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What Aurangzeb? Congress’ History Proves Democracy Is In Its DNA

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With my usual penchant for giving Modi opportunities to twist my words, I seem to have given him the opening to claim, as usual quite falsely, that I had equated Rahul Gandhi becoming Congress President with the Mughal system of dynastic succession.

In fact, I had contrasted, not compared, the Mughal system with the Congress system of democratically electing their leader, adding that Shehzad Poonawalla, currently having his fifteen minutes of fame, was welcome to file his nomination in the election process then going on at the Congress headquarters at 24, Akbar Road.

Indeed, it was Rahul Gandhi himself who had declared years ago that he was more than ready to fight a contested election. Perhaps he had in mind the precedent of Jitendra Prasada having stood against Sonia Gandhi in 2000. That no one, not even Shehzad Poonawalla filed his nomination, is hardly Rahul Gandhi’s fault.

(Photo: Erum Gour / The Quint)
Modi, whose acquaintance with history is slight, as demonstrated so often, needs reminding that the history of independent India begins with Mahatma Gandhi deciding that Jawaharlal Nehru should be the country’s first prime minister even though Sardar Patel had heavier backing within the party.

It was then that the same Sardar refused to countenance Nehru resigning over his failure to carry conviction with the Congress Parliamentary Party for the April 1950 Nehru-Liaquat pact. Sardar Patel was the obvious successor if Nehru were to be allowed to resign. But he insisted that India needed Nehru at the helm, in an act that Rajmohan Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson and Sardar Patel’s biographer (besides being a recognised, reputed scholar and writer), reckons as the Sardar’s greatest moment.

Thus, Nehru became PM because of the Mahatma and remained in that position because of the Sardar. This is the starting point of the Nehru family’s association with the building of contemporary India.

A History of Democratic Succession

Nehru refused to nominate his daughter, Indira, to the succession. Indeed, Indira Gandhi’s latest biographer, Sagarika Ghose, contends that Nehru did not want her to succeed him. His sudden death led to a contest of wills between Lal Bahadur Shastri and Morarji Desai for the prime ministership.

Kamaraj undertook a one-by-one poll of the entire Congress leadership across states and declared Lal Bahadur Shastri the winner. The new PM was only 62 years old. In the normal course, he should have remained at the helm for at least 15 years. That Shastri died within 20 months at Tashkent when he was not quite 64 was entirely unanticipated.

(Photo: Erum Gour / The Quint)
Once again, Morarji threw his hat into the ring. There was a contest and the reluctant debutante, Indira Gandhi, won. It was a perfectly democratic succession.

Then the very leaders, collectively called the Syndicate, decided Indira Gandhi was too independent a leader for their tastes, especially when, as prime minister, she decided to devalue the rupee by a massive 57 percent to save the economy.

They turned on her and mobilised a substantial part of the Congress leadership against her. But Indira Gandhi hit back with her ‘stray thoughts’ on the economy at the Glass House in Bengaluru.

Indira Gandhi Remained in the Democratic Fray

Not heeding the wise counsel that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones, the Kamaraj-led faction began the ‘stoning’ of Indira Gandhi. Weeks later, she demonstrated in the Presidential elections that brought veteran Congress labour leader, VV Giri, to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, that it was she, not the Syndicate, who ruled the hearts of the party.

The Syndicate retaliated by throwing her out of the Congress. Is there any element of dynastic succession in all this? She had to get herself another symbol and form in effect a separate party to finally take on the Syndicate and their wholly unprincipled allies in the contest of the century to establish who is Indira Gandhi.

In March 1971, it became clear with her over two-thirds electoral victory, that Indira Gandhi was not only the beloved leader of the true Congress but also the only one with the support of the people to become PM once again. Nine months later, even the Jana Sangh was hailing her as ‘Durga Mata’!

Then followed the much-regretted Emergency.

(Photo: Erum Gour/The Quint)
Indira Gandhi instituted it; she ended it – with an election she badly lost, even her own seat. Unfazed, she remained in the democratic contest.

Soon enough, the alternative Janata government collapsed like a house of cards. General elections followed and Indira was once again in power, not for dynastic reasons but entirely through the democratic process.

Rahul’s Intention to Further Democratise Congress

After her assassination, and Rajiv Gandhi’s provisional succession, the expectation was that he would take his time to consolidate his position before risking an election. Instead, Rajiv stunned the nation by announcing elections within days of taking over. Of course, that election reaped for him and his party the largest mandate any PM has ever won – way ahead of any other PM then or since. Was that dynastic succession?

For seven long years after Sonia Gandhi’s husband Rajiv Gandhi was brutally blown up, two Congress presidents, PV Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri, came and went. The party turned to Sonia to literally beg that she take over. With immense reluctance and self-effacement, Sonia eventually did her part.

The wolves pounced. To the thunder of vicious racist rhetoric, they challenged her legitimacy to contest an Indian election. But the party stood by her, and were eventually rewarded when she humbled the greatest BJP leader of all, Atal Behari Vajpayee. How did this amount to dynastic succession?

Now we have Rahul ending his 15-year probation. Rahul has not only declared his intention to further democratise the party, he has also shown he means it both by the efforts he has made with the students’ Congress and the Youth Congress as well as the innovations made in this round of party elections to identify and ensure worker participation at each booth level for elections to the higher echelons – from block president to party president.

(Photo: Erum Gour / The Quint)

Rahul’s Open Invitation to Oppose Him

Besides, Rahul openly and repeatedly invited candidates to contest against him. That his is the only nomination fielded is testimony to the support and affection he enjoys with hundreds of thousands of Congress workers in every nook and corner of the country.

It is a manifestation of the trust they have that Rahul will pull off a similar miracle to his predecessor’s in 2004 by bringing Opposition parties together to present a united front to Modi and his minions in 2019.

Rahul has already demonstrated his political mettle in Gujarat, where he has brought together a myriad of discontents to put up a joint front in Modi’s home state against gross misrule (paagal vikas). Rahul had earlier demonstrated this legerdemain in Bihar.

Now his principal task will be to help build bridges between Mayawati and Akhilesh in Uttar Pradesh so as to give Yogi Adityanath and Modi the electoral thrashing they deserve in 2019.

Just as Sonia Gandhi stoppered the mouth of her racist critics in 2004 (Sushma Swaraj still has her hair on her head!), so also will Rahul emerge as the most credible leader of the nation when Modi is brought to his knees eighteen months or less from now.

(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a former Congress MP and the author of ‘A Time of Transition: Rajiv Gandhi to The 21st Century’. 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.)

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