RAHUL Gandhi is in the cross hairs of detractors from within his party and outside. Prime Minister Modi had pledged to make India Congress-free, but why? Then there’s this group of 23 Congress veterans who are clearly unhappy with Rahul Gandhi. Again, why? Let’s explore the contrarian charges that he is not a serious politician or that he is seething with ambition to become prime minister.
One needs to assess a truer reality by seeing how Rahul Gandhi’s great-grandfather was and is still perceived by the same critics. An American TV journalist in possibly Nehru’s last major interview wondered if he had considered Indira Gandhi as his successor. Nehru who had by then come close to stepping down as prime minister at least twice — such things happened in India once — said he never wanted his daughter as his successor. If he were to even mention the daughter, the party would reject her.
The comment says something about the Congress of the time as well as a few truths about Nehru. One may slam him for several reasons in the run-up to a bloody 1947 or criticise him for poking the Chinese in the eye without the military wherewithal to defend the benighted policy. The fact is that a nondescript Shastri became prime minister after Nehru, and he took Indira as his information and broadcasting minister, a hugely liberating move for the portfolio. Her puritan predecessor had banned film music and the harmonium among other musical accoutrements as anti-Indian. It led Radio Ceylon to become the darling of the Indian masses by playing back to them their own music.
That Indira Gandhi was ambitious for power is difficult to say. She was the Congress president when she supervised the controversial dismissal of India’s first elected communist government in Kerala in 1959. Yet, 10 years later as prime minister she backed Achutha Menon’s communist ministry to carry out land reforms in Kerala. Nehru signalled his anti-communism by leading India into the British Commonwealth — whose real purposes were retold in the TV serial The Crown, whereby the young Queen Elizabeth rushes to Kenneth Kaunda to stop his African nation from joining the Soviet orbit. Majrooh Sultanpuri spent many days in prison for writing a lovely poem berating Nehru’s love of the Commonwealth.
Critics then were not different from the supporters of the business houses that control India’s plutocracy today.
Ironically, critics describe both Nehru and his daughter as socialists though both were merely supportive of a welfare state they envisioned for India. Critics then were not different from the supporters of the business houses that control India’s plutocracy today.
Indira Gandhi could summon respect from Brezhnev but also counted his bête noire Margaret Thatcher as a close friend. If she were ambitious she would be courting the powerful tycoons and not putting them in jail as she did in intuitive anticipation of the lure revealed by the Panama Papers and more recently, the Paradise Papers. Both have exposed India’s power elite — without a hint of official censure —- for what they are.
As for Rajiv Gandhi’s political ambitions it’s no secret that his mother asked him to be by her side after the more politically involved Sanjay Gandhi died in a plane crash. The day Mrs Gandhi was killed, Sonia Gandhi fervently pleaded with her grieving husband to not step into her shoes. They would kill him too she had pleaded. Who were the ‘they’ Sonia so feared? Whoever they might be, he was assassinated after losing the 1989 election when he chose to sit in the opposition.
Others have claimed the prime minister’s seat with far fewer numbers. A.B. Vajpayee, for example, became prime minister for 13 days with an impossible minority government. And he still signed the Enron power generation deal with the US outfit, an unusual feat for a short-lived government. And the deal came just after the BJP-Shiv Sena coalition won the 1995 Maharashtra state election on a campaign pledge to “push Enron into the Arabian Sea”.
Rajiv publicly warned powerful business captains in their lair during the Congress party’s centenary celebrations in Mumbai in 1985. He cautioned the “moneybags to get off the backs of the Congress workers”. Rajiv surrounded himself with school friends and extended family. Many were to ditch him after exploiting their proximity to the prime minister. The Bofors scam splashed gleefully in the newspapers — mostly but not only by the riled businesses — was only a part of a larger scam of betrayals that let him down.
Sonia Gandhi’s ambitions too have occupied headlines. But who got her made the Congress president by overthrowing Sitaram Kesri, the least discussed Congress president, in 1998? Pranab Mukherjee led the move to instal Sonia, the man Rajiv Gandhi had pointedly excluded from his cabinet. Sonia also headed an advisory council, which became very controversial, with business journalists in particular. Its purpose was to keep prime minister Manmohan Singh’s gaze on her people-centric agenda of social investments. Pro-business MPs objected hard and forced her to resign from the Lok Sabha. She went on to win the ensuing by-election from two constituencies, and kept her tryst with people-driven policies, a nuisance for a pro-business prime minister.
That Modi’s rich supporters could also become his Achilles heel is hope that protesting farmers are leaning on. Rahul seems aware having brought into the party Navjot Sidhu, Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mevani, all vocal and powerful critics of corporate India they see as Modi’s lifeline. Many saw the businessmen as the only people that became rich during the worst phase of the Covid crisis. Rahul Gandhi seems to be aware also that the driving force behind his critics, the 23 Congress veterans, including those who never won a Lok Sabha election, and those who could not have won without the Gandhis’ support, is not too different from those that once stalked his forebears.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in New Delhi.
Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2021