On the subject of the totally unexpected defeat of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in the 2004 general elections, I have hitherto concentrated on three salient facts — the saffron party’s anger and the consequent disruption of an entire session of Parliament that somehow persists till now; Sonia Gandhi’s decision to retain only the presidency of the Congress and say no to the office of prime minister; and her nomination to that job of Manmohan Singh. Some had foreseen this because in her two meetings with then President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the Congress president was accompanied only by Singh. But since political Delhi is a whispering gallery larger than even Washington within the Beltway, some others had concluded that Kalam had “some reluctance” to swear in Sonia as the PM.
At an appropriate time, Kalam — who has just got a major road in Lutyens’ Delhi renamed after him — slammed this spurious speculation. However, this wasn’t and couldn’t have been the end of the matter.
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The real drama, punctuated with low comedy, began on the day the Congress Parliamentary Party, after electing Sonia Gandhi its leader unanimously and enthusiastically, virtually wept when, after thanking them, she announced that in accordance with her “inner voice” she would not accept the office of PM, which would go to Singh. Their repeated plea to her to reverse her decision made no difference. Barely had Sonia reached her home at 10 Janpath when the already mobilised legions of loyalists started a special act of their own. In overloaded cars, buses, trucks, etc, they started a procession to No 10 to remind their leader that they could not even conceive of a Congress government that wasn’t headed by “Soniaji”. They had planned so well that their show went on from early afternoon till late night.
Far from being anything novel, this was entirely in keeping with the unbreakable link between dynastic rule and sycophancy. The Congress party’s first family is not the sole beneficiary of this established pattern. An impressive number of regional parties dominating states, big and small, are also family businesses, and their supremos rule their domains as patriarchs and matriarchs. Witness the way the two rivals, Mulayam Singh and Mayawati, have governed Uttar Pradesh. Or study the impact on Tamil Nadu of the enmity between J. Jayalalithaa and the Karunanidhi clan. Three generations of Abdullahs have ruled the sensitive state of Jammu and Kashmir, though they have now yielded place to Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and his daughter Mehbooba. Countless other examples can be cited but, alas, there isn’t enough space.
However, despite broad uniformity in the system of dynastic succession and power, there have also been significant variations, in different phases, of almost all dynasties. Remarkably, the most important of these have been in the case of the renowned and incomparable Gandhi dynasty. In a brief period of five years (1966-71), the dynasty’s founder had morphed from goongi gudiya (dumb doll) into invincible goddess Durga. Shortly thereafter, she decided to groom her younger son Sanjay to be her political heir and successor. She hinted that power should start moving in his direction. The courtiers obeyed and the young man was happy to grab whatever power he could. The Emergency and the 1977 election were the undoing of both mother and son. Both lost not only power but also their own seats in Parliament. However, far from having been “consigned to the dustbin of history”, Indira was spectacularly back in power in 33 months flat, and so was Sanjay. The Janata that had vanquished them was history, having destroyed itself.
However, the tremendous triumph of January 1980 suddenly turned into a searing tragedy in June. Sanjay died in the crash of a plane he was flying himself.
Soon afterwards, there was a big row within the dynasty because Sanjay’s feisty widow, Maneka, believed that she was the rightful inheritor of her husband’s legacy, while Indira Gandhi ensured that this role would go to her surviving son, Rajiv. Within a few hours of his mother’s assassination, Rajiv was sworn in as PM. Because of his image as “Mr Clean” and his good manners, he was extremely popular until the Bofors scam erupted.
After Rajiv’s assassination in 1991, his widow firmly refused the Congress party’s grovelling requests to step into his shoes. Indeed, she announced that she would never accept any political office. Most Indians believed her. Only a Pakistani analyst commented: “Never say never… Sonia or her progeny might appear someday in India’s power equation.”
This brings me back to where I had begun — Sonia’s renunciation of the most powerful office in the land and the gymnastics of the sycophants circulating around her residence. The most bizarre element in the scene was a lone man in an otherwise empty truck with a pistol to his own head and a sword in the other hand to deter anyone interfering with him. He never pulled the trigger.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator.
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