About a month back, I got an opportunity to listen to a talk given by Manish Sabharwal, the Chairman and Co-founder of Teamlease, an Indian Fortune 500 company, that provides human resources services to its clients and employs more than 125,000 people. Manish is a member of the National Skill Mission chaired by the Prime Minister of India and serves on various state and central government committees on education, employment and employability. I also got a chance to speak with him before and after the talk on themes such as employability, governance, and public policy. He spoke about the need for urbanization and creating new cities with a population of more than a million people. He also said that this could be achieved faster with decentralization – 29 chief ministers are more important than one Prime Minister, but the real solution lies in creating 100 real mayors. One of the anecdotes that I found particularly interesting was this – In 1924, Jawaharlal Nehru was the mayor of Allahabad, Rajendra Prasad was the mayor of Patna, C.R. Das was the mayor of Calcutta, and Sardar Patel was the mayor of Ahmedabad. There are letters from Nehru that talk about street lights and Patel about sanitation because mayoral elections were fought on issues like infrastructure. Then he added with a mischievous smile, “Can you imagine Nehru’s great-grandson writing letters about street lights in Delhi? What that says is that sexually transmitted Prime Minister-ship does not work.”
I loved the term that he used. I mean we have all heard about dynasty politics and we’ve seen the Congress Party be a victim to it, since 1966, with a brief gap of seven years between 1991 and 1998, when a seemingly lost and clueless Sitaram Kesri, then president of the Congress, persuaded Mrs Sonia Gandhi to take over the reins of the party, restoring it to the stewardship of India’s so-called ‘First Family’. However, the term sexually transmitted Prime Minister-ship added a lot more color and ‘masala’ (spice) to the concept.
What I’ll do is, take that phrase and make it broader by calling it ‘sexually transmitted political leadership’. As of today, most political parties in India, with the exception of cadre based parties of the left and right, the Communists and the BJP, are following the Congress template. Leadership is bestowed upon, in some cases, even thrust upon (sorry, Mr Shakespeare, for borrowing your phrase) the offspring of the founder or leader of the party. Sukhbir Badal inherits the Akali Dal, Akhilesh Yadav inherits the Samajwadi Party, M Karunanidhi’s children jostle with each other for the control of the DMK, Naveen Patnaik gets the leadership of his father’s party, the BJD, Uddhav Thackeray inherits the Shiv Sena, and Laloo’s sons are anointed the successors to his party, the RJD. Even the state of Jammu & Kashmir, with its special status within the Indian Union is not very different from the rest of the country. Omar Abdullah inherits the NC and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s daughter Mehbooba assumes the leadership of PDP.
India is the largest democracy in the world and Indian democracy has creditably grown stronger in the last 70 years, despite prophecies to the contrary by Western observers. This is especially remarkable, given the fate of some other South Asian and South East Asian countries, who have gone down the path of complete or pseudo-dictatorship. However, democracy within political parties in India is almost dead, as power is overwhelmingly concentrated, centrally with the top leaders or the ‘high command’. If we trace back the history of centralization of power and dynasty politics in India, they will find their roots in the politics, personal ambition, and indulgent parenting of former Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi.
I acknowledge that Mrs. Gandhi was an extremely successful politician with a pan-India appeal and the ability to mobilize voters with the sheer magnetism and force of her personality. The strong leadership and quick decision-making that she demonstrated during the Indo-Pak war of 1971, contributed to India’s absolute victory, Pakistan’s unconditional surrender and the creation of the sovereign nation of Bangladesh. She stood up to Western powers and asserted India’s dominance in South Asia. However, her track record, when it comes to upholding democratic principles, practices and processes was not very good. Her naked obsession with power, utter disregard for institutions such as the police, the judiciary, and the fourth estate, and authoritarian tendencies led her to concentrate all power around her, her son, Sanjay Gandhi and their cronies. Central Ministers and Chief Ministers of various states enjoyed no real power in her government. All decisions were taken by the PMO or as some people whispered, the PMH (Prime Minister’s Household). She suspended democracy in India for two full years and turned a blind eye to the reign of terror that her son unleashed during that darkest period in independent India’s history.
