Will the legacy of the Gandhi-Nehru family end with Rahul?

Will Rahul Renew the Gandhi-Nehru Legacy? Rasheed Kidwai Weighs In


(As Rahul Gandhi files his nomination for the post of Congress president, The Quint debates whether the Gandhi scion is ready to hold the reins. This is the View. You may like to read the Counterview by Vinay Sahasrabuddhe here.)

The famous historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun was once asked by Taimur the conqueror about the fate of dynasties. Khaldun responded that the glory of a dynasty seldom lasted beyond four generations. The first generation is inclined towards conquest, the second towards administration, while the third generation – free from the necessity to conquer or administer – is left with the pleasurable task of spending the wealth of its ancestors on cultural pursuits.

Consequently, by the fourth generation, a dynasty has usually spent its wealth as well as human energy. Hence, the downfall of each royal house is embedded in the very process of its rising. According to Khaldun, it was a natural phenomenon and couldn’t be avoided.

Set in a democratic world of contemporary Indian history, the rise and fall of the great Nehru-Gandhi family seems to be indicating the soundness of Khaldun’s formulation.

  • Historian Ibn Khaldun said the glory of a dynasty lasts only four generations
  • Rahul Gandhi represents the fifth generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family
  • As Congress president, Rahul must succeed without looking to his mother for lessons
  • Some big changes are expected under his leadership
The Quint

As MK Gandhi’s closest associate, Jawaharlal Nehru was the architect of the Nehru-Gandhi legacy, which his daughter Indira Gandhi expanded, winning a war (against Pakistan and creating Bangladesh) and emerging as one of 20th century's most powerful personalities. Indira's son, Rajiv, too became prime minister, experimented a lot, and paid heavily. Sonia Gandhi has the unique distinction of being the longest-serving party president in the Congress’ 132-year-old history.

Rahul Gandhi, who represents the fifth generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family, is set to be the sixth member of the family to be AICC chief. In the Congress’ history, Nehru-Gandhi family members have headed the party for 45 years with Sonia being longest-serving president – 19 consecutive years. Nehru served as AICC chief for 11 years, Indira seven, Rajiv six and Motilal Nehru two years.

(Photo Courtesy: <a href="https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a2/Nehru_with_Indira.jpg">Wikimedia Commons</a>)
Jawaharlal Nehru with daughter Indira. 

Rahul Emerges in Sonia’s Shadow

Rahul is an unconventional politician and very different from his mother. Sonia inherited a fragmented Congress in 1998 after plenty of deliberations. She was acutely conscious of her foreign origins and drew satisfaction from uniting the Congress leaders and arresting the exodus that was taking place. She ran the party (1998-2016) like a matriarch with the Japanese method of maximum consultation, minimum disciplinary action. Sonia gave a lot of importance to the Congress’ perceived hierarchical structure.

Now that Rahul is set to be Congress president, it is time for Sonia to make another sacrifice. This time, for the sake of her son.

In fact, in December 2013, when Sonia turned 66, she reportedly told select party leaders that she planned to retire from active politics at 70. It stunned everyone. After all, hardly anyone in India ever retires from politics. Congressmen known to be crafty in matters of professing loyalty and sycophancy, pleaded with her to let Rahul take over as Congress president. The script for Rahul’s crowning was given shape then.

Political exigencies prevented Sonia from stepping down in 2016 but now, at 71, she must consider taking a clean break from politics. If she is unwilling to quit Rai Bareli Lok Sabha (as it would necessitate a difficult by-election for the Congress) seat, she would be better off as a backbencher MP.

Behind the scene, there are many proposals and suggestions already doing the rounds in Congress circles over Sonia’s possible role. Several party leaders want her to stay on, in an advisory or “marg darshak” capacity or a mentor role, but politically nothing would be worse for Rahul than the looming, towering shadow of Sonia.

In the 13 years that the mother and son worked together between 2004-2017, there were many occasions when Rahul’s vision and course of action was blurred, overturned or withdrawn by Sonia. The most glaring cases were Rahul’s initial thrust on restoration of inner-party democracy.

 (Photo: Reuters)
Priyanka Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi praying on the eighth death anniversary of Rajiv Gandhi.

The party’s old guard worked overtime to advise Sonia to confine Rahul to the Youth Congress, NSUI and Sewa Dal. As an AICC General Secretary, Rahul kept whiling away and wasting time as general secretary in-charge of these frontal organisations while the main party organisation remained unaffected.

In 2013, the world saw how Rahul tore away a copy of a Manmohan Singh ordinance that sought to protect the corrupt and convicted persons in politics. Within a few days, Rahul tendered an apology to Manmohan. The prospect of Rahul emerging as Mr Clean, advocating transparency and good governance, was lost.

‘Sonia Should Have Taken a Backseat in 2004’

There are some who feel that Sonia should have kept herself confined to party organisation in 2004 when she turned down the prime minister’s post in May 2004.

