Sanjaya Baru | Dissolving a proprietorship: Congress must reinvent to relive
India’s prime ministership has now become a proprietorship, wrote Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in his fictionalised autobiography, The Insider. The observation in the book is dated circa mid-1970s. That was when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi inducted her son Sanjay into the ruling party and allowed him unchecked authority within the government. The idea of dynastic succession within the Nehru family, however, goes far back and all the way to 1928. When Mahatma Gandhi selected Jawaharlal Nehru as the person who would succeed Motilal Nehru as president of the Indian National Congress, Jawaharlal’s mother Swarup Rani was ecstatic. “A king passing on the sceptre of the throne to his logical successor,” she exclaimed.
So why criticise Mrs Sonia Gandhi when she reportedly offered to resign “along with her children” from their positions within the Congress Party, accepting responsibility for the party’s ignominious defeat in the recent state Assembly elections. It would have been one thing for the president of the party to offer her resignation, and quite another for her to be doing so as the head of a family. But then, the party is, after all, family property.
When those concerned with the drift in the Congress Party say that they would like Mrs Sonia Gandhi to remain the party president but seek an assurance that her son would not be thrust on them as her successor, they are essentially asking her to behave like a political leader and not like a mother or daughter-in-law. The so-called G-23 within the Congress are trying to bell a cat that has tasted far too much cream and is thus in no mood to be tamed.
While the Congress Party was trying to deal with the problem of dynastic succession, Prime Minister Narendra Modi once again fired a salvo that has now acquired wider political relevance. The BJP, Prime Minister Modi declared, will go forward to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections seeking an end to “parivaarvad” in politics. In saying so, he was not just targeting the Congress Party but several other regional political parties that are viewed as family enterprises. Indeed, to paraphrase Narasimha Rao, even chief ministerships have become proprietorships.
On the issue of “parivaarvad”, even the Congress dissidents are on weak ground. Many of them not only happily accepted “parivaarvad”, but also thrived on it. The only Congress leader who disapproved of dynastic succession when Rajiv Gandhi took charge as Prime Minister and party president was Pranab Mukherjee. He had to subsequently leave the party and then be rehabilitated, but never forgiven.
Narasimha Rao did not challenge Rajiv Gandhi’s elevation but questioned Sonia Gandhi’s special status, treating her as the widow of a slain PM rather than as a PM-in-waiting.
When the Sonia loyalists sought to isolate and defame Narasimha Rao and finally made her party president, everyone who is now in the party went along with the consequences of that coup, namely the reinstallation of dynastic succession. They blamed Narasimha Rao for his political choices that in fact had both party and Cabinet approval. They enjoyed the fruits of office he facilitated with his Chanakyan politics that helped the party remain in power for a full term, but shrugged off all culpability for the government’s actions. They acquiesced in the party erasing Narasimha Rao from its official history.
In its undivided effort to return the party’s leadership to the Nehru-Gandhi family, the entire party blamed Narasimha Rao for all their setbacks and handed the party to Sonia Gandhi, who made it clear from day one that she would want her son to take charge of the party at the appropriate time. The problem for her and her family is that the “appropriate” time has been getting pushed back since Rahul Gandhi has failed to clinch even a single decent political victory after 10 years of wielding power.
The G-23 had many opportunities to push back against an inevitable dynastic succession that Sonia Gandhi sought. None of the dissenters of today said a word when an opportunity presented itself. They had an opportunity to put Rahul Gandhi in his place in 2009 when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh led the party back to power with an improved electoral performance. Yet, no one in the party was willing to publicly give credit to Dr Singh for the 2009 victory. They even lionised a cub crediting Rahul Gandhi for that victory.
In September 2013 Rahul Gandhi chose to position himself as a rebel within his own party and mocked the Union Cabinet for approving an ordinance that helped Lalu Prasad Yadav in his battle with the law. No member of the Manmohan Singh government publicly defended the Prime Minister, who presided over that Cabinet meeting. He found himself isolated and under attack at home minutes before his meeting with US President Barack Obama in Washington D.C. Twice these Cabinet colleagues could have spoken up for their PM rather than genuflect before the heir-apparent, and twice they failed to do so.
No wonder the Congress Party’s First Family does not take the dissenters too seriously. A political coup in democratic politics requires guile and cunning but also a sense of timing and, most important, a political agenda and slogan that impart moral stature to the dissenters. Indira Gandhi staged a coup against her party leadership in 1969 by painting herself in ideological colours that appealed to the public and placed the party leadership on the defensive. The G-23 have so far failed to create a narrative that elevates their political status and places “The Family” on the defensive.
The only hope for those who wish to see a future for the Congress Party without dynastic succession being thrust on them is for the dissenters to reach out to former Congress leaders like Mamata Banerjee and reunite a splintered party. More important, they have to craft an alternative political agenda that appeals to large sections of the population. They owe this to the 20 per cent of the electorate that has continued to remain loyal to the party despite the proprietorial pettiness of a decaying leadership.