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India's Political Dynasty The Nehru-Gandhi-Family determines the course of politics since four generations

Rasheed Kidwai

/ 10 Minuten zu lesen

Sonia Gandhi (2. von rechts) mit Sohn Rahul (links) und Tochter Priyanka Gandhi Vadhera (rechts) bei einer Wahlkampfveranstaltung im Jahr 2004. (© AP)

It is said that once conqueror Timur the Lame held discourse with the famous historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun about the fate of dynasties. Khaldun propounded that the glory of a dynasty seldom lasted beyond four generations. The first generation is inclined towards conquest, the second towards administration. The third generation, being free from the necessity to conquer or administer, is left with the pleasurable task of spending the wealth of its ancestors on cultural pursuits. Consequently, by the fourth generation, a dynasty has usually spent its wealth as well as human energy. Hence, the downfall of each royal house is embedded in the very process of its rising. According to Khaldun, it was a natural phenomenon and couldn't be avoided.

Set in a democratic world of contemporary Indian history, rise and fall of the great Nehru-Gandhi family seems to be indicating at soundness of Ibn Khaldun formulation. Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) who fought for country's independence from British imperialism as Mahatma Gandhi's closest associate, was architect, his daughter Indira Gandhi (1917-1984) expanded, winning war (against Pakistan and creating Bangladesh in the Indian subcontinent) and emerging as one of 20th century's most powerful personalities. Indira's son Rajiv Gandhi (1944-1991) too became prime minister of India, experimented a lot and paid heavily. Rajiv's Italian born widow Sonia Gandhi (1946) is head of one of the world's oldest and India's most influential political party – the Congress. The fourth generation of  Nehru-Gandhi family represented currently by Rahul Gandhi perhaps has all the good intentions but things are not clicking at all for him who is seen by most Congressmen as party's prime ministerial leader.

Curiously, Nehru-Gandhi family has no relation or family ties with illustrious and spiritual Indian leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi or Mahatma (saint) Gandhi. It was merely a coincidence that Jawaharlal's daughter Indira was married to Feroze having a Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi) surname. Indira's son Rajiv, daughter in law Sonia and grandson Rahul therefore used Gandhi as their surname.

Jawaharlal Nehru: First Prime Minister of Independent India

Gandhi und Jawaharlal Nehru während einer Tagung des All-India Congress Committee, August 1944

The Nehrus were initially Kauls of Kashmir, who were invited to Delhi in 1716 by the Mughal king, Farrukh Siyar, who had a sense of scholarship and was known to house poets and men of letters in his grand durbar. In Delhi, they lived by a canal. This canal was to play an important role in the future history of their family. The word for canal in Persian is nahar, which, in Urdu, became nehar. The local people addressed Pandit Kaul "as one who lived by the canal", or Nehru.

Jawaharlal was born on 14 November 1889. He was sent to Britain to study at Harrow, a prominent boarding school in London and then moved to Trinity College, Cambridge where he took a degree in natural sciences – chemistry, geology, botany. Jawaharlal attended lectures of George Bernand Shaw and spent most evenings discussing Friedrich Nietzsche's perspectives. When he sailed back to Bombay in August 1912, Jawaharlal described himself as a "queer mixture of East and West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere."

After a brief legal practice, Jawaharlal gave up his profession to join full time liberation movement from the British and by the time First World War (1918) was over, he was front ranking leader of the Congress under Gandhi's leadership. Jawaharlal emerged as a visionary, a thinker and leader who understood India – both old and new. His book Discovery of India written in imprisonment (1942-46) made a strong case for India as historic nation and its right to be sovereign. Jawaharlal served as interim prime minister when the British organised elections for a constituent assembly and Congress party won a majority of seats.

After India got independence on 15th August 1947 Jawaharlal served as the first prime minister of free India and held the post until his death in May 1964. He implemented moderate socialist economic reforms and committed India to a policy of industrialisation. He became one of the key spokesmen for the non-aligned countries of Africa and Asia, many of which were former colonies that wanted to avoid dependence on any major power. However, despite his efforts to maintain cordial ties with neighbours, Indian-Chinese border disputes escalated into war in 1962 and Indian forces were decisively beaten.

Indira Gandhi: Extraordinary Political Acumen and Sense of Realpolitik

Indira Gandhi (© Public Domain)

Jawaharlal had not groomed daughter Indira as a successor but at the time of his death, she had emerged as a powerful leader in the Congress. Jawaharlal was succeeded by Lal Bahadur Shastri as prime minister who made Indira the country's information and broadcasting minister. Shastri died in Tashkent in January 1966 soon after signing a peace pact with Pakistan which had gone on war with India.