Jairam Ramesh, Pulok Chatterjee and a number of others quickly stitched together the office of the UPA and National Advisory Council chairpersonship for Sonia, which accorded her a cabinet ministerial rank, protocol and other perks of office.

If she had stayed away from UPA-NAC and restricted herself as Congress president, Manmohan and UPA would have perhaps performed better and allegations of “remote control” and dual power centres would not have gained currency.

The 47-year-old Gandhi scion, therefore, must walk alone and face the laborious uphill task of bringing the Congress back to power – whether in 2019 or 2024 – as party president.

Rahul must pass the leadership test without looking to his mother for lessons. He must also contend with criticism. Under Rahul, some big changes are expected.

The Quint

Changes in Congress in the Era of Rahul

Accountability: Unlike Sonia, the would-be AICC chief is unlikely to allow a “sab chalta hai” culture in the Congress. His inclination to act as a catalyst, ‘judge all’ and give lesser weightage to identity politics and loyalty would encounter resistance from within.

Economic decision-making: In a departure from Sonia’s reliance on in-house economists like Dr Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram, Rahul is set to accord more importance to his political instincts and economic worldview. There is a possibility of Rahul shifting more towards left-of-centre.

Secularism: Rahul’s idea of dharma nirpekshta is closer to Indira-Rajiv-Sanjay than Jawaharlal Nehru or Sonia. Rahul is conscious of Congress’ history when issues like cow slaughter remained in focus during the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, the right-wing dominance continued throughout the 1960s till Indira flirted with socialism and secularism, albeit briefly. Indira returned to power in 1980 and sought to cultivate the majority community. The entire Narasimha Rao era had right-wing dominance. Sonia’s working committee declared that “Hinduism is the sole guarantor of secularism in India.”

(Photo Courtesy: inc.in)
Rahul Gandhi during his visit to Amethi. 

For many, Rahul’s bid to blend religion into his political campaign is problematic and runs contrary to the Nehruvian idea of secularism. Nehru was firm in his definition of secularism that meant separation of religion from the political, economic, social and cultural aspects of life. Religion, in Nehru’s scheme of things, was a personal matter from which the state should disassociate at all costs.

But for Mahatma Gandhi, religion was an integral part of secularism. Gandhi, who agreed with Nehru on a range of issues, believed that the Nehruvian secular prescription would not work for India. Gandhi repeatedly said that “politics bereft of religion is absolute dirt.”

Indira sought to cultivate the majority community, accepting the invitation to launch the VHP’s ‘Ekatmata Yatra’, also called the ‘Ganga Jal Yatra.’ This was a nascent VHP’s first mass-contact programme, giving a glimpse that Hindu rituals and symbols could be effectively utilised for popular and political mobilisation.

Barely six months before her assassination, Prime Minister Indira sought to assure the majority community that, “if there is injustice to them or if they did not get their rights, then it would be dangerous to the integrity of the country.” Rahul is likely to follow in Indira’s footsteps to bring the Congress closer to the majority community.

Re-emergence of regional satraps: As a practitioner of decentralisation, state-level leaders are likely to get more prominence. With Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan, Jyotiraditya Scindia or Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh and Dr Ajoy Kumar in Jharkhand, the Congress under Rahul is set to witness new leaders across most states. The chief ministers of Congress-ruled states such as Punjab would get full autonomy in running their show. They would not be required to make weekly appearance in New Delhi to pay a visit to Rahul’s durbar.

Modernisation of party organisation: Rahul may not be able to usher in inner-party democracy, but iPhones and other smart phones are set to replace lot of paperwork at 24, Akbar Road.

Priyanka Gandhi and Varun Gandhi: Speculation is rife in the Congress that Rahul’s elevation may bring in sister Priyanka to the party organisation. If that happens, would Rahul reach out to cousin Varun Gandhi who is not having a great time in the BJP? The presence of Maneka Gandhi in Narendra Modi’s government is a big issue that would prevent Varun’s political rapprochement with the family. Priyanka must enter the Congress organisation in a supportive role closer to the 2019 parliamentary polls. I see her contesting from Rai Bareli in place of Sonia.

I feel the root cause of the problem in the Congress is that both Rahul and Sonia see themselves as the party’s trustees and not wielders of power (which is what they are).

(Photo: Reuters)
A 2014 picture of Rahul Gandhi with sister Priyanka. 

This delusion is destroying the Congress, but party leaders seem to be ignoring this crucial aspect. Congressmen look up to Gandhi family members as unquestionable leaders and, in return, expect electoral success, power etc.

From Nehru to Indira, Rajiv and Sonia, no Gandhi family member has failed or abruptly opted out of politics. As a result, Congress leaders do not wish to look beyond the Gandhis. Like the other Gandhis, Rahul will have to live with this delusion of grandeur.

(As told to Akanksha Kumar.)

(Rasheed Kidwai is a senior journalist with The Telegraph and is the author of ’Sonia: A Biography’. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)