When Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost the 2004 parliamentary polls, I was asked by a TV channel if the party will survive. My reply that it would was not in keeping with the new mood. That footage was not used. The party is thriving today.
To a question posed about the Congress in 2014, my reply was similar. Political parties do not just wither away. Again, the footage was not used.
Congress, India’s “grand old party”, in dumps since that debacle, is picking up pace, at last. On November 19 and 20, it sought to pick up pieces from its past and to move ahead with hope.
A day after the birth centenary of Indira Gandhi passed, ignored by the government and without much commemoration outside of the party, came the announcement that Rahul, her grandson, will soon take over as the Congress President. A period of sluggish uncertainty may end, enabling the party to leap into an uncertain future.
Rahul will relieve, substantially if not wholly, his ailing mother Sonia who has led the party for over 19 years, the longest anyone has. The ‘foreigner’ tag will go with Rahul coming in.
But the Congress will have to live with the ‘dynasty’ jibes. Rahul will be the sixth member of the Nehru-Gandhi clan to head the 132 year old party.
It is a paradox that the party needs someone from this family to lead. Difficult to condone it, but given the “crab culture”, anyone else would split it and weaken it further when it is already at its nadir. The existence of many more such families in India’s political firmament can neither be an excuse, nor a justification.
It had worked before because a Nehru-Gandhi pulled votes. It worked with Jawaharlal Nehru and his charisma in the decade-plus after the Independence. It worked when Indira gave the right slogans and took actions that were pro-poor and anti-rich. Rajiv, too, gave hope to a young, emerging India.
That ability of Sonia and Rahul, notwithstanding the tactical victory of 2004, has been seriously questioned as evident from a string of electoral defeats.
Few expected great things from Indira, called “goongi gudiya” (dumb doll) by her detractors, when she became India’s prime minister. But she left behind a legacy, albeit mixed, of an “iron lady” who led the country resolutely through many crises.
In this era of populism, it needs noting that if there ever was a populist leader, it was Indira.
Now, few expect great things from Rahul, except die-hard Congressmen (and women) who are too used to a Nehru-Gandhi, enough to not even contemplate electing someone from among them.
Although Nehru nurtured her into politics, it was Indira who set the trend of family rule, and of working top-down. Despite his halting efforts to democratize the organization, Rahul, himself a product of this process, may try, but is unlikely to undo it. Internal contradictions and a cycle of frequent elections may prevent it.
The Gujarat polls campaign has seen Rahul spirited and biting, saying the right things mostly. He projects a ‘soft’ image in the face of Modi-led aggression. Although ‘programmed’ better by his aides, he speaks with spontaneity on substantial issues. After a dozen years of ‘probation’, he has arrived.
But that is no guarantee he will defeat Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah in their political backyard. Rahul’s leadership and vote-catching capacity will be repeatedly on test in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and other states that will go to the polls next year before the 2019 parliamentary polls.
He will have to carry the party deadwood despite his understandable preference for the young. He will need to introduce a measure political and ideological clarity among party-men who are buffeted by the Left-Right-Centre confusion and by advocates of “soft Hindutva” who had misled his father Rajiv. Like Rajiv, Rahul too, lacks political training.
To turn to Indira centenary, although Rahul tweeted that his Dadi was his mentor and his inspiration and guide in political work, the party missed the opportunity to unveil the leadership’s vision for a youthful India, especially when Rahul’s elevation, actually a change of designation, is being planned.
In ignoring her centenary, like it had done with Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary, the Modi Government has been true to its form, minimizing Nehru’s contribution and demonizing Indira as the perpetrator of the 1975 Emergency, and little else.
It was left to African leaders at the 2nd New Delhi Summit to recall Nehru’s role in rallying nations emerging from colonialism in the last century. And it was Russia that issued a commemorative stamp to honour Indira.
Political and ideological differences are expected in a democracy. But personal hatred seems to have made those suffering from an inferiority complex to ignore Indira’s contribution.
Undoubtedly, she left behind a shaky legacy, of personalization of power and diminished institutional capacity. She took many wrong decisions after allowing crises to fester. To name just one, she sent troops into the Golden Temple and eventually, paid with her life. People suffered and this was painfully evident in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.
Yet, the country cannot ignore her role in ushering the Green Revolution, ending years of abject dependence on imports and when imports could not be afforded, through largesse like food shipments under the American Law PL 480. It paved the way for food sufficiency that India attained in later years.
It needs recalling that Indira was the first to talk of Indian pride after initial years of struggle, ending much of that post-colonial sentiment.
Under her leadership India decisively won the only war it has in a millennium, liberating Bangladesh and dismembering the inveterate adversary. It was a strategic masterstroke. Pakistan has never been able to recover from that blow. Who can forget that act of defiance, of a rally she addressed at Delhi’s Ramlila Grounds while the war was still on?
That was a time India invited sympathy from world community. Even as Western governments resented her moves, people in those very countries — the likes of Ted Kennedy, Andres Malraux, Beatles and Yehudi Menuhin — appreciated India’s humanitarian role in sheltering ten million refugees for nearly a year.
She organised the nuclear tests in 1974 that earned India much opprobrium, but also grudging respect as an emerging regional power.
Even world leaders like Richard Nixon found the hard way that she was not to be trifled with. They got clear message that with her leading India, no overt or covert action could destroy national unity.
She was — after Mahatma Gandhi — the greatest mass leader India has seen, criticized by the middle class for her autocratic ways but connecting with the ordinary man and woman on the street or in far-flung villages in a way that no one has since, including the current Prime Minister.
Late journalist-analyst Inder Malhotra listed two attributes that make her stand out among those who have ruled India since the 1960s. “One was her absolute refusal to compromise with India’s sovereignty, unity, supreme interests, honour and autonomy; the other, her matchless empathy with the poor. Whatever one might say about her radical rhetoric, the poor always believed that she cared.
“She was truly a pan-Indian leader, drawing her strength from all communities.”