The Congress, which ruled India for over 54 years out of 72 since Independence is in the throes of survival. Unless it rids itself of its dynastic image, it may perish. Ever since it was founded in 1885 by William Octavian Hulme, a liberaly-minded Britisher, in order to reform the Indian social and political systems, it has undergone a metamorphosis under several leaders, pre-eminently Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi . Since Nehru became the first Prime Minister of India in 1947, it became the dominant ruling party by winning a majority in seven out of 12 general elections and led the ruling coalition a further three times, heading the central government for more than 54 years.
Nehru was the longest serving Prime Minister and his premiership extended over 16 years and 286 days from 15 August 1947 to 27 May 1964 when he passed away. The three general elections he fought in 1952, 1957 and 1962 were won with huge majorities of 364, 371 and 361 seats respectively out of 494 seats. Indira Gandhi, who was PM twice ~ from 24 January 1966 to 24 March 1977 and from 14 January 1980 to 31 October 1984 ~ was the second longest serving PM with a total span of 15 years and 88 days. Nehru’s uninterrupted premiership of 17 years can be described as the golden era of India’s democracy. He laid the foundation of development in higher education, agriculture or external relations or nuclear power.
He was the architect of policies that have brought India to the position of the world’s 7th economic power today. If the present PM, Narendra Modi, or anyone else has any doubts about him they should read his most authentic biography, Nehru: The Making of India by M J Akbar, the former Minister of State for External Affairs in the BJP government. It is lamentable that Nehru has been reduced to the third or fourth place among the four top PMs since Independence, according to a section of the print media. During her first stint as PM (1966-77), Indira Gandhi fought three elections in 1967, 1971 and 1977. She won the 1966 elections with a relatively small majority ~ 283 out of 520 seats ~ mainly due to internal bickering and the 1965 war with Pakistan.
She won the 1971 elections comfortably with a majority of 352 out of 518 seats. However, she lost her third elections to Morarji Desai’s Janata Party in 1977 by winning only 189 seats out of 542. The main reason for her defeat was the Emergency which she had imposed on the country to subdue her political opponents in Delhi, Gujarat, UP, MP, West Bengal, Odisha and Rajasthan. The Janata Party built up a strong coalition of opposition parties to defeat Mrs Gandhi. The 21-month Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi on 25 June 1975 is the most controversial period of independent India’s short history during which she suspended the Constitution and ruled by decree.
It resulted in suspension of civil liberties and human rights, imprisonment of her opponents on a mass scale, censorship of the press and even a forced sterilization campaign spearheaded by her son, Sanjay Gandhi. Arguaby, Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency sowed the seeds of the Congress decline. I had watched the disastrous impact of the Emergency from London where I lived. One of the strongest opponents of the Emergency was the late Bernard Levin, the distinguished columnist of The Times, who condemned the measure as well as Mrs. Gandhi in his column. If the Emergency was the nadir of her political career, then its acme was the creation of Bangladesh which would not have been possible without her active military support.
Her assassination in October 1984 brought her elder son Rajiv Gandhi to power. He was young, handsome and politically inept to become India’s youngest PM at 40. Unlike her mother, who became PM one year and 7 months after her father Nehru’s death, and who served as I&B minister in Lal Bahadur Shastri’s cabinet, Rajiv was the first dynastic PM to succeed her mother immediately after her assassination. No member of the Nehru-Gandhi family has become PM since Rajiv was assassinated in 1991. He was a controversial head of government who is remembered for the Bofors scandal and for his attempt to defeat the LTTE in Sri Lanka.
The journalist, Tavleen Singh, has written in her biography of Rajiv Gandhi that: “I knew him well from the days when he was not a politician and found myself in a unique position to tell the story of how a Prime Minister with the largest mandate in Indian history ended up as such a disappointment”. The next two Congress governments which followed ~ that of P V Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh ~ had their own achievements as well as problems. The Narasimha Rao government introduced major economic reforms and liberalised the economy. At the same time the BJP’s actions led to the demolition of Babari Masjid and nationwide Hindu-Muslim riots.
Manmohan Singh’s government was riddled with many problems and several corruption charges. Sonia Gandhi, as Congress president, not only chose Singh as PM in 2004 but reappointed him as PM in 2009 when he was 77. She ignored many senior leaders who were more eligible than Singh. Her decision did not go down well with the party and it is one of the reasons for the decline of the Congress. The party met its Waterloo in 2014 when it won only 44 seats out of 543 seats in the Lok Sabha ~ the lowest number since 1947 (the same Congress had won 404 seats out of 542 in 1984). In 2019 it won 52 seats, only 8 more than in 2014. This only goes to show that the party did not learn any lesson from the humiliating 2014 defeat.
Both in 2014 and 2019 Rahul Gandhi led the election campaigns and in December 2017 he was rewarded by his mother Sonia who made him the Congress president. The Congress’s senior leadership comprises eminent and experienced persons such as Chidambaram, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Kapil Sibal, Singhvi, Anand Sharma and others and hardly any of these leaders participated in the national campaigns. I am not sure if it was the party policy or Rahul’s policy. Most of the election rallies as well as local meetings were addressed by Rahul. He is not a great speaker and most of his speeches were bereft of electoral content.. For example, in the 2019 election he dwelt mainly on Rafale. He also used abusive language and kept repeating chowkidar chor hai (the caretaker is a thief ) about Narendra Modi which, I think, proved counter-productive (Sonia Gandhi also referred to the BJP as zeher ki kheti (field of poison) in one of her speeches.
I must blame their speech-writers and advisers for such abusive language and I wonder if one or two senior party leaders read them or reviewed them before they were delivered. Recently a senior leader, Subramanian Swamy, said that only members of the Nehru-Gandhi family can become Prime Ministers. He said it with such authority and conviction that it appeared true. But it is not. There have already been at least four Prime Ministers, who do not belong to the dynasty, and they were equally successful. In the present chaotic and uncertain state of the Congress when several suggestions and solutions are being put forward by central as well as regional leaders, the party should opt for a leader outside the Nehru- Gandhi dynasty. There are many leaders who will come forward if Sonia Gandhi, Priyanka, and Rahul decide to take a ‘sabbatical’ from politics.
(The writer, an NRI in London, is a retired UN/World Bank consultant. He is also a freelance contributor and author)