Indira's appointment as Shastri's successor was not through consensus as a powerful lobby within the Congress forced internal elections among members of Indian parliament belonging to the Congress party. Indira received 355 votes against rival Morarji Desai's 169. The factors that favoured Indira against Desai were many. As daughter of Jawaharlal, she was seen as a national politician. In a multi-religious, multi cultural country like India, Indira was not implacably devoted to any particular religion. She had wide ranging contacts internationally and was alive about problems of villages in the country. As prime minister, she took oath affirming her allegiance to Indian constitution than swear in the name of God.

A war with Pakistan that resulted in creation of Bangladesh in 1971 made Indira both popular and powerful. She won general elections riding high on garibi hatao  (remove poverty) slogan. Indira era saw the radicalization of Congress policies, programmes and leadership. She displayed her extraordinary political acumen and sense of realpolitik. She kept pitting one Congress leader against the other to deal a body blow to the conservatives during the nationalization of banks, the abolition of the Privy Purse and the presidential polls. Privy Purse was a payment made to the 565 royal families of princely states as part of their agreement to first integrate with India in 1947.

Sanjay Gandhi: Daring, Impetuous and Contemptuous of Rules

When everything looked smooth for Indira and India, her younger son Sanjay emerged as an extra-constitutional authority squeezing inner party democracy and the right to dissent. By the time Sanjay died in June 1980, the process of deinstitutionalization of the party system was complete. Sanjay was daring, impetuous, contemptuous of the rules, a danger to himself and others.

Though Sanjay did not hold any public office, his influence prompted Indira to impose Emergency. It was proclaimed on June 26, 1975 and lasted 21 months to deal with what Indira Gandhi described as the "threat of lawlessness and anarchy." Under Emergency, tens of thousands of people were thrown into prison and Parliament and the courts were made ineffective. But by early 1977, Indira restored constitutional rights and allowed general elections. She faced wide public ire resulting in defeat of her own election and fall of Congress as the ruling party of India for the first time since independence. However, the government of the Janata Party lead by Indira's foe Morarji Desai did not last long. Early 1980, Indira was back as prime minister.

Indira's son Sanjay, having won parliamentary polls was somewhat a changed man but on June 23, 1980, he was flying a Pitts S-2A two seater which crashed into a tree killing himself and the co-pilot instantly. Indira was devastated.

Rajiv Gandhi: Reluctant to Join Politics

Der indische Premierminister Manmohan Singh (rechts), Kongress-Partei Präsidentin Sonia Gandhi (links) und Rahul Gandhi (Mitte), Sohn von Sonia und Rajiv Ghandi, zollen dem ehemaligen Premierminister Rajiv Ghandi Tribut. (© AP)

Her elder son Rajiv was on a holiday with his Italian born wife Sonia and children Rahul and Priyanka when Sanjay died. Initially Rajiv was reluctant to join politics, but under pressure from Indira and a section of Congress he agreed to take a plunge even as Sonia threatened to leave him. Sonia later admitted that she understood Indira's need for a political aide in Rajiv. "I begged him not to let them do this. I pleaded with him, with others around him, too. He would be killed as well. He held my hands, hugged me, tried to soothe my desperation. He had no choice, he said, he would be killed anyway" Sonia wrote in a pictorial tribute to Rajiv.

Life in Nehru-Gandhi family limped back to normalcy but in October 1984, two Sikh security guards of Indira sprayed bullets indiscriminately at Indian prime minister killing her on the spot. The guards were upset over Indira's move to flush out separatists from a religious shrine in Amritsar, considered as a holy place. Indira assassination prompted Rajiv's elevation as prime minister of India. Even as Rajiv grappled with government formation, anti Sikh riots resulted in killing of over 3000 innocent Sikhs who had nothing to do with Indira's killings.

Rajiv, born in 1944, was a man in a hurry. He started economic restructuring, encouraging private enterprise, computerization, technology missions and electoral reforms. He lowered the age of voting from 21 to 18 and frequently travelled abroad projecting himself as a statesman. His stand on nuclear disarmament, anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and reduction of border tension with China and Pakistan won him many admirers.

But domestic policies entangled Rajiv in a web of controversies and corruption charges. Rajiv regime was accused of receiving kickbacks from a Swedish armament company Bofors which won a 15 billion US Dollars contract to supply Howitzer guns to India. Ottavio Quattorchi, an Italian businessman (now dead) considered a friend of Sonia and Rajiv, allegedly served as the middleman in a deal that saw massive kickbacks allegedly paid by the company to Indian politicians and defence officials. Rajiv denied the charge but allegation led to his electoral defeat in 1989.

