother-in-law in some ways by leaving little doubt that she wants her son to play a bigger role. But she has gone about it in a more Nehruvian way, allowing Rahul to take baby steps, as it were, before bringing him to centre stage after a seven-year apprenticeship.

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