Until S. Nijalingappa was the president of Indian National Congress (INC), the party was professional, led by a galaxy of leaders. The Congress in West Bengal was headed by Atulya Ghosh, Chandrabhan Gupta in Uttar Pradesh, Sachchidananda Sinha in Bihar, Biju Patnaik in Orissa, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, Yashwantrao Chavan in Maharashtra, Morarji Desai in Gujarat, K. Kamraj in Tamil Nadu and the like.
Following the death of President Zakir Husain, there followed a presidential election. Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy was proposed by the Congress as its candidate. Indira Gandhi did not agree and informally encouraged VV Giri to stand as an independent candidate. The Congress leaders called the Syndicate by the press did not approve of Indira’s irregular behaviour. The voting that followed went in favour of Giri, who became the President of India. From the viewpoint of the Congress party, this was tantamount to the grossest indiscipline. They therefore, expelled her from the party.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called her group of MPs and other followers the Congress (Ruling) and with the support of the Communist parties in the Lok Sabha, continued to be the Prime Minister. The rest of the Congressmen, led by the Syndicate, called themselves the Congress (Organization). The structure of the party, the real estate and various committees like the PCCs and DCCs remained with the organization. For a year or two, members, whether senior or junior, continued to cross sides. Mostly, the flow was from Organization to Ruling.
The Congress (R) continued to be in power until March 1977; then came the post-Emergency election, which reduced the ruling Congress to 160 seats, won mostly from the south. The Hindi heartland sent only two members to the Lok Sabha, one from Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh and another from Rajasthan. The Congress then ceased to be ruling and called itself the Congress (K), initial of K. Brahmananda Reddy, ex-chief minister of Andhra Pradesh.
Over the months, Indira Gandhi let it be known that she would like to be the president of the party; without this privilege, she could not carry on. This issue was discussed at length during the December 1977 AICC meeting. The majority answer was negative. The meeting ended on the 31st of the month and before leaving the hall, she let it be known that she would be available at the Glass House, which was well known in Bangalore. Exactly four AICC members followed her there; two of them being the late Kamalapati Tripathi and Subrata Mukherji, who is at present a cabinet minister in West Bengal.
It was soon announced in the press that a new party had taken birth, and was named the Congress (I). In due course, the Congress (K) members began walking across to the Congress (I). A few who differed formed their own rump, one example being the Congress (Socialist). In 1978, Indira Gandhi contested a bye-election to the Lok Sabha from the Chikmagalur constituency in Karnataka. The election was well managed, especially with the help of chief minister Devaraj Urs. Her opponent was Veerendra Patil of the Janata Party who had earlier been Chief Minister of the state. By 1979, rumours had started flying about the future of the Janata Party government. It was rumoured that Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay was maneuvering with Chaudhary Charan Singh’s supporters to bring down the Moraji Desai government, which eventually fell on 28 July 1979. It was replaced by a government led by Charan Singh, supported from the outside by the Congress.
The new Prime Minister did not have the confidence to face the Lok Sabha. Fresh elections had to be called before the end of six months, which brought Indira Gandhi back to power, with Sanjay Gandhi as her de facto deputy, although officially, he represented only the Amethi constituency.
Hardly anyone had the courage to complain openly, although many whispered about there being family rule. In retrospect, there is no doubt that between Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay, a dynastic tradition had been introduced in the Congress and soon enough, this contagion spread to other political parties. Very sadly in June 1980, Sanjay Gandhi crashed near the Safdarjung airport in Delhi while flying a two-seater aircraft. Thereafter, for quite a while, it was believed that Indira Gandhi’s preoccupation was to somehow persuade her elder son Rajiv, who was then an Indian Airlines pilot, to join the Congress and thus replace Sanjay. She did eventually succeed and in May 1981, Rajiv contested a bye-election in his deceased brother’s Amethi constituency.
Although Rajiv was not politically savvy, he began dabbling in Congress affairs as much as he could. He was soon designated general secretary; the message was that he was party president Indira’s number two.
He did not have a political aptitude, but the party flatterers saw to it that he enjoyed the pomp and glory of his office. Many a Congressman could see the blunders Rajiv was making, and some even whispered their fears.For example, in Gujarat, the Congress had been looked upon as the most Leftist party but Rajiv Gandhi, his behaviour, as well as what he wore and used gave a contrarian impression. His Ray-Ban glasses, Gucci footwear, fancy watches as well his fondness for pork cutlets all gave him the image of a young, handsome man overflowing with wealth. A number of Congressmen remarked in private that their party was earlier referred to by the common folk as apni party, i.e., our party. That popular impression would soon die, they feared. There was general agreement on one point, and that was that Rajivji’s demeanor was that of an archetypal yuvaraj (crown prince) of India.
Then, the assassination of Indira Gandhi on 31 October 1984, shocked the nation. By 11 am, BCC Radio news confirmed that she was no more. Yet, All India Radio as well as Doordarshan merely reported that she had been shot at by her security guard and moved to the AIIMS hospital. Believe it or not, this report was repeated until 6 pm. By then, President Zail Singh as well as Rajiv Gandhi had managed to reach Rashtrapati Bhavan; the former from West Asia and the latter from West Bengal. Rajiv was sworn in as Prime Minister, without him being elected as the leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party. Such was the power of the dynasty, which ignored even a statutory election.
In 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu. There was no readymade heir. His children Rahul and Priyanka were too young. The search began for the weakest but acceptable substitute. Rajiv’s widow Sonia Gandhi’s choice fell on PV Narasimha Rao, who had retired; most of whose baggage had reached Andhra Pradesh, whose heart was reported to be functioning at part capacity, and who had no record of popularity. That Rao turned out to be such a capable and decisive person was a subsequent bolt from the blue. That was sufficient for Sonia Gandhi to feel “enough is enough; let me take the reins in my own-hands.”
The 2004 and 2009 general elections were fought under her leadership with Dr. Manmohan Singh being given the power of attorney from day to day as Prime Minister. Rahul Gandhi had entered politics, but did not seem to have the confidence to handle a single portfolio in the ministry. Yet, as favourite babalog, he and his sister could tear to pieces the public statement of the PM’s policy.
The Congress had dominated Indian politics so much and for so long that it was like a university of politics, college and school rolled into one. Most political parties now appear to have caught the fever of dynasty, for better or worse. In the north, there are the Akalis, and the Samajwadis in UP, the Lalu clan in Bihar and the TMC in Bengal which seems afflicted by the same malaise lately.
The south is also not free of this bug, with the DMK and the Gowda Janata Dal being examples. Come to Maharashtra, where we have the Shiv Sena and Sharad Pawar’s NCP. Whither Indian democracy?
The writer is an author, thinker and a former Member of Parliament