There were many threats on Rajiv's life even when he ceased to be prime minister. In May 1991, Rajiv, while contemplating return as Indian prime minister, was killed by a suicide bomber in southern India. The female assassin, who detonated a powerful explosion while bending to touch his feet as a mark of respect, had been sent by Sri Lanka's rebels, the Tamil Tigers, to avenge Rajiv's decision four years earlier to intervene in the island nation's civil war.

Sonia Gandhi: Devotion to Duty and Personal Sacrifice

In the hour of grief, the Congress party again turned to Sonia, seeking her leadership but the widow refused. In next six years 1991-97, Sonia remained aloof and away from active politics even as her son Rahul went to USA to study and daughter Priyanka got married. The Congress was out of power and it prevailed upon Sonia to take the mantle of leadership in March 1998.

Sonia's life has been one of the most extraordinary and remarkable story of our times. Born at small Italian town of Orbassano, Sonia's interest in languages brought her to England. In 1965, aged 18, she was at a language school in Cambridge where she met Rajiv - then a 21-year-old engineering student - at a Greek restaurant called The Varsity. "As far as I was concerned, it was love at first sight," she wrote in a memoir about her husband published in 1992. Sonia knew nothing of India when she met Rajiv except that "it existed somewhere in the world with its snakes, elephants and jungles." She also had no idea about her future husband's extraordinary political pedigree when they met. Rajiv was shy of mentioning to anyone that he was grandson of Nehru and son of Indira.

While detractors of Nehru-Gandhi family accuse Sonia of promoting dynasty culture, Her own version is that a sense of responsibility compelled her to become involved. "I have photographs of my husband and my mother-in-law in my office," she told an interviewer in 2004. "And each time I walked past those photographs, I felt that I wasn't responding to my duty, the duty to this family and to the country. I felt I was being cowardly to just sit and watch things deteriorate in the Congress for which my mother-in-law and the whole family lived and died. So at that point, I took the decision," she told an interviewer.

In May 2004, Indian voters gave a verdict in favour of a Congress led coalition. All eyes were on Sonia but she declined the high office choosing the economist Dr. Manmohan Singh as prime minister of world's second most populous nation. Sonia's act of renunciation was a masterstroke as self-denial is a powerful theme in Indian culture: for those who reject, power and influence are venerated. Her devotion to duty and personal sacrifice bolstered the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in ways Rajiv or her mother-in-law never achieved. In 2009, Sonia underscored her electoral appeal again when the Congress increased its numbers in parliament. She is now the longest-serving president in the party's history.

A bout of ill-health in 2011 rattled both Sonia and the Congress. In keeping with her reticent and shy nature, Sonia did not reveal nature of her illness but hospitalization at Sloan Kettering hospital in New York, USA led to speculation that she was suffering from cervical cancer. A surgery and series of medical check-ups showed Sonia to be in reasonably good health but it led to sudden rise of her son Rahul within the Congress.

Rahul Gandhi: Lack of Experience and Charisma

Rahul was made vice president of the Congress and virtually given charge of day-to-day running of the grand old party formed in 1885. In Christopher Kremmer's book Inhaling the Mahatma, Rahul told the author that he decided to follow in the footsteps of his forebears while on a train journey to immerse his father's ashes in the sacred Ganges River way back in May 1991. However, since getting elected to Indian parliament in 2004, Rahul avoided ministerial posts and focused instead on trying to rejuvenate the youth wing of Congress. Before entering politics, he worked as a business consultant at a London based company.

The ten year rule by a Congress led United Progressive Alliance coalition faced serious allegations of corruption in high places and saw rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in stature and popularity. The BJP leader Narendra Modi's oratory skills, administrative acumen and experience provides an edge over the Congress.

Rahul, born in 1970, lacks both experience and charisma. The Congress under him kept losing ground to Modi's BJP, Aam Admi Party (AAP) and regional parties that appeal to local language and caste groups across India's vast electorate. Some Congress leaders have hopes from Rahul's younger sister, Priyanka Gandhi who, they see as a far magnetic personality than him. Priyanka campaigns for Sonia and Rahul wearing Indira's saris but denies joining politics. If Rahul Gandhi wishes to prove Ibn Khaldun's prophecy-theory wrong, he must deliver to the best of his abilities like his grand mother Indira Gandhi did.


is a journalist and author who specializes on India's Congress Party. He is also a political analyst and talking head on several Indian TV news channels and works as associate editor for the Calcutta based newspaper "The Telegraph".