Family Ties

How the Gandhis kept a party but lost the country

The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has long used personal appeal as a tool to retain its control over the Congress party. S / AP Photo
01 January, 2014

“What has become of our great organisation? Instead of a party that fired the imagination of the masses throughout the length and breadth of India, we have shrunk, losing touch with the toiling millions.”

“Political parties are not giving adequate voice to the man on the street. It’s our job to do that … I am going to put all my efforts in transforming the organisation of the Congress party and … give you an organisation that you can be proud of and has your voice embedded inside it.”

“I am not afraid to say that the Congress has become moribund. It has scarcely a single leader with a modern mind … Congress has never succeeded in evolving into a modern political party.”

HERE’S A SIMPLE GAME: match each quote to the correct name and date—Indira Gandhi in the late 1960s, Rajiv Gandhi in 1985, and Rahul Gandhi in 2013.

The quotes belong to different eras of the Congress, but they echo the same sense: that the party is an organisation with a logic of its own, independent of the person leading it. On 8 December, when Rahul Gandhi stood with his mother Sonia to articulate what he thought were the lessons to be learnt from the Congress’s failures in the recent assembly polls, he was only indulging in rhetoric that traces back to his grandmother—rhetoric that deflects individual responsibility by criticising the state of the party.

This approach begins by denying the root of the problem. Like Indira and Rajiv, Rahul doesn’t appear to question the authority that allows him to pass judgment on the party in the first place. Indira was speaking of a party that had been presided over by her father for four years, and by her for a year. When Rajiv Gandhi spoke as the new president of the party in 1985, his mother had been president for the preceding six years. At the time of Rahul’s post-election press conference, his mother had been party president for 15 years.

This state of affairs dates back to 1969, when Indira Gandhi split the Congress over the election of the Indian president. As prime minister, she chose to back VV Giri over the party’s candidate, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, who was supported by the party president, S Nijalingappa. Her aims then were exactly those that Rahul says he is looking to reverse today: she wanted to break the ability of the party organisation to function independently of her, to break the hold of leaders who saw her not as an unquestionable authority but as a nominee of the party who could be appointed and removed as circumstances required. Predictably, Indira’s revolt broke up the party; while a great many legislators joined her, Congress stalwarts such as Nijalingappa and K Kamraj, who had also been party president, asserted their authority by expelling her.

Dividing the Congress was a step that even Indira’s father, who also battled for dominance of the party, had never conceived. After Jawaharlal Nehru was forced to accept Purushottam Das Tandon as the party president in 1950, Nehru fought Tandon within the party and eventually secured his resignation in September 1951. In doing so, Nehru altered the relationship between the party president and himself as prime minister—for the rest of Nehru’s life, the Congress president was his explicit nominee and was subservient to him. After his death, however, the party organisation reasserted its strength.

The importance of men such as Kamraj and Nijalingappa at the time showed that their authority had independent sources; like Nehru’s, it lay in the work they had done for the party during the Independence movement. After Independence, the party built a “relatively legitimate authority structure” that was “anchored by local notables—the landed, the wealthy, the panchayat leaders, the heads of local cooperatives, and the caste elites”, the political scientist Atul Kohli writes in his book Democracy and Discontent. Although Nehru may have been unchallenged as a national leader, in their respective states of Madras and Mysore, Kamraj and Nijalingappa—to choose just two examples—mattered as much as Nehru did nationally.

Indira, perhaps because she lacked the power within the Congress that her father had, chose to do away with the party. Despite their hold over the party, the men she broke with were no match for her in the electoral battle that followed in 1971. Given a choice between the old organisation and the personality cult of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty combined with Indira’s populist approach—which involved bank nationalisation, the abolition of privy purses, and the slogan Garibi Hatao—voters backed Indira. It is a lesson the family has never forgotten. Whenever in trouble, the Gandhis have tried to rework this approach—with diminishing returns.

The party that Indira Gandhi invented anew in 1969 was built around a personality cult, but it sustained itself through her ability to triumph electorally. The old system of organisational loyalty was now replaced by a network of patronage in which people who paid obeisance to the personality cult were rewarded by the benefits that come with a share in political power. There was no longer any question of people being attracted by the party’s vision, because no such thing existed; it is easy enough to define the term Nehruvian, but impossible to give a coherent shape to what Indira espoused. If today what we call the Congress does not have an organisation independent from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and its patronage, it is because Indira excised this possibility in 1969.

This model of politics soon began to show its weakness. The Congress was first voted out of power in 1977, after the Emergency. Although Indira returned to power in 1979, by the time Rajiv was defeated in the general election of 1989 it had become clear that the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty no longer had the appeal necessary to repeat the triumph of 1971. After Rajiv’s death in 1991, Narasimha Rao became the Congress president, and the party managed to cobble together a coalition government under him; it was the first time since 1969 that the party had been guided for any meaningful length of time by someone who was not from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. An electoral defeat five years later confined the party to the opposition until 2004.

