No soap opera this

It's the same old theatre of the absurd. One family as the saviour of the party. One family which must rule

Vijay Sanghvi Delhi

The national elections in India and Pakistan in March 1971 catapulted three personalities to new heights from where they dominated the political arena of their countries for years. In India, Indira Gandhi received a massive mandate in the Lok Sabha polls. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto emerged victorious in what was then known as West Pakistan, while Mujibur Rahman swept to power riding a massive popularity wave in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). 

All three met their ends in a violent manner. Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in August 1975. Military dictator Zia-ul-Haq hanged Bhutto on April 4, 1979 after a farcical trial. Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her own security guards on October 31, 1984.

The March 1971 elections to elect Pakistan's national assembly was the beginning of an internal strife between the east and west wings of the country, as the west wing was not willing to accept Mujibur Rahman as prime minister even though he had the numbers. The political friction culminated in a short armed conflict between India and Pakistan and mass upsurge and armed struggle in East Pakistan. The defeated Pakistani army had to surrender to Indian forces, and Bangladesh was born.

These three personalities have transformed the politics of their nations — this cannot be defined in traditional terms. It was a dynasty for their parties rather than for the nation. They made their political apparatus absolutely dependent on one family's dominance. So much so, all other dominant or talented personalities faded away into oblivion.

Indira Gandhi was not a tall political personality when she became the prime minister in January 1966 in a ballot to decide the leader of the Congress in Parliament. She could win against formidable Morarji Desai because other regional leaders were afraid of the rigid Desai. They chose her so that they could wield power from behind. Ironically, later, she sensed danger from the same regional leaders who were instrumental in her installation. To close confidantes she even confessed once that “if nine men could make her prime minister, they could also unmake her”.

She was driven by political compulsion when she removed the firmly entrenched regional bosses who controlled the party structure. She seized the opportunity provided by the death of President Zakir Hussain in May 1969. She forced the great divide of the Indian National Congress in November 1969 and called for early elections in December 1970, after pretending to drive Indian politics to the Left of the Centre, leaving the bewildered old guards utterly clueless.

Her slogan of “two square meals to everyone as fundamental right” and 'Garibi Hatao' made the masses identify with her. Her success beyond expectations in the March 1971 polls against united opponents led to the belief that she did not really need a party to mobilise the masses. The party moved away from the Congress's mass-based political culture to an individual-centeric, authoritarian apparatus.

Indira Gandhi was again disenchanted with her colleagues who stood by her during the crisis when she was unseated after the Allahabad High Court verdict dismissing her victory in Rae Barelli. Some of them attempted to marginalise her after the electoral debacle. After her defeat in the March 1977 elections, party president DK Barooah — who had earlier coined the infamous slogan 'India is Indira and Indira is India' — did not even bother to invite her for the first meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC). It was a crude attempt to ignore her.

She struck back with vengeance by again dividing the party in January 1978 and throwing out the remaining heavyweights. Consequently, she chose men and women who just could not pose a threat to her, they were so politically rudderless. She even appointed chief ministers who had no strength of their own in the state legislature party and imposed state ministers hand-picked by her.

Indira Gandhi shut all democratic party forums and free expression of views. Participants were hand-picked for debating forums. She addressed parliamentary party meetings before and after the sessions without giving an opportunity to others to express their views. She nominated all functionaries for political, government or party offices. Dissent had no place. The party became a sycophantic apparatus, disconnected from the people, unable to mobilise the masses.

Her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, master-minded the draconian era of the emergency to wreak havoc on Indian democracy. His mother allowed this arrogant bully to run amok. He became an extra-constitutional authority. Opposition, trade union, farmers' and student leaders were jailed. There were arrests all over the country. There were mass violation of human rights and civil liberties. Senior Congress leaders were publicly humiliated by Sanjay Gandhi. His dictatorial methods and brutalities led to public outrage but Sanjay Gandhi had become a political monster calling the shots with his own coterie, often, even outside his mother's control.

Indira Gandhi became lonely when he died in Delhi in an air crash while spinning loops in his single engine plane in 1980. She had no capable colleagues on whom she could rely. So she thrust political office on a reluctant Rajiv Gandhi, an airline pilot. It was a message to the party that he would be the heir and inheritor of the dynasty. When she was assassinated, Congress leaders, instead of following the tradition of appointing a senior minister as caretaker prime minister till the parliamentary party could choose a leader, chose the dynasty way. President Zail Singh was virtually coaxed into administering the oath of office to Rajiv Gandhi even without waiting for other democratic formalities by the parliamentary party.

Rajiv Gandhi treated his party members in the same way his mother did. He depended entirely on his classmates for his backroom operators. But his massive vote in the 1984 election had confirmed in the minds of the rank and file that only the Gandhi family can win an election for the Congress, and only this family must rule the country. Rajiv Gandhi bungled in national and international politics repeatedly with his ad hoc sense of politics — but the party worshipped him as god.

He did not even have a valid poll plank in the polls of October 1989. His media-created 'Mr. Clean' image was badly damaged by the Bofors scandal. He lost the elections, but did not allow the two governments that followed in 1989 to function. The 'Shouting Brigade' which swore loyalty to him had a field day while seniors were pushed to the sidelines.

After his death in May 1991, loyalists proposed that Sonia Gandhi should take over. She refused. PV Narasimha Rao became prime minister. But the Gandhi family's shadow lingered on the shaky Rao’s regime. Even while he was prime minister, Sonia Gandhi was being treated as a superior authority by the dissenters.

The party again turned to the Gandhi family in 1998 by thrusting the  party on Sonia Gandhi who was now ready to step into the political arena. She walked away in anger when three party leaders questioned her 'Italian origin' and returned only after the three were summarily shunted out. Under her, the party won only 112 seats in the Lok Sabha in the 1999 elections. But this was coalition era, and the Congress had lost its caste and class base in major states. The party won only in 83 constituencies on its own strength, and 63 seats through an alliance with other parties.

Members of the Congress chose to ignore the ground reality of shifting politics in post-Mandal, post-Hindutva India, and kept on hanging on the 'Gandhi family magic'. The drubbing that the Congress received in most state assembly elections in 2007 has not taught them a lesson. Even while the UPA regime has ditched the 'aam admi for the pro-rich 'India Shining Part II', they are still chanting for a bigger role for Rahul Gandhi as the saviour of the party. However, after the debacle in UP and Gujarat, doubts have begun to creep on the ability of “our Bilawal… can he really deliver?”