With the Congress ruling in just nine states, it would seem that the might of the Gandhi family is over. But in politics, one can never write off anyone and the family could well come back
By Kalyani Shankar
Is India’s powerful Nehru-Gandhi dynasty on the decline? This political family—which produced three prime ministers, including Jawaharlal Nehru is obviously gasping for breath. While it has overcome obstacles earlier, can it do so now?
Firstly, the dynasty is declining perhaps because it is losing relevance politically. The growing number of aspirational youth (65 percent of the population) are not impressed by it. A good chunk of voters are born after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. Nehru’s memory is even further removed for them. Few voters under the age of 30 remember Rajiv Gandhi either. So it is not surprising that the reverence for the first family is disappearing fast.
Secondly, over the years, the Congress has declined steeply in many states including Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Telengana and Andhra Pradesh. It has lost power in Tamil Nadu for 48 years, West Bengal for 37 years and UP and Bihar for more than 25 years. In Punjab, the party is facing a serious threat from the Akali Dal-BJP combine, while in Delhi, it has virtually disappeared. In Bihar, it is slowly raising its head. The party is currently ruling in just nine states.
Thirdly, even the rank and file of the Congress is looking for a direction that can restore its fortunes. At one time, it was a democratic party with a formidable organization and a pan-Indian appeal. But from the 1970s onwards, it saw a decline in most states due to Indira Gandhi’s style of functioning.
The Congress presently faces a structural dilemma on several fronts—organizational weakness, ideological stagnation and shrinking social support. There is also a leadership crisis with Sonia Gandhi’s declining health and confusion over Rahul Gandhi taking over the reins.
Fourthly, there is a splintering of polity. Several new dynasties from more than a dozen politically significant families have risen in some key states, including Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. These regional chieftains have a proprietorial hold over their strong vote-bank. The Congress has lost the capacity to breach these fortresses unless it chooses to ride piggyback on them as it did in Bihar.
Fifthly, the Gandhis are unable to battle a declining public image because of their disconnect. After the 2014 Lok Sabha drubbing, Sonia was forced to defend not only the family but also the dynasty. “I take the responsibility as the Congress president,” she had declared after the defeat in an effort to shield her son. The party is still backing the dynasty.
An internal report after the 2014 debacle concluded that the defeat was due to a spate of corruption scandals, poor handling of the economy, infighting in the party and poor leadership, thereby rejecting any specific blame on the dynasty.
Sixthly, what is more worrying for the Gandhis is not only the loss of key states, but also the loss of traditional support of the minorities, Dalits and adivasis to the growing number of regional parties.
However, as experience shows, it is never wise to write off a politician and more so the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. It always springs back. Therefore, it will be premature to write off the first family despite its steady decline. The party looks to the Gandhi glue for unity and survival even if it has shrunk. After all, this is not the first time that the dynasty is fighting for its survival.
Indira Gandhi who was booted from office after the Emergency in 1977 bounced back in 1980. After her assassination, the party rode back to power winning an unprecedented 404 seats out of the 533 in the Lok Sabha, a record, which is yet to be beaten. After the Bofors scandal, Rajiv lost the elections, winning just above half of his earlier performance. In 1991, after Rajiv’s assassination, the party came to power with PV Narasimha Rao heading a minority government only to lose again in 1996. The next two years, it remained influential by supporting the United Front government but from 1998, it sat in the Opposition. In 2004, when everyone thought the party was finished, the Congress rode back to power and led by Sonia Gandhi, ruled for ten years until 2014. However, the key to the revival was more to do with the mistakes committed by others and also the arithmetic when Sonia Gandhi stitched a coalition of secular parties. Now after the 2014 polls, with the Congress getting its lowest-ever score of just 44, the Gandhis are waiting once again to benefit from the mistakes committed by the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Italian-born Sonia Gandhi’s rise to power is like a fairy tale. She transformed herself from a housewife to a politician and from a European to an Indian in the last 45 years. Born in a middle class family in Turin, Sonia met Rajiv Gandhi in Cambridge. It was a love at first sight and the two got married in 1968. Sonia remained a housewife until the assassination of Rajiv in 1991.
