Congress and the Gandhis: Decoding the ‘Dynasty’ Syllogism

One cannot even attempt to understand the so-called Sonia mystique without taking a look at the role history seems to have assigned to the Nehru family

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Kumar Ketkar

One cannot even attempt to understand the so-called Sonia mystique without taking a look at the role history seems to have assigned to the Nehru family. I do not want to use the word ‘dynasty’ for two reasons. One: Sonia Gandhi was not born into the Nehru family. Two: the term ‘dynasty’ at once reduces the people of India to mere ‘subjects’—docile natives who would accept any injustice, oppression and humiliation at the hands of the rulers, be they local or foreign. The term ‘dynasty’ also suggests a natural succession or the practice of declaring heirs apparent. Such a description makes the Indian people appear politically illiterate and naïve, which has been conclusively proven wrong time and again. After all, it was the Indian electorate that defeated Indira Gandhi in 1977 and did not re-elect the Congress led by Rajiv Gandhi in 1989. Rajiv’s own victory margin in Amethi was greatly reduced, and Uttar Pradesh, the home state of the so called ‘dynasty’, elected only fifteen Congress candidates.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru himself did not win with record margins, and during his tenure, in the elections of 1952, 1957 and 1962, the Congress—in spite of the party’s domination—did not get more than 47 per cent of the total votes.

If the family were indeed conducting itself like a ‘dynasty’ and the people were observing its actions with attendant awe, then Maneka Gandhi too, would have received similar adulation. In a way, she was the first claimant to the throne, since Sanjay Gandhi had joined politics almost six years before his older brother did, and had become the flag-bearer of the Youth Congress. Maneka Gandhi accompanied Sanjay everywhere except, fortunately, on the last flight that killed him. Yet it is a fact that despite the aura of the Nehru family and the halo of being Sanjay Gandhi’s widow, Maneka does not draw the massive, almost ecstatic crowds Sonia does. If the dynasty appeal really worked, surely Maneka would have drawn larger crowds, since she had the added advantage of being an Indian, unlike Sonia. After the deaths of Sanjay, Indira and Rajiv, not a single Congress person appealed to Maneka to take up the leadership of the party. Yet the dynasty syllogism would necessarily demand that Maneka Gandhi be called to lead the party.

An objective assessment suggests that circumstances, rather than dynastic ambitions have been responsible for the dominance of the Nehru-Gandhi family in Indian public life.

[The] election of 1967 will be remembered for the rise of regional parties—the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or DMK in Tamil Nadu, the Akalis in Punjab, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, the CPM (as a regional force) in Kerala and West Bengal, and various caste-ethnicity combinations in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. These parties had been consolidating their regional and caste bases over the years and the results were now bearing fruit. Indira Gandhi urged Congressmen to introspect and evolve a new strategy to counter the changing situations, but its traditionalists were in no mood to do so. It was against this backdrop of entrenched, stubborn, bossy status-quoists on the one hand and the rebelliousness of the Young Turks on the other that the contradictions within the party began to surface in the 1968 AICC session.

During the session, Indira Gandhi said the party’s emphasis should be on poverty alleviation. The party bosses thought the emphasis should be on party reorganisation. Indira Gandhi thought the Naxalites were not agents of any foreign country; they were focusing on genuine issues, though their method was wrong. The Congress, she said, should recognise the issues and try to solve them. The party bosses, on the other hand, thought that the Naxalites should be arrested, confronted and shot. Indira thought that one of the solutions was land reforms. The party bosses supported the landlords and opposed any radical land reform measures.

It was in that very year when this debate raged that a 22-year-old Italian bride entered the Nehru-Gandhi family. A shy girl, totally confused by the new atmosphere and thoroughly awe-struck by the charisma of Indira Gandhi, Sonia willy-nilly began her unstructured tuition in Indian public life. For a middle-class Italian girl with no background of even Italian politics, let alone of India’s complicated turf, this was a tough call. Left to herself, she would have been a housewife. But she was thrown into a family which had become synonymous with Indian politics.

Over the past thirty years (Ed: this was written in 2004), Sonia Gandhi has been witness to the Congress split in 1969 and the elections of March 1971, the rise of Indira Gandhi to magnificent heights after she won the Indo-Pak war in December 1971 (and eulogised by none other than Atal Bihari Vajpayee himself as “Durga incarnate”). Sonia has seen the JP movement and the anarchic forces let loose by the so-called ‘Total Revolution’. She witnessed the chaos that ensued after the Allahabad High Court judgment unseated Indira Gandhi on a technicality that The Economist called the equivalent of a parking offence. She saw Indira Gandhi preparing to resign when Rajni Patel, Siddharth Shankar Ray and, of course, her son Sanjay prevailed upon her to not to do so. She saw Indira Gandhi, for once, not trusting her own judgment and suffering for it. Sonia Gandhi also saw the Opposition threatening to launch a nationwide agitation to bring down the government and Indira Gandhi responding to that by declaring the notorious Emergency.

Sonia Gandhi was with her motherin-law through all this, and later, when she was defeated in the 1977 elections. Then there was the arrest of Indira Gandhi and the proceedings of the Shah Commission. The fall of the Janata government followed and the second coming of Indira Gandhi was accompanied by the threat of the Khalistan movement. Finally, Sonia was a direct witness to her mother-inlaw’s assassination and it was she who carried Indira Gandhi on her lap to the hospital. Seven years later, it was again she who brought her husband’s body from Chennai to Delhi.

Surely this was not the life she had dreamt of when she fell in love with Rajiv Gandhi at that Greek restaurant in Oxford. But when she was thrown into a family whose fortunes were inextricably linked with India’s, she chose to live with that reality—initially with great reluctance, and later as a moral obligation to the family and to the country which had become her own. It is a saga unmatched by any other family’s, and its many complications and layers will gradually unfold in the years to come.

(Extracted from an essay first written in 1998 and revised and updated in 2004)

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