Many people, especially right-wing hardliners and the ignoramuses who believe the salacious campaign run by these extremists, erroneously point to Jawaharlal Nehru for India’s ‘feudal and dynastic democracy’. However, as acclaimed historian Ramachandra Guha points out in his brilliant book ‘India after Gandhi’, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Nehru was a visionary and a democrat and his politics was centered around universal franchise, a free press, independent judiciary, respect for institutions, complete commitment to the components of a parliamentary democracy, including a viable opposition, and making a then young and vulnerable India visible to the rest of the world with his foreign policy that was much ahead of its times. Accusing Nehru of nepotism would be a big mistake as Indira Gandhi didn’t play any role in Nehru’s governments, let alone being promoted as his political successor. In fact, on the question of succession, as Nehru’s health deteriorated in early 1960s, he steadfastly maintained that he had no role to play in the matter, as he believed that succession had to be decided by those who would still be living rather than someone who would not be around.
After Nehru died, Lal Bahadur Shastri became the Prime Minister of India and he gave a role to Indira Gandhi in a Congress government for the first time, probably to honor the memory of her father. Indira Gandhi served as the Information & Broadcasting minister in Shastri’s cabinet from 1964 to 1966. Actually, it was K Kamaraj, the Congress Party stalwart from Tamil Nadu, who played a big role in Indira Gandhi’s eventual elevation to the position of the Prime Minister. After Shastri’s death in 1966, as the question of succession was being debated, the veteran leader Morarji Desai threw his hat in the ring. However, the then Congress Party President, K Kamaraj thought it would be easier to control a ‘gungi gudiya’ (mute doll), than a firebrand leader like Desai and his influence tilted the scales in Mrs Gandhi’s favour. With that one act, Kamaraj, unknowingly sounded the death knell for democracy within the Congress Party. The ‘gungi gudiya’ turned out to be a strong-willed person instead, with an absolutist streak. By 1969, she engineered a split in the Congress Party and took complete control of the new Congress. The election victories of 1967 and 1971 helped her translate that control to the government. She was the only one who wielded any real power in the government and that power served to undermine the very institutions that her father had helped create and had nurtured.
Michael Baigent is his book ‘The Jesus Papers’ (the book itself is not good, but I’m quoting from it as it presents a good analogy in this case, in my opinion) says that almost all that is good about Christianity, can be traced back to Jesus and almost all that is bad about it, can be traced back to Paul. Using this analogy, I would say that almost all that is good about Indian democracy, can be traced back to Nehru and almost all that is bad about it, can be traced back to Indira Gandhi. This statement may be a bit extreme, but I really need to draw a distinction between the politics of Nehru and Indira Gandhi. By Mrs. Gandhi’s own admission, “My father was a saint who ventured into politics. I’m not my father.” As Ramachandra Guha magnificently points out, Nehru’s legacy will rise once it is unpacked from the performance of his family and party since 1968.
The Congress party of today should take inspiration from Nehru’s 1936 party president speech that said “the Congress party has largely lost touch with the masses and, deprived of the life-giving energy that flows from them, we dry up and weaken, and our organisation shrinks and loses the power it had”. The need is to distribute power and allow young, capable individuals to take the party forward. The BJP’s surge in recent years has demonstrated how members of the cadre can assume leadership roles both within the party and in the government. While a large section of the public seems enamored with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at this point, and quite rightly so in my opinion, history tells us that at the same time, we should be wary of the cult of the personality. The need is to create and nurture leaders at the grassroots level, in all political parties of various dispositions, and in the process, strengthen democracy by distributing leadership. A leadership that is not dependent on one’s birth but the work that one does.