The political genome of the Indian National Congress is marked with the Nehru-Gandhi imprint. Just like business families survive and thrive through the genetic engineering of P&L(Profit & Loss), so does the Congress genus that thrives in the sap stream of India’s most famous family tree.
Never before has a single clan dominated the pan-Indian political jungle, or any other part of the world, for a century. Only the Gandhis hold such a privileged record. In 1919, Pandit Motilal Nehru presided over the Congress session held in Amritsar, six months after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
The Nehru patriarch hogged the headlines for his presidential address, which called for non-cooperation with the British. One hundred years later, in 2019, his 47-year-old fourth generation descendant, Priyanka Gandhi, grabbed national attention on 500-odd national and regional news channels plus over 5,000 publications.
However, unlike Motilal, silence is PriGa’s weapon for now. She has abstained from declaring war against her rivals. She joined the list of half a dozen other Congress general secretaries as just another addition. However, it fooled no one. Officially she is in charge of 38 Lok Sabha constituencies in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Unofficially, she is the new Congress cartographer.
Everything is in a name when it comes to the Congress party, since designations and geographical limitations are merely cosmetic proprieties for the Gandhis, who have been running the outfit as their personal principality for over five decades. Just ‘Priyanka’ does not matter. Priyanka Gandhi does. Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi’s daughter is an integral part of the continuing ecosystem of one-family rule.
Brand Gandhi is the only political product to survive the savageries of history’s turbulence, tenaciously thriving in spite of the hyphenated triumphs of their foes and adversaries. In no other democracy has a single dynasty been able to retain the mandate for long. Even the charismatic Kennedys and boisterous Bushes have lost their mojo.
But in India, the Gandhis have retained their minimum political market share and visibility in spite of massive electoral setbacks. Unlike many other national leaders, they do not have caste or regional emojis attached to their personas. Children of perennial privilege anointed with triumphs and tortured by tragedies, they stay in the national eye as part of the great Indian political mythos. They have never allowed a successor from outside their own family to helm the party.
Or let an interloper grow powerful enough in a big state to become a contender for the gilded chair on Akbar Road. Therefore, Priyanka’s formal induction as just another office-bearer is a mere formality to provide her constitutional legitimacy in the party and consolidate control officially over the 130-year-old organisation.
No newbie, PriGa is like every other Nehru or Gandhi—an active participant in all crucial parleys to resolve thorny and complex organizational issues. She played an important role in the selection of the chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Since 1998, when Sonia took over as Congress chief, both RaGa and PriGa have been her in-house advisors.
Unlike other political leaders, the Gandhis are both reclusive and exclusive, who do not let an outsider into their inner circle. Their priorities—political and social are clear: their India was parented and patented by Motilal Nehru in the 1930s at Anand Bhavan, the family seat in Allahabad. Handing over a part of Uttar Pradesh to his great-great-granddaughter is a well thought out strategy to recapture India’s largest state, whose 80 Lok Sabha MPs could make or break the government in New Delhi.
Ever since H N Bahuguna, and afterwards V P Singh, rebelled against the Gandhis, the family has been very careful in their choice of leader to head the UP Congress, settling on insignificant politicians who would be in no position to win their seats by themselves. Expect Priyanka to confidently use her official status to formally connect with not only workers but also other like-minded parties.
In spite of the varied opinions of their opponents about their relevance, the Gandhi Parivar vis-a-vis the Sangh Parivar has politically perpetuated itself as an institutionalized individual brand and not an ideology. While the BJP is a cadre-based outfit, the Congress derives strength from its mass base. Even after its worst ever performance in 2014, one can find at least a couple of Congress workers in every Indian village who swear by the Gandhi family.
The reason: Congress is basically a meal ticket party. Gandhi is the password to swing open the doors of power. During the past seven decades, a Nehru or a Gandhi has led the country with comparatively brief exceptions. Motilal presided over the Congress plenary session twice, in 1919 and 1928.
His only son, Jawaharlal Nehru, was picked to deliver his first presidential address to the AICC in 1929 in Lahore, with his adoring father in the audience. Nehru Jr. was elected president again in 1936, 1946, 1951 and 1954—a clear sign Motilal was not immune to the patriarchal Hindu tradition of choosing his son over his daughter, Vijayalaxmi Pandit. However, Jawaharlal’s only offspring, Indira, happened to be a girl. She was the one who set the trend of marrying outside the chromosome connection: she wed Feroze Gandhi, a Parsi, just as her son would marry the Italian, Sonia Maino, later. Nehru catapulted Indira to the Congress presidentship when she was just 42, in 1959. After his death, Indira struggled to stay on in politics.
But the genes do not take ‘No’ for an answer: after a brief stint as Lal Bahadur Shastri’s Minister for Information and Broadcasting, she won the backing of the Syndicate and became the prime minister in 1966. The seniors soon discovered that the ‘goongi gudiya’ was an instinctive politician, who split the party and created her own Congress while her mentor-turned-foes fell around her like ninepins. In the mid-1970s, reeling under political and judicial pressure, she turned to younger son Sanjay, after whose death she brought in Rajiv Gandhi to help run the party.
Following the familial footsteps, he too became the Congress chief and subsequently prime minister. The Congress temporarily slipped out of Gandhi control after his assassination in 1991. But the two non-Gandhis – P V Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri-- did not survive the internecine battle unleashed by Gandhi loyalists. Both were unceremoniously ousted to pave the path for Sonia Gandhi in 1998. She ran the Congress by herself for about five years and finally drafted Rahul in 2004, encouraging him to contest the Lok Sabha election from Amethi.
After holding the post for a record 19 years, she formally chose her son and not daughter to replace her as party boss. Two years later, Rahul has chosen his sister to be his trustworthy partner in the political battle to carry forward the family legacy. The numbers speak for themselves: of the 18 Congress presidents since 1950, five were Nehru/Gandhi family members who reigned for 35 years, while 13 outsiders were at the helm for 34 years.
What gives the Gandhis the courage and right to lord over their organisation is their track record of winning elections. Of the 16 Lok Sabha polls since 1952, nine were won by the Congress under the leadership of a Nehru or a Gandhi.
Two were lost by non-Gandhi prime ministers or Congress presidents. The Congress lost only three general elections under the leadership of a Gandhi—the first in 1977, when India Gandhi was party president, and twice under Sonia, in 1999 and 2014. The 2019 Lok Sabha votefest will be the first election to be led by a Gandhi brother-and-sister tag team. Rahul has 15 years of political experience with varied reputations and results.
The Congress has reached into the legerdemain of its past and fashioned a reincarnation. Priyanka is being projected as both a Gandhi and the female face of the party. After Indira Gandhi, the GOP couldn’t rally women voters completely behind ‘videshi bahu’ Sonia.
As the copyrighted desi Gandhi beti, the party hopes PriGa will be nationally perceived as the new Indira Gandhi. It is confident that with no other woman leader enjoying such all-India charisma present in the BJP or regional parties, the supremacy of the Gandhi Parivar over the healthy and wealthy Modi-led Sangh Parivar is a given. The Congress has always been and will remain a party of Gandhis, by the Gandhis, for the Gandhis.
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