Mahatma Gandhi had four sons. All four went to jail during the freedom struggle. None sought political office of any kind in independent India.
Gandhi's rectitude was not followed by his closest associates. It is well known that Jawaharlal Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi became Congress president in 1959. It is less well known that the son and daughter of Vallabhbhai Patel became members of Parliament, piggy-backing on their father's name. The son of C Rajagopalachari became a member of Parliament (MP); as did the son of Govind Ballabh Pant.
Gandhi's strong sense of propriety was not shared by other stalwarts of the freedom movement. However, to use your influence to get your son or daughter a parliamentary seat is one thing; to have your family control and dominate your party, quite another. Nehru, Patel, Rajaji, and Pant were guilty of nepotism on a minor scale. It was Indira Gandhi who made nepotism into a defining principle, when she anointed Sanjay Gandhi as her political successor in 1975. When
Sanjay died prematurely, Indira brought her other son, Rajiv, into politics, making it clear that if the Congress stayed in power, he would succeed her as prime minister.
Sonia Gandhi venerated her mother-in-law, and is devoted to her memory. That is why she doesn't think the Congress needs to apologise for the Emergency; and why she was so keen that her son, and only her son, would succeed her as Congress president. After the son led the party to humiliating defeats in successive general elections, he resigned. Rahul Gandhi said he wanted a non-family member to become Congress president; in the event, his mother came back, restoring the Family's hold over a shrinking domain.
Although I am a lifelong critic of the Congress's First Family, I recognise that not all those who support them are self-seeking sycophants. Some do so in the belief that only the Congress can mount a countrywide opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); and since (they claim) only a Nehru-Gandhi can keep the party together, the Family must remain at the helm. Others point to the fact that in many other parties, the BJP included, sons and daughters of prominent politicians become members of legislative assembly (MLAs), MPs, and ministers. So, they say, why single out the Congress in this regard?
I find these arguments unconvincing. The Congress was not a Family party from 1885 to 1975; or from 1991 to 1998. Notably, Sonia Gandhi has not been able to keep the party united; hence the formation of the Trinamool Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party, and the YSR Congress, which between them have almost as many MPs as the so-called "Indian National Congress". Secondly, for a party to have the odd hereditary MP is a relatively trifling matter; whereas for a party's controlling leadership to pass from parent to child is a perversion of democratic politics.
Unlike the Congress, the BJP has never been a Family party. Therein lies its strength, and its appeal among the electorate. Narendra Modi is a self-made man entirely. He had no father in politics; nor even a godfather. This emphatically marks him out from Rahul Gandhi. To be sure, Modi has other advantages over his opponent. He is more intelligent, works harder, is a better orator, and has years of administrative experience behind him. These are all important add-ons to his principal and fundamental advantage — that he is not a dynast.
When Sonia Gandhi first came to India, in 1968, the country was marked by deference and hierarchy. It mattered a great deal who your father or grandmother was. Fifty years later, the country has become far less feudal. People want to know what you have done, not whose son or daughter you are. This is the case in sport and business, and in politics too. Younger Indians are rightly appalled that the party of the freedom movement believes that only a fifth-generation dynast can lead it.
It may be that Sonia cannot see this profound change in how Indians now think. It is past time that she did.
I write this as someone who has no sympathy for Hindutva or for the present regime. In five-and-a-half years in power, Narendra Modi's government has tacitly endorsed majoritarianism, grievously undermined the autonomy of our public institutions, attacked science and scholarship, and damaged the economy. The cult of personality and the centralisation of power and decision-making in the prime minister's office are worrying signs of a slide towards authoritarianism. To rehabilitate our democratic credentials, and to restore our social fabric, India is in urgent need of a strong and credible Opposition. However, it is overwhelmingly unlikely, if not impossible, that Sonia Gandhi and her family can provide it.
The BJP is not invincible. It has lost important state elections in recent years. It won successive general elections in large part because these became presidential; with Modi's principal challenger handicapped by his lineage and crippled by his own lack of political intelligence. This was demonstrated in the flawed campaign Rahul ran, where, instead of confronting the prime minister for his failure to create jobs and solve the agrarian crisis, he charged him with personal corruption, a strategy which — given the Congress' own past record on corruption — put off, rather than attracted, voters.
The Congress of today reminds one of the later Mughals; the emperor and empress in their palace, surrounded by courtiers singing their praises, while, outside, the territory owing allegiance to the ruler shrinks to nothingness. This would be funny, were it not so tragic. The longer the Congress remains a Family firm, the easier it will be for Narendra Modi to deflect criticism of his policies and remain not just in power, but in control of the political narrative. Sonia and Rahul and Priyanka may think they owe it to the Congress to stay in politics. They owe it to the country to go.
Ramachandra Guha is the author of Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World