The Nehru family’s complete control over the former ruling party began in 1969.
Fifty years have elapsed since Indira Gandhi converted the Congress Party into an entity fully owned by the Nehru family. Not that such a situation was or remains unique to that party. The Yadav family “owns” the Samajwadi Party and Mamata Banerjee the TMC. As many as four members of the Deve Gowda clan fought the 2019 Lok Sabha polls as candidates of the Janata Dal (Secular). In Tamil Nadu, heir-by-birth Stalin has acted swiftly to take control of the DMK, which since the demise of C.N. Annadurai a half-century ago, came into the control of Muthuvel Karunanidhi and his relatives. Since 1953, Jawaharlal Nehru dominated the Congress party almost in the manner that the Mahatma had for decades, resulting in the departure of those who disagreed with his mix of Fabian-Soviet policies, but even he could not achieve the level of control over the party machine that was achieved by his daughter Indira Gandhi. She had been selected by Congress president Kamakshi Kamaraj in 1966 as the successor to Lal Bahadur Shastri, because she was regarded by the party’s senior leadership as being malleable to their dictates, certainly much more than the mirthless Morarji Desai, the senior claimant to the Prime Ministership. So complete was the acceptance of the fact that the Congress Party was in effect family property that President Zail Singh hesitated not at all in swearing in Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister after she was killed in 1984. While this act by the Head of State may have been looked askance by political purists, the fact remains that Rajiv would have been the choice of practically all Congress party MPs had the President asked for a vote by the Congress Parliamentary Party, just as in 2004 (20 years later), every Congress Member of Parliament elected in the Lok Sabha poll of that year would have supported Sonia Gandhi for the job that had been held by her husband for five years. Indeed, her handing over the baton to Manmohan Singh led to near bouts of hysterics by newly elected MPs in full view of television cameras.
The Nehru family’s complete control over the former ruling party began in 1969, the year the Congress Working Committee (CWC) passed a unanimous decision to nominate Neelam Sanjiva Reddy as its candidate to replace President Zakir Husain, who had passed away in office. Soon afterwards, Prime Minister Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi correctly discerned that Reddy would not obey 100% of her orders but perhaps only 90%. She therefore stunned her party by openly rejecting the CWC’s candidate, preferring instead to back Vice-President Venkata Varaha Giri for the nation’s top job. Seeing an opportunity to weaken the Congress behemoth by splitting it, Communist and other parties backed V.V. Giri, who narrowly walked in as the President of India because the majority of Congress MPs backed Indira Gandhi over the “Syndicate”, as the senior leaders of the Congress Party were called. Unfortunately for the anti-Congress parties who had supported her candidate against the official Congress nominee, Indira Gandhi proved to be a much more astute judge of voter preferences than the Syndicate, and this skill ensured that the Congress party under her sole proprietorship did much better in the 1971 Lok Sabha polls than would have been the case, had she been made to share authority within the party. Not accidently, the policies Prime Minister Indira Gandhi adopted after her 1969 victory over the Syndicate were the polar opposite of those that that group of Congress elders favoured. They were also the opposite of what the country needed, but this detail was of no concern to the victorious heir to Nehru, focused as she was on political rivals and not national needs.
Post-2014, when both reasons of health as well as the realisation that the electorate was tiring of her came together to persuade Sonia Gandhi to step down as AICC president, the only choice for a replacement was son Rahul. Had Sonia stepped down in 2014 rather than towards the close of 2017, more time would have been given to the new Congress president to alter perceptions of his mettle. Rahul needed from the start to show that his assumption of office was indeed a fresh start, and not a repainted Sonia Congress. Such a transformation has yet to occur, with the result that former ministers (such as P. Chidambaram) who are facing serious charges of corruption are still the prominent faces of a party that has sought to make corruption in the BJP a key issue. Priyanka Gandhi ought to have stepped into an organisational role at the same time as Rahul, so that the two could effect a coordinated working style rather than seem disconnected from each other. Worst of all from the Congress Party’s viewpoint were Rahul and Priyanka suddenly reversing course by mid-2018 from their earlier acceptance of the fact that Hindus are indeed the majority community, and should be shown the respect and attention this merits. The two returned to “Nehruvian secularism”, which was carried to extreme levels by Sonia Gandhi, for example in her seeking to get passed a bill that explicitly posited that only Hindus should be held accountable for communal riots, even when they were the victims. Or Sonia’s (and later Rahul’s) backing for the Shinde-Chidambaram concoction labelled “Hindu terror”. Or such anti-secular laws as the Right to Education Act, that separated Hindus from the rest in a new version of the two-nation theory.
Will the 2019 disaster lead once again to senior (non-Nehru) leaders of the Congress Party finding the courage to speak out in the manner that Sardar Patel used to on matters where he disagreed with Nehru? Fifty years after Indira Gandhi crushed Nijalingappa, Sanjiva Reddy and other senior leaders, will Congress party seniors bestir themselves again in order to try and see that the Congress revives as a national party by escaping from the shadow of aspects of its past? Rahul and Priyanka continue to talk ceaselessly of the past in a country where more than half the population is less than 30 years of age. They seem oblivious to the fact that their very survival in politics hinges on sloughing off their dynastic moorings and moving into a 21st century attitudinal and policy matrix. In this age of feisty television anchors and disrespectful social media posts, past glory is irrelevant. What voters look for is a leader’s vision for the future, a fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi eloquently accented in his thanksgiving speech at the BJP headquarters on the day of his greatest electoral triumph.