In May 2014, general elections were held in India as they were held in the United Kingdom in May 2015, the country whose electoral system we adopted as our own. In the UK, the Labour Party got 232 seats, 24 seats less than it had obtained in 2010. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, resigned at once, owning responsibility for the defeat.
Meanwhile, in India, the Congress got 44 seats, more than 150 fewer than it had obtained in the previous elections. However, the main Congress leaders - the president, Sonia Gandhi, and the vice-president, Rahul Gandhi (who was the public face of the campaign) - stayed in their posts. They would not accept responsibility for their incompetent (not to say disastrous) leadership.
It is now a year-and-a-half since our last general elections. In that time, the Gandhis have further consolidated their hold over the country's oldest political party. This was manifest last Saturday, December 19, the day the Gandhis had to appear in court in connection with the National Herald case. It was a private case, filed by a private complainant, and yet a large phalanx of senior Congress leaders, including former Union ministers and chief ministers, had turned up to march with the accused to the court. Was this a show of solidarity and support, or merely of sycophancy? Most likely the latter. Congressmen (and Congresswomen) jostled to get closer to their leaders, seeking proximity to Sonia Gandhi, or else to Rahul Gandhi, or - if the frame around these two was already too crowded - at least to Priyanka Gandhi.
Why is the Congress so abjectly dependent on the Nehru-Gandhis? Before answering the question, let me first outline the objective reasons why I think the party's interests may be better served if it looks beyond a single family for its top leaders. The first reason I have alluded to; the fact that the Nehru-Gandhis led the party to the worst defeat in their history. A second reason is the fading of the family's charisma - with an ever younger electorate, no one remembers what Indira Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru may or may not have done for the nation. A third reason is that younger Indians are no longer so impressed with lineage or inheritance; they ask what your own qualifications are, not who your father or grandmother were. A fourth reason is that the heir-presumptive, Rahul Gandhi, has - as his decade in the business so abundantly shows -neither the brains, nor the heart, nor the physical stamina to be an effective political leader. A fifth reason is that restricting the leadership of an all-India party to a single family, a single gene pool, means closing off other sources of potentially better or more vigorous leadership.
For the Congress's long-term future, therefore, it may be in the party's own best interests to open its top leadership to a wider talent pool. But it has not done so, and shows no signs of wishing to do so either. What then are the reasons for the stranglehold of the Nehru-Gandhis on the Congress?
The first reason is that almost no one in the party can recall a time when the party was not controlled by the Nehru-Gandhis. It was in 1975 that Indira Gandhi anointed Sanjay Gandhi her political heir, and thus converted the Congress into a family firm. Ever since, except for a few years following Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, the party has been led by a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family. This has created a culture of psychological dependence, such that even Congressmen in their seventies look upon the Nehru-Gandhis as a little child would look to her mother. They have never lived apart from them, they cannot exist without them, they know no life without them.
A second reason is that, unlike this historian, unlike the tens of millions of Indians who voted against the Congress, grown men like Ghulam Nabi Azad and Mallikarjun Kharge, mature women like Sheila Dixit and Meira Kumar, still somehow believe that the family's name and reputation retains its halo. Whereas they are merely regional leaders themselves, the Nehru-Gandhis are viewed as having a cross-regional, cross-caste, cross-linguistic, appeal. Even if observers outside the party can see this appeal fade by the day, Congressmen inside the tent still think that Rahul can win them elections just as Nehru and Indira once did.
The relationship between the First Family and other Congressmen is akin to that between king and subject, or between lord and serf. The Nehru-Gandhis are seen as cut of an altogether superior cloth. Even if the (political) kingdom the family controls is rapidly shrinking, their subjects cannot ever imagine replacing them.
This faith, at once touching and foolish, in the family's alleged charisma is manifest in some Congressmen seeing 2014 as akin to 1977, a defeat from which Sonia and Rahul will bounce back as Indira once did; and in other Congressmen asking that Priyanka enter politics, in the bizarre belief that a family's fading appeal can be reversed only by another member of the same family.
A third reason why the Congress cannot dump the Nehru-Gandhis is that it is believed that only they hold the party together. They are the cement, the glue, that keeps in check personal ambitions and feuding factions. If they were to go, the rivalries between other leaders (currently working under the Nehru-Gandhis) would tear the party apart.
A fourth reason why the Nehru-Gandhis are so integral to the present and future of the Congress may be that they, or their close advisers, are in control of the party's finances. This, of course, cannot be confirmed - or denied. In spite of an order of the chief information commissioner asking that the finances of our major political parties be brought under the Right to Information Act, the accounts of the Congress, as of the Bharatiya Janata Party, remain hidden from public view, indeed, hidden even from most members of these parties themselves. Yet the belief persists, inside and outside the Congress, that the party's purse strings are closely controlled by a clique in or around 10 Janpath. If this were true, then this would partly explain why, although the Nehru-Gandhis may lead their party to defeat after electoral defeat, they shall remain impregnable within the Congress itself.
The facts that we know about the National Herald shall only add to this speculation. The night before I write this, I saw the former finance minister, P. Chidambaram, being interviewed on television. He claimed that since the National Herald was a Congress newspaper, it was entirely in order for the party to provide it with a loan, and entirely in order for the party's president and vice-president to own a majority of the shares. This begged the follow-up questions, alas not asked by the interviewer - were the shares held by Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi as individuals, or as president and vice-president of the Congress? If they left their party posts, would the shares then be transferred to the persons who succeeded them as president and vice-president respectively? If those questions had been asked, I suspect we would have seen even the urbane, quick-witted, P. Chidambaram struggling to clear the air that he had so adroitly clouded.
In an interview some months ago, M.J. Akbar launched a bitter attack on Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. He said that the Congress president's "devotion to her inept son" had made Rahul Gandhi the "spoilt child" of Indian politics. The mother's blind love for her son, claimed Akbar, had "ruined the party" and might, if left unchecked, "ruin the nation" too.
M.J. Akbar is now in the BJP; he was once in the Congress. But here he was speaking not as a BJP spokesperson nor as an ex-Congressman, but as a historian of modern India and the author of a largely sympathetic biography of Jawaharlal Nehru. For the historian in Akbar knows what the Congress once meant to the nation. He understands, and appreciates, its role in nurturing a countrywide national movement and then, after 1947, in building an independent and united India. Meanwhile, the democrat in M.J. Akbar knows of the significance of a healthy and robust Opposition, the kind of Opposition a Congress sans Mother-and-Son could in theory represent.
M.J. Akbar's spontaneous remarks were, of course, not at all reflective of the thinking in his party. For no 'BJP spokesperson' would, or should, be anguished at the thought of the impending ruin of the Congress party. (Narendra Modi has after all spoken of wishing to bring about a 'Congress- mukt Bharat'). But Akbar's comments resonated with this writer, who - although he has never been a member of any political party - is likewise depressed by the continuing institutional and moral degradation of a party that once meant so much to the life of this nation.