Rahul Gandhi is finally going to take over as president of the Congress party. Speculations about that had been made for years, but every time everyone thought he had come close to becoming the party chief he proved them wrong. Yet there was never any doubt that it was he who was going to be the successor to Sonia Gandhi. For the harsh truth is that in the popular mind the leadership of the Congress had got identified with the Nehru family. During the struggle for independence, the Congress had several leaders and if there was any synonym for its leadership it was Mahatma Gandhi, not Nehru. There was a galaxy of leaders in the Congress even after Nehru took over as the first prime minister of independent India. The party leadership was not identified with Nehru, even though he was the most towering and most popular leader after Gandhi.
Yet Nehru had a charisma. He was a Fabian socialist and spoke for the rights and welfare of the downtrodden that formed the majority of the population. He earned sympathies of the poor as a result. As he was prime minister for more than sixteen years, he became identified with the leadership of government and the party. The party leadership got even more identified with the Nehru family after Indira Gandhi took over as prime minister. It was not easy for her in the beginning to claim the leadership of the party and government as a Nehru legacy. There were powerful leaders in the party who, even when allowing her to take over as prime minister after the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, were determined to not let the Congress leadership be identified with the Nehru family. In 1969 Indira Gandhi broke out of their control and that is when the identification of the party leadership with the Nehru family became complete.
Although the Congress is often ridiculed for depending for its survival on the Nehru dynasty, the truth is the electorate has been very rational and pragmatic about it. After the death of Nehru, the Congress chose Shastri as prime minister, and the country accepted him. They still hold him in high respect for India’s victory in the 1965 war with Pakistan, and his slogan, “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” is even now often cited by politicians of all streams. There were two other prime ministers of Congress-led governments, P V Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, who were not from the Nehru family. And the electorate accepted them too.
So, it would be wrong to presume that the electorate accepts only a Nehru as Congress party and government leader. Nor should they be accused of a blind adulation of the Nehru family. They elected Indira Gandhi with a massive number when she nationalized commercial banks and when she led India to liberate Bangladesh. But they swept her out of power after the 19 months of internal emergency imposed by her. They elected Rajiv Gandhi, a Nehru, with a massive mandate after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, but they threw him out five years later. In 2004, they voted decisively in favour of Sonia Gandhi, a Nehru by marriage, who had taken over the party leadership. But they reduced her party to 40-odd number in the Lok Sabha in 2014.
The point we are driving at is: the electorate is not blind. It judges a government not by which dynasty or party the prime minister is associated with but by his or her performance and his or her sensitivity to people’s concerns. Rahul Gandhi has no big advantage just being a descendant of Nehru. If people will want to try him as prime minister in the future they would try him not because he happens to be a Nehru but as someone who is young and untainted and holds out a promise and could be placed on trial for five years. If he will fail to perform or be insensitive to people’s concerns he will be thrown out just as Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi-by-proxy was.
The same will be the case of the dynasties in other parties. There are a few leaders in the BJP whose wives and sons are also in electoral politics. Most of the so-called regional parties that are allies of the BJP or Congress have one family in control of leadership. The trouble with the Indian voters is that once they develop faith in a political leader they begin to worship him or her as an idol. The members of the idol’s family are treated with great love and respect as they are seen attached to the personality of their idol. Yet, the idols have proved to be mortal in the electoral world.