With each successive stint out of power, the party’s ability to retain its supporters dwindled. Even where the Congress could win elections, it was not the “same type of political force it was in the 1960s”, Atul Kohli notes; by the mid 1980s, the Congress system “had almost vanished”. This was a natural corollary of the split in 1969: any network of patronage can survive only if it can assure benefits in the near future. Although the party won in 2004 and 2009, the victories were mostly exercises in coalition building; they did not demonstrate any newfound electoral strength among the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, and could not reverse the party’s disintegration at the level that matters—in the states, where local patronage is handed out.

Over the past two decades, the youngest Congress leaders with the kind of grassroots support that made Kamraj and Nijalingappa electorally formidable in their own right were Digvijaya Singh, Ashok Gehlot and YS Rajasekhara Reddy. But their affiliations to the party dated back to the Rajiv era or even earlier. In the 15 years Sonia has commanded the party, no new leadership that can claim a support base of its own has emerged. Anyone with that sort of political strength can do equally well or even better outside the party, as Mamata Banerjee has shown. Instead, the party has come to increasingly rely on the sons and daughters of former leaders—another form of patronage—and on mid-level managerial entrants who join the party to share in power but bring no expertise that can help it when it is not in power. The current surfeit of lawyers (such as Kapil Sibal, Salman Khurshid and Ashwani Kumar) and heirs (such as Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot) is clear evidence of the party’s failure to attract meaningful new leadership. Although it is often argued that the presence of such men shuts out leaders who have greater electoral strength, the truth is quite the reverse: the managerial class in the party is not the cause of the problem, it is only a symptom.

In the absence of a defining vision, the patron-client system can no longer sustain itself in states where the party has little or no chance of coming to power again. In those places, the party is withering away. The electoral defeat that begins this cycle in any given state may not reflect the party’s strength there. For example, in Uttar Pradesh, the party’s first defeat was caused not by a weakness in the party but by the rise of caste and Hindutva politics. In Madhya Pradesh, it was caused by the failure of the Digvijaya Singh administration. However, once it becomes clear that the defeat is not easily reversible, the party organisation rapidly declines. This has already taken place in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It is now being replicated in states such as Gujarat and—as the latest assembly election results show—in Madhya Pradesh and perhaps even Chhattisgarh.

It is against this background that the folly of Rahul Gandhi’s attempts at reforming the party becomes most evident. He can only focus on long-term organisational restructuring if he can deliver electoral success in the meantime, so that the possibility of patronage keeps the party together until an alternate structure is put in place. Otherwise, there will be nothing left to reform.

Although it is difficult to envisage what the party’s new structure might be, it doesn’t really matter. In the recent assembly elections, Rahul, who was in charge of ticket distribution and was the face of the campaign, showed that he is no vote-getter; he cannot even hold an audience at a rally. Without being able to deliver on this count, all his attempts at reforming the Congress are meaningless.

This is already evident in Uttar Pradesh. The party was last in power there in 1989. By the time Rahul started focusing on the state, in 2009, the Congress was largely confined to the family’s loyal boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareilly. Despite his best efforts, the party was unable to emerge as a challenger at the local level in the assembly elections. Today, the party in the state stands where it was before Rahul started working there—both electorally and organisationally. It is as if he had never done any work at all.

In states where Rahul has not intervened, the results are much the same. Since Digvijaya effectively lost the assembly elections in 2003, the party’s performance in Madhya Pradesh has shown almost no improvement, despite the fact that it has a number of important leaders there, such as Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Arjun Singh’s son Ajay Singh. Without a government in the state, none of them have been in a position to dispense patronage where it matters, locally. In the entire Hindi belt, the Congress is left with a chance of keeping the organisation afloat only in Rajasthan—but even there, the comprehensive defeat of the party does not augur well.

The almost permanent decimation of the Congress in the Hindi belt is not something that can be reversed by projecting people such as Jairam Ramesh or Nandan Nilekani. These figures, however articulate they may sound in Delhi and however useful they maybe in government, bring nothing to the electoral prospects of the party. In the organisation that Rahul Gandhi has the fantasy of shaping in the long term, they may play crucial roles. But they contribute nothing to the process of getting there. And it is this process that is proving to be Rahul’s undoing. His diagnosis of the party’s ills, which seems to point to some failure of the organisation independent of the Nehru-Gandhi family, is wrong. The electoral ability of the party is only a reflection of the electoral ability of the family—and it’s been that way ever since Indira.