After 1998, when she joined politics, she went on to become one of the most powerful women in the world. She was rated third most powerful in 2004 by Forbes magazine and sixth in 2007. She was ranked ninth in the list of world’s most powerful persons in 2011 and 12th in 2012. She also featured in the Time’s list of 100 most influential women in the world in 2008. She was ranked sixth, a notch above US First Lady Michelle Obama in Forbes list of 100 most powerful women in 2012.
Congress leader Shashi Tharoor in an article in Time on May 12, 2008, wondered: “But which story is one to tell? That of the Italian woman who became the most powerful figure in a land of a billion Indians? That of the reluctant politician who led her party to power? That of the parliamentary leader who rejected the highest office in her adopted land, one she had earned by her hard work and courage? That of the woman of principle who demonstrated that one could stand for right values even in a profession corroded by cynicism and cant? That of the novice in politics, who became a master of the art, trusted her own instincts that she could be right more often than her rivals could ever have imagined? The story of Sonia Gandhi is all these stories and more.”
Sonia continues to remain an enigma. Former external affairs minister K Natwar Singh, a one-time family loyalist, in his autobiography, One Life is Not Enough, described her as “authoritarian, obsessively secretive and suspicious”. But her friends vouch for her warmness.
During Narasimha Rao’s regime (1991-1996), her political ambitions became visible when she created the Congress T (Tiwari) in 1994 with her loyalists, including ND Tiwari, Arjun Singh, ML Fotedar, Natwar Singh and Sheila Dixit. This experiment failed and she had to wait for four more years to become party president.
The timing of her entry was perfect as the declining Congress needed a charismatic leader and Sonia filled that vacuum. Sonia claims that she took the decision to head the party because of her duty to her husband’s family. Her decision on December 27, 1997, announced from 10 Janpath took many, including the then party president Sitaram Kesri by surprise. She covered the length and breadth of the country covering 60,000 km, speaking in 138 constituencies in 34 days even as the party watched her breathlessly. She eased out Kesri and took over the reins of the party in March 1998. Till today, she has remained the undisputed leader and the longest-serving chief. Only twice was her leadership challenged—once by the Sharad Pawar-Sangma duo in 1999 and a second time by the late Jitendra Prasad in 2000. Both times, she emerged stronger.
Sonia became crafty by joining hands with Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha and pulled down the Vajpayee government in 1999. However, Vajpayee came back to power and Sonia also entered parliament to become the first woman Leader of the Opposition in 1999.
By 2004, she managed to get respectability in political circles and was able to gobble up a non-BJP coalition, including the DMK, Left parties and the RJD. In a master-stroke, she put her proxy, Manmohan Singh, as prime minister to the surprise of all.
This was the second time she declined the throne, the first being soon after Rajiv’s assassination. She cleverly punctured the high-pitched criticism of the BJP by this pro-xy ruling. But it was no secret that Sonia continued to be the prima donna in her party as well as in the country as nothing moved without her knowledge for the next ten years. However, the government was blackened by a series of scams relating to the Common-wealth Games, 2G licenses, coal block allocations, and Adarsh housing scam.
Sonia also has achieved three things. First, she brought a languishing party to power not once but twice. Secondly she has kept the flock together since 1998. Thirdly, she also broke anti-Congressism in other parties, including the Left, to the extent they joined the UPA coalition. Anti-Congressism was not only against the Congress but also against the Gandhi family.
Between 2004 and 2014, the Congress not only won two national elections and ruled for two full terms but also won 21 assembly elections. But there is no evidence that the party used its stint in power to energize the organization. Instead, it promoted rootless leaders.
Sonia brought her son Rahul to succeed her in 2004. Since then, these dual power centers have confused many in this party which believes in sycophancy. She has kept her daughter Priyanka Vadra Gandhi in res-erve in case Rahul failed. That stage has not yet come.
As for Rahul Gandhi, he is yet to become a 24/7 politician. Ironically, the man who could have become prime minister at any point in the past decade did not want the job. Had he become at least a minister in 2004 when he joined politics, he would have learnt a lot but he frittered away many opportunities. For instance, he could have intervened during Anna Hazare’s “India against Corr-uption” movement. He could have shown his mettle when Sonia Gandhi went abroad for treatment in 2014. He certainly did not show his vote-catching ability in the Uttar Pra-desh, Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and other recent assembly polls where the Congress failed miserably.
