Rahul Singh : With the almost certain victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led alliance in the ongoing Indian general election, will this spell the political end of the Gandhi/Nehru dynasty? The dynasty has dominated India for so much of the country’s 67 years since Independence, that it is difficult to imagine India without one of them at the helm, or as the power behind the helm. First, there was the towering presence of the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, then his daughter, the formidable Indira Gandhi, followed by her elder son, Rajiv (both Indira and Rajiv were assassinated). Though in the past decade, the prime minister has been the scholarly Dr Manmohan Singh and there were also other prime ministers for shorter periods, the “First Family” has clearly overshadowed them. Even under Singh, there was no doubt in anybody’s mind that the real power lay in the hands of Rajiv’s widow, the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, President of the Congress Party. She was the person who placed Singh in the prime minister’s chair in 2004, perhaps because he posed no threat to the Gandhi family. Two recently released books by key former government officials have made this amply clear. One of them wrote that confidential files relating to important policy matters were first shown to Sonia, before being given to Singh. The books, though admiring of Singh’s honesty, portray him as a weak man who did not have the guts to stand up to Sonia at crucial times, nor to put in his resignation over corruption scandals involving his ministerial colleagues whom he was unable to fire. When the Congress under Indira Gandhi lost heavily in the 1977 election following her dictatorial “Emergency” rule (Indira and her son, Sanjay, lost their own seats as well), it was widely thought that the Gandhi family would fade away. Indeed, Rajiv and Sonia seriously considered leaving India for good, blaming Sanjay for the election debacle and the downturn in the family’s political fortunes. However, the infighting in the then ruling Janata Party government and its failure to provide good governance enabled Indira Gandhi to make a victorious comeback. Sanjay’s death while flying a stunt plane catapulted a reluctant Rajiv (he was himself a commercial pilot then) into his brother’s place as heir apparent. His mother’s assassination and the sympathy wave that followed in the next general election, cemented his place as prime minister, with a huge majority in Parliament. When he, in turn, was assassinated, there was no direct family member to take his place, since Sonia’s foreign origins came in the way, and her two children, son Rahul and daughter, Priyanka, were too young. Which is how Narasimha Rao stepped into the breach. It was under Rao’s prime ministership that the destruction of the Babri mosque by Hindu fanatics took place, communally polarising the country and enabling a BJP-led alliance to come to power. By then, however, Sonia had mastered the political scenario and under her leadership the tables were turned, much to everybody’s surprise, in 2004, and again in 2009. The “family” was back in power. But the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), as the Congress-led party was called, though it did well in its first five years, started unraveling later, accompanied by a succession of shattering corruption scandals. Unfortunately for the Congress they coincided with its projecting of Rahul Gandhi as the successor to Manmohan Singh, though the former was not officially named as its prime ministerial candidate. Enter the enigmatic and polarising figure of Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. He has been drawing much bigger crowds than Rahul and he is also a far more mesmerising speaker. One of his avowed aims is to firmly throw the Gandhi family into the dustbin of history. He has also tapped into a powerful feeling, even among many erstwhile Congress supporters, that the Gandhi family has let the country down and that it is time for a change – a change that brings strong and decisive leadership to the country. However, there is a member of the Gandhi family that has kept in the background, even though she is probably the most charismatic and appealing of them all: Priyanka Gandhi Vadhra. She bears a remarkable resemblance to her grandmother, Indira, speaks well and has the ability to draw crowds. But she – and her mother as well – decided to put Rahul forward, so that Priyanka could concentrate on bringing up her family. She also has a major, perhaps crippling, handicap: her husband, Robert Vadra. Once, a small-time businessman he has almost magically morphed into a real-estate tycoon, the owner of properties worth hundreds of crores, thanks to the generosity of a chief minister and property developers. If Priyanka were to come on to centre-stage (at the moment she is only campaigning for her mother and brother), the knives would be out for her husband and his dubious deals. There is another “Gandhi” in the electoral fray: her cousin and son of the late Sanjay, Varun Gandhi. Like his mother, Maneka, he belongs to the Opposition BJP. He won in the last election, even though he made a noxious, though politically profitable, “hate speech” against Muslims. Priyanka has accused him of “betrayal” of the Gandhi family’s ideals. But should Varun win and rise to prominence in the BJP, it could mark the emergence of another part of the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty. And, who knows, Priyanka may do what her grandmother, Indira, did in 1979 and bring the family back into power. So, don’t write off the “family” and dynastic politics just yet, whatever the outcome of the election.
(Rahul Singh is the former editor of Reader’s Digest, Indian Express and Khaleej Times)