Coronation was the word that surfaced naturally in Indian and foreign minds as Sonia Gandhi stepped down after leading the Congress for nearly two decades and installed Rahul Gandhi as party president. The term suggested itself not because the royal pomp on display, but on account of the feudal mindset pervading even modern democracies. The Americans, more precisely the whites, are still obsessed with British royalty nearly two-and-a-half centuries after they broke away. They seek to make up for the lost royalty by finding kings and queens—even gods and goddesses—from the worlds of cinema, sports and business.
Much of India is feudal enough to quietly acquiesce in—if not actually rejoice over—dynastic succession in politics. The fiercest critic of the Congress’s dynastic politics is ironically the BJP, which reinforces feudal values in the name of Hindu nationalism. It has deplored the dynastic aspect as well as the lack of democratic process in the choice of the new Congress president. Both charges are well grounded, but, coming from the BJP, it’s like a pot calling the kettle black.
The BJP became India’s largest political party by granting membership to every Tarun, Dinesh and Hari who made a missed call. They have no role, however, in the election to any party post as the office-bearers are handpicked by the BJP’s Nagpur-based mentor, the RSS, and its units at different levels. It was at the RSS’s bidding that the BJP’s parliamentary board proclaimed Narendra Modi its PM candidate ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha election, overlooking former party presidents L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, who were waiting in the wings. Then BJP president Rajnath Singh said the parliamentary board had acted “as per the party’s tradition”.
After becoming PM, Modi, with the RSS’s blessings, got Amit Shah elected party president. The party members’ role in the process was limited to hailing the new chief. In contrast, Rahul, who had served as general secretary and vice-president of the party for 10 years, insisted that he be duly elected as president. Accordingly, the Congress, which had not held organisational elections for long, created an electoral college through a process which, while falling short of democratic credibility, represented a marginal improvement in the prevailing situation. Of course, no party leader was ready to take the democratic process farther by contesting against Rahul.
The BJP’s opposition to dynastic succession is artificial. Countless dropouts from Congress dynasties have found refuge in it. Heading the list is Maneka Gandhi, the younger of Indira Gandhi’s daughters-in-law, Sonia being the older one. She was beside husband Sanjay Gandhi as he went on a rampage as extra-constitutional authority during the Emergency, razing parts of Old Delhi and forcibly sterilising poor residents. She has an assured place in every BJP-led government at the Centre and her son, Varun, is a BJP MP. Also in the BJP fold are lesser Congress dynasties, like those of former PM Lal Bahadur Shastri, former Congress president and education minister Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and former Uttar Pradesh CM H.N. Bahuguna.
Critics of the Congress have propagated a belief that dynastic rule in the party is the result of a project dating back to Nehru’s time. Soon after a resounding victory under his leadership in India’s first general election (1952), Nehru tried to persuade Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) and other leaders of the Socialist Party, which, in terms of popular vote, was the second largest, although the (then undivided) CPI, having won more seats, was the main opposition group in the Lok Sabha. As a hero of the 1942 Quit India movement, JP was a youth idol then, who, had he returned to the Congress, would have naturally emerged as Nehru’s successor. Though paving the way for Indira as his successor could not have been on Nehru’s mind, he did make her Congress president in 1959.
On Nehru’s demise, the Congress picked Shastri, and not Indira, as his successor. She became the favourite on Shastri’s unexpected passing as the syndicate of state party bosses reckoned her a better bet than Morarji Desai when a general election was near. Upsetting their calculations, she walked out of the party with the bulk of the rank and file and settled for dynastic succession. The line snapped on Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991 as Sonia, who was not even a party member then, showed no interest in taking her husband’s place. It was only after the Congress steadily declined over the next seven years, first under P.V. Narasimha Rao and then under Sitaram Kesri, and was on the verge of break-up that she became a member and the party made her president. As it happens, the party today needs the dynasty more than the dynasty needs it. It can easily split into many factions if there is no Gandhi at the top to hold it together.
The transition from Sonia to Rahul represents a more striking generational change than that from Advani and Joshi to Modi. Advani was 86 and Joshi 80 when Modi, 63, eased out all leaders above 70. Sonia, 71, has made way for Rahul, who is just 47. This gives him a unique opportunity to give his 132-year-old party a youthful look and earn a demographic dividend—no easy task, though, for a party saddled with many aged veterans. The party does have a crop of young leaders who have proved themselves, but Rahul also has to deal with many who are influenced by Hindutva and cannot, therefore, be reliable defenders of democracy and secularism.