All his experiments with the NSUI, Youth Congress and handpicked PCC presidents did not succeed. He has not only alienated senior leaders but has not been able to pick the right people for the right job. He has not grown into a good parliamentarian nor into a good public speaker. Part of his problem is the coterie around him who has no experience in politics.
However, though Rahul continues to be a reluctant prince, it is only matter of time before he takes over the party as the die has been cast. The advantage for Rahul is that there are no challengers within the party who are willing to give him a long rope. His friends and supporters believe that he is shy, reserved, decent and out of place in politics. Age, however, is on his side.
The Nehru-Gandhi family is also mired in some legal controversies. The Jeep scandal in 1948 was the first major corruption case in independent India when the first Indian High Commissioner VK Kri-shna Menon ignored protocols and signed `80 lakh contracts for the purchase of army jeeps with a foreign firm. In 1958, much to the embarrassment of the government, Feroz Gandhi, Indira’s spouse, exposed the insurance scandal involving Ram Krishna Dalmia. In the late sixties, there was the mink coat controversy when shipping tycoon Dharam Teja was alleged to have gifted a mink coat to Indira Gandhi. She also faced the Nagarwala scam in 1971. The next one was the Maruti scandal involving Sanjay Gandhi in 1974, followed by the Bofors gun deal which embroiled Rajiv Gandhi and made him lose power. This was followed by the 2G contract scam in 2008, followed by the Vadra-DLF scam which surfaced in 2012. The Augusta chopper scam broke out in 2013. The same year, the Italian marines scandal also surfaced.
The latest issue rocking parliament is the National Herald case in which both mother and son are alleged to be involved. BJP leader Subramanian Swamy has accused Sonia and Rahul of setting up a firm called Young Indian to buy the debt of Associated Journals Ltd (AJL, the company that owned Nati-onal Herald) using Congress party funds. The Congress cla-ims that it had given a loan of over `90 crore to AJL. The Delhi High Court recently observed: “From the complaint and the evidence led so far, it appears that (Young Indian Company) was in fact created as a sham or a cloak to convert public money to personal use or as a special purpose vehicle for acquiring control over 20 billion rupees ($335 million) worth of assets.”
However, when the Gandhis appeared before the Sessions Court at Patiala House on December 19 as per the High Court orders, they and the others got bail on a surety of `50,000 each. Metropolitan magistrate Loveleen said: “Charges cannot be termed serious in magnitude at this stage.” On Swamy’s insistence that they might tamper with evidence and even flee from the country, Loveleen retorted: “They are respectable people belonging to the oldest political party. They have deep roots in society.”
While the Congress is celebrating the bail as a victory, the magistrate has directed all accused to appear before it in person on February 20, 2016. By making out a purely legal case into a political one, the Gandhi family is perhaps trying to project the party as a victim and seeking popular support. They are also trying to relive the Indira Gandhi era by evoking memories of the legal case she had to fight, little realizing that it was a different time and different players. Even she had to fight her case legally.
Whatever image the Gandhi’s might be trying to project, the case could harm them politically. For one, they fail to realize that it’s a gamble and can go either way in public perception. Politics is about perceptions, after all. While they expect a wave of sympathy, many may turn against them.
They also need to be careful because the case might take a long time to reach conclusion. And each time it comes up in court, the media will provide a flashback of the case, which is not in the family’s interest.
They also need to reckon that Swamy is a one-man army and does not let go his opponents, be it Ramakrishna Hegde, VP Singh, Jayalalithaa or Vajpayee.
Finally, by claiming a political victory in a bail, they are losing sight of the commonplace wisdom that bail is normal and jail is abnormal in legal cases. The moral of the Gandhi story is that the dynasty can survive only as long as people let it survive. The baton is about to passed over to Rahul Gandhi. If the dynasty fails to perform, it may be booted out. The Gandhis have not yet reached that stage.