Arati R Jerath
It is ironic that Rahul Gandhi has chosen to divest himself of the responsibility of running the Congress in the 50th anniversary year of his grandmother Indira Gandhi’s bold move to take control of the grand old party and eventually turn it over to her family.
Not only has he walked away, he has also made it clear that he does not want another Gandhi to succeed him. This effectively rules out his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, although there are murmurs and muted demands for her to take over.
For Congress workers at large, Rahul's decision amounts to heresy. Most of them cannot envisage a Congress without a Nehru-Gandhi scion at the helm. Rahul may deem it otherwise, but the party has run on dynastic levers for far too long to function without them.
To understand when and how the DNA of the Congress changed as it morphed from a party that led the freedom struggle into a family-run concern, it is necessary to go back to the tumultuous events of 50 years ago and the aftermath. The year 1969 was a watershed year. It was the year Indira Gandhi split the Congress to lead away a majority faction that called itself Congress (Requisitionists) but was more popularly known as the New Congress. Over a period of time, she not only crafted it into a party that bore little resemblance to the one she had cast aside, but she also fundamentally altered the nature of Indian politics, as evident in the manner in which Narendra Modi has used and perfected her tools of personality-driven populism to dominate public imagination as she once did.
There was no 24x7 news television in 1969. Had it been there, channels would have gone into a frenzy to capture every dramatic detail leading up to the split and after.
The death of Jawaharlal Nehru in May 1964, followed in less than two years by the untimely demise of his successor Lal Bahadur Shastri in January 1966, left a huge leadership vacuum. Congress heavyweights were agreed on one thing: none wanted Morarji Desai to take Shastri’s place.
It was Tamil stalwart K Kamaraj who suggested Indira Gandhi's name and convinced the heavies to come around. Dubbed ‘goongi gudiya’, she seemed pliable enough. Plus, she had the right pedigree as Nehru’s daughter. Interestingly, when Kamaraj approached her, he is reported to have told Indira Gandhi that her father’s shoes were too big to be filled by one person. Decision-making would be a collective responsibility, he said.
As events proved later, Kamaraj and the old guard had completely misread and underestimated the ‘goongi gudiya’. Indira Gandhi soon showed that she was made of sterner stuff. Collective responsibility was not her style. She would settle for nothing less than complete power.
Tensions escalated rapidly as Indira Gandhi sought to assert herself. On one side was the old guard of the Congress, also known as the Syndicate. It included big leaders like Kamaraj, S Nijalingappa, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, Atulya Ghosh, Morarji Desai, SK Patil, Asoka Mehta and a host of others who wanted to control not just the party but also the government. Pitted against them was a crop of radical Left-leaning thinkers and activists, dubbed the Young Turks, who were nurtured and promoted by Indira Gandhi. Prominent among them were Chandra Shekhar, Mohan Dharia, Krishna Kant, C Subramaniam, Chandrajeet Yadav and Mohan Kumaramangalam. She fought the Syndicate through them.
As often happens, battle lines were drawn on ideological differences. The Syndicate favoured right wing economic policies. The Young Turks pushed for a more progressive socialist agenda which they forced the Congress to adopt at the All-India Congress Committee session in June 1967 following a poor showing in the General Election that year. The 10-point programme included the abolition of princely privy purses and nationalisation of various sectors. However, it stopped short of endorsing the most controversial proposal from the Young Turks — bank nationalisation. That would come later, in 1969, when Indira Gandhi was ready to take matters to a head.
But behind the right versus left clash was a fierce struggle for power. Indira Gandhi was not ready to be a puppet and she moved craftily to outwit and outmanouvre the Syndicate and get the old guard off her back. The turning point was the presidential contest in 1969 when Indira Gandhi pulled the rug from under the feet of the official Congress candidate Sanjiva Reddy by putting up VV Giri as an Independent and calling for a ‘conscience vote’. Giri won, but before that, Indira Gandhi had set the stage for a stormy confrontation by forcing the All-India Congress Committee to adopt a resolution calling for the nationalisation of all banks.
The resolution in hand, she sacked Morarji Desai from the post of Finance Minister and promulgated an ordinance nationalising banks. Giri’s victory was the sweetener as she showed who’s the boss. In November 1969, then Congress president Nijalingappa expelled her. She retaliated by splitting the party, taking with her 220 Congress MPs and 446 of the 705 AICC members.
The final and fatal blow to the Syndicate came in the 1971 General Election. As her opponents ganged up against her using ‘Indira hatao’ as their war cry, she retaliated with the populist ‘garibi hatao’ slogan, projected herself as the messiah of the poor and made her party irrelevant by framing the campaign around her personality. She took the nation by storm, returning to power with 44 per cent of the popular vote and 352 seats in the Lok Sabha.
From then on, she proceeded to systematically cut down any leader she perceived as a threat. She sidelined the Young Turks, marginalised powerful chief ministers and surrounded herself with loyalists. It was but a small step towards centralising power in her hands and later, her family’s.
This is the party that Rahul Gandhi has inherited. However noble his intentions may be, surely he must realise how utterly naïve he is to think that he can change its DNA after 50 years of family domination. Perhaps, his mother Sonia and sister Priyanka understand the Congress better. Certainly, they show no desire to walk off into the sunset and leave the party to fend for itself.