What has ensured the longevity of the Nehru-Gandhi clan? Sonia Gandhi is the longest serving president in the history of the party by a long way and likely to remain in that position for as long as she is around. It is difficult to imagine the Congress party without the family being in charge, and there is not even a whiff of rebellion in the ranks though the Congress is headed for a defeat in the 2014 elections.
Perhaps, this will change when defeat actually comes, though I doubt it. The last time the Congress saw some internal resistance against Sonia Gandhi was when the current Agriculture Minister, Sharad Pawar, broke away in the late 1990s.
He has always thought of himself as a contender to run the party nationally and perhaps, this was a gambit with the same end in mind.
Pawar’s ostensible issue was the foreign origins of Sonia, which he thought made her unsuitable as Congress leader and a future prime minister. It was not a burning issue in his home state of Maharashtra when he raised it. Not many in the party agreed with him, as he expected they might, and he reduced himself to a state-level leader who is today insignificant in national politics.
When the matter was being debated in that same period, a Congressman, I think it was Mani Shankar Aiyar, said that the party itself would disintegrate if the Gandhis were not in charge. His logic was that there was a tendency to pull away from the centre by each of the Congress state units, which were essentially regional parties, each with different issues and agendas. The only thing that made the Congress a national party, in this view, was the family. Without them, the ambition of people such as Pawar would reduce the Congress to a loose alliance of like-minded state parties, which would come together only during national elections.
The presence of the Gandhis, on the other hand, gives the Congress a national identity and presence. This may be true, but for many people, even those who are not against the party, such as the historian Ramachandra Guha, the idea that India’s biggest political party is run in feudal form by a dynasty is not appetising.
Guha has speculated that the Congress is actually not as dependent on the Gandhis as is thought, and if Rajiv had not been press-ganged by Congressmen into succeeding Indira, he would be still be alive and Sonia would be a housewife.
Guha is also disdainful of the chamcha (sycophant) culture that permeates the Congress more than it does any other party in India. It is unquestionably true that whatever else she may have done, Sonia Gandhi has run the party with the assistance of people whose main qualification is their loyalty to her. On the other hand, it is also true that she has compromised and made peace with those opposed to her, including Pawar, with whose party she formed a pragmatic alliance that has kept the Congress in power in Maharashtra for a decade and a half.
I interviewed the writer UR Ananthamurthy a few days ago and he said that one reason for the Gandhis’ success is that the family is not seen as regional or parochial. It has no roots in any one state of India (or in any caste) and can be seen as national in that sense.
Another writer, I think it was Santosh Desai, The Times of India columnist, said that one reason the Gandhis were popular was because they were fair-skinned. I think this is true to a large extent in a country where such things tend to be conflated with character.
My own view is that the Gandhis have done more good for the Congress than bad. Particularly Sonia Gandhi, a woman with almost no education who has revived the party and tried to run it morally. She has failed in some aspects but these cannot take away from her successes. Some of the best legislation in our history, on corruption and education, and against poverty, has come because of her.
I have a feeling that when the dynasty finally goes, and perhaps we don’t have to wait too long to see its end, the Congress will no longer be the national force it has been for so many decades and still is today.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 2nd, 2014.