Until recently it looked as though the Congress was needlessly delaying Rahul’s inevitable elevation, giving Modi time to run him down, while the Sangh’s cyberlings caricatured him as Pappu the village idiot. But, just as everybody had written him off as a non-starter, he bounced on to the centre-stage as Rahul 2.0, a fighter capable of taking on Modi. The Gujarat assembly election gave him the chance to demonstrate that he can match Modi’s fabled campaign skills, wit by wit and scorn by scorn, without descending to a plebian level. While Modi relied on bluff and bluster, Gandhi challenged him with facts and reason. In the heat of the campaign, Modi forgot his Vikas slogan and talked mostly of the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhis, prompting Rahul to ask him to talk about Gujarat and its problems. A rattled Modi fired a typical Hindutva weapon: an alleged conspiracy by Congress leaders to instal Ahmed Patel as CM with Pakistan’s help!
Whatever the Gujarat election outcome, Rahul has established himself firmly on the political firmament as a leader who is part of his party’s and country’s future. He has to deal with a polity in which Hindutva elements are more powerful than even during the Partition days. He will do well to carefully assess the way his predecessors handled the threats of majority and minority communalism and draw appropriate lessons. Nehru boldly confronted Hindu communalism, which had taken the life of Mahatma Gandhi, and held it at bay throughout his days and its effect lingered even long afterwards. Indira also confronted the forces of communalism boldly, but her role in the liberation of Bangladesh led Atal Behari Vajpayee to hail her as Durga. She stood up to Sikh communalism and paid with her life for refusing her security experts’ advice to exclude Sikhs from her personal guards.
Rajiv played some dangerous games, relying on advice from sources outside the party and the government. He first compromised with Muslim obscurantism on the Shah Bano issue and then sought to make up for it by compromising with Hindu irredentism on the Ram Mandir issue, leading to aggravation of both brands of communalism. In Sri Lanka, he allowed the Indian peace-keeping force to be drawn into a combat role, causing LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakaran to plot his assassination.
Rahul can possibly benefit from studying the contrasting ways of Nehru and Indira in negotiating the political minefield. Nehru’s ways, by and large, strengthened the nascent democracy, while Indira Gandhi’s weakened it considerably.
The Congress was in power during 10 of Sonia Gandhi’s 19 years at the helm. She held together the small national and regional parties as UPA chairperson and put together a National Advisory Committee (NAC), whose members included social activists and on whose recommendation the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Right to Information Act were introduced. For reasons still unclear, UPA-2 dispensed with the NAC’s services. Rahul needs to listen to a range of people as he sets out to equip the Congress once again as an upholder of democracy, secularism and social justice.
In 1959, Nehru made his daughter Indira Congress president
By getting Patidar leader Hardik Patel, backward class leader Alpesh Thakore and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani on a common platform with him in the Gujarat campaign, Rahul has shown his skills as a coalition-era team leader. As the Lok Sabha election approaches, the scene will change vastly as he has to deal with a host of small national or regional parties that hold the key. It will then be necessary to look at new issues, including greater autonomy for states. Will he be able to use the opportunity to work out new equations and confront the BJP, which is sure to play up the nationalist card to foil a Federal Front’s emergence?
By nominating Manmohan Singh as the party’s PM candidate in 2004, Sonia had neatly sidestepped the issues of her Italian origin and Catholic upbringing, which the BJP and some of her own party men were harping on. By offering prayers at temples and appearing as a practising Hindu of the sacred-thread-wearing order, Rahul has consciously chosen a different route. His Hindu card and sacred thread may have stumped the BJP’s top brass, but he is riding a tiger and must figure out how to dismount safely and lead his party and the country back to the path of democracy and secularism.
People look for consistency in a leader. If personal appearance is as important as policy positions in popular perception, he may have already done damage to himself by looking clean-shaven one day and with days-old stubble on other days. Abraham Lincoln is said to have grown a beard after a school-girl wrote to him that it would help hide his ugliness. The handsome Rahul needs no such subterfuge and can possibly raise his credibility by projecting a consistent image all the time.
(The writer is a political commentator)