Is the Rajasthan crisis the end of the road for the Nehru-Gandhi family? Perhaps it is too early to call time out for them, but their status as the high command stands lowered if their writ does not run, and party leaders openly defy them. It is ironic that the man who was supposed to be the most-trusted person of the Nehru-Gandhi family is being seen as inflicting a deep wound on both them and the Congress. This crisis, in my opinion, is the biggest the family has seen since the violent death of Rajiv Gandhi; for Sonia Gandhi personally, this is her most difficult moment since she assumed the post of party president two decades ago.
After the freedom struggle, Jawaharlal Nehru was the supreme leader of the Congress with no direct challenge to his leadership. There were serious differences of opinion with Sardar Patel, but he never challenged Nehru’s authority. Even in 1950, when Purushottam Das Tandon was elected the party president with Patel’s blessings, it was never construed that this was done to undermine Nehru’s authority. And when Nehru realised that Tandon was trying to change the course of Congress ideology, he put his foot down and Tandon was left with no option but to resign. Nehru was so charismatic that despite a humiliating defeat to China, no Congress person could ask for his resignation. After his demise, Lal Bahadur Shastri became Prime Minister. And after his untimely death, Indira Gandhi emerged as the leader of the party and defeated Morarji Desai to become Prime Minister.
The members of the ‘Syndicate’ who thought that Indira Gandhi would be a ‘goongi gudiya’ (mute doll) were in for a rude shock; during the election for president in 1969, when she refused to endorse the party’s official candidate, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, the split in the party was inevitable. She asked her supporters to vote for VV Giri. To take the fight with the ‘Syndicate’ to its logical conclusion, Indira Gandhi took a left turn. The nationalisation of banks, abolition of the privy purse and Garibi Hatao (end poverty) programs were designed to boost her image as a popular leader and decimate the conservative wing of the Congress. After her defeat in 1977, her authority was again challenged by leaders like Brahmananda Reddy. The party split once again in 1978 but the Congress led by Indira Gandhi survived and successfully formed the government in 1980 and 1984.
Her son Rajiv Gandhi was not meant for politics; he was misled by his close friends and that led to the defeat of Congress due to the Bofors scandal in 1989. After his assassination in 1991, senior leaders of the Congress tried to persuade Sonia Gandhi to head the party, but she refused. This was a golden opportunity to create a new Congress without the Nehru Gandhi-family, but it failed, and finally the Congress begged Sonia Gandhi to save the party. She was greatly handicapped because of her foreign origin and confronted the opposition of the troika of Sharad Pawar, PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar. But the majority of Congressmen showed confidence in her leadership. Pawar and company left the party. If Sonia Gandhi had chosen to be the Prime Minister, instead of Manmohan Singh, there was no one to raise a banner of revolt against her. Since then, her authority has never been challenged despite two embarrassing defeats in 2014 and 2019.
Despite her foreign origin, Congress leaders had no choice but to accept Sonia Gandhi’s leadership for three reasons.
One, from 1991 to 1998, when the Congress was in the hands of non-Nehru-Gandhi leaders, a very lacklustre leadership was delivered. Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri were uninspiring leaders. They had no charisma and no appeal outside the Congress.
Second, Rao and Kesri could not rise above their personal interests. They had the opportunity to give a new direction to the Congress, but they ended up as factional leaders. If Rao was constantly at war with Arjun Singh and Sharad Pawar despite being Prime Minister, Kesri was constantly threatened by the presence of Pawar. Both Rao and Kesri created their own cliques.
Third, under their leadership, the party was depleting fast. Several state units started dissociating themselves from the Congress. Party factions led by GK Moopanar in Tamil Nadu and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal formed their own regional parties, which ultimately led to the total erosion of Congress in these two states. The party could not decide what to do vis-a-vis Ram Mandir and Mandal politics and the Congress lost major ground in UP and Bihar, which meant it did not have a clear majority and formed alliance governments in 2004 and 2009.
Sonia Gandhi had many handicaps to begin with, but she tried to rise above factional politics. She projected herself as final arbiter in the faction-ridden party. Her decision to not become Prime Minister was a master stroke. Her political power transformed into moral authority. Even after losing badly in 2014, she was revered in the party. In 2017, she passed the baton to Rahul Gandhi, and he resigned after the embarrassing defeat of 2019. Sonia Gandhi’s undoing began when she failed to act decisively after returning as interim president. Because of her indecision, the party became rudderless. The BJP-led Sangh Parivar and the government unleashed unimaginable assaults on Congressmen and there was no one to come to their rescue, Out of hopelessness and despair, many left the Congress to join the BJP’s bandwagon. Slowly, but surely, the myth which had been built over decades about the Nehru-Gandhi family as the final protector and guardian of the Congress started eroding. In politics, if the leader is not seen to be fighting for the party cadre and is seen as unable to win elections, the status quickly shrinks.
In the Rajasthan crisis, by being seen as partisan and in favour of Sachin Pilot, Sonia Gandhi broke the cardinal principle of leadership – that those who occupy the highest office should be seen as neutral. If in 2019 she lost political power, she has now surrendered moral authority. It was the perfect ground for an act of defiance. And a most trusted aide did that. The Gandhi leadership of the Congress, whether it is direct or by proxy, will never be the same again.
(Ashutosh is author of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ and Editor, satyahindi.com.)