Rahul Gandhi was frank in admitting that he was benefiting from a dynastic connection when he spoke in Berkeley, California. Where he was wrong was in arguing that dynastic succession was somehow natural to India. Rishi Kapoor was right in saying that the Kapoor family survived in the film industry by merit not mere dynasty. The same is true of business dynasties. Kumar Mangalam Birla or Mukesh Ambani have thrived not because of who their father or grandfather was but by their own abilities.
If he had known a bit more about the history of his own party, Rahul Gandhi would have said that the Congress became a dynastic party by accident. It was the sudden and unexpected death of Lal Bahadur Shastri in January 1966 which panicked the Congress leadership — the Syndicate as they were called — into choosing Indira Gandhi. She was not the obvious choice. Morarji Desai was senior but he was too uncorrupt for the Syndicate. K Kamaraj ruled himself out saying, ‘No Hindi, No English, how can I be prime minister?’ Just six months previously, Indira Gandhi had wanted to be high commissioner to the UK to be close to her sons who were in England. She did not see herself as leading India.
Before the Congress chose Indira, there was no party in India which was remotely dynastic. Indira made the Congress dynastic as part of her power grab. There was nothing traditional about it. It was a pure political coup in 1969, splitting the Congress under the guise of a left-wing turn. A party which had been a tolerant body allowing a variety of opinions was turned into its opposite after 84 years. The Congress (Indira) began its turbulent career then. It was to get worse when, after 1971, Indira made the Congress into her own private firm. In 1977, the Congress (I) broke up again. But after the return to power in 1980, history was rewritten and all pretended that the 1885 Congress was still alive.
In 1984, after Indira’s sudden death, there was a perfect chance to restore constitutional norms and make the seniormost cabinet minister the acting PM, to be confirmed by the parliamentary party. For hinting at that, Pranab Mukherjee got hounded out of the party. Rajiv Gandhi became leader and PM in succession to his mother. It was at this stage that the Congress became a dynastic party and a private possession of the family.
The early death of Rajiv Gandhi, at the age of 46, has discouraged any critical examination of his record. He abandoned secularism but also managed to win and subsequently lose the largest number of seats. The Congress lost its hegemony in 1989, which it has never regained. Two outsiders, Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, held the fort but without a majority. The Congress which split in 1969 and again in 1977 never recovered.
It was after the dynastic corruption of the Congress that other parties — the Yadavs in UP and Bihar, Patnaik in Odisha — became dynastic leaders. Except for the CPI, CPM and BJP, no party has internal democracy.
The decay and the decline of the Congress is entirely due to dynasty and even more due to it being in denial about how much damage dynastic politics has done it. Dynasty will destroy the party.