In 1919, a man named Motilal Nehru became the president of India’s oldest party, the Indian National Congress. In 2019, another Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, has quit the post after accepting responsibility for the party’s debacle in recent parliamentary election. Not incidentally, Rahul Gandhi is Motilal Nehru’s great-great-grandson. It was Motilal Nehru who began the political dynasty that led this party for many years. If Rahul Gandhi’s resignation turns out to be unavoidable this time, it may mark a symbolic end to a monarchic line that in a way had started exactly a hundred years ago. This may actually turn out to be a boon for the party.
This line goes from Motilal Nehru to his son Jawaharlal Nehru (independent India’s first Prime Minister), and then to the latter’s daughter, Indira Gandhi (who had married a man named Feroze Gandhi, and since then the dynasty has been called the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty), and her two sons, Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. After Rajiv Gandhi was murdered by a Tamil terrorist in 1991, the party eventually convinced his Italian wife, Sonia Gandhi (born Sonia Maino), to take over the steering wheel. Sonia brought into Indian politics her two children: Rahul and Priyanka, making them the fifth generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family line within the party leadership.
For a decade, between 2004 and 2014, Sonia Gandhi led the party and the New Delhi government from the back seat. Throughout this period it was growingly apparent she was grooming her son, Rahul Gandhi, to be her successor as the party president and the future prime minister. Although Rahul Gandhi did eventually become the Congress president, before this he was neither given a ministerial post in two subsequent Congress-led central governments nor the position of a chief minister in any state government. Both of these options would have given him first-hand experience in administration and leadership. Rahul Gandhi remained the CEO-in-waiting, the privileged son who was to jump straight up to the very top.
The successor did not succeed. Both in 2014 and 2019, the Congress suffered major electoral defeats and the government in New Delhi was formed by the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with Narendra Modi becoming the prime minister. After the May 2019 debacle Rahul Gandhi reportedly wanted to resign immediately but was persuaded to stay. Some of the senior party leaders, such as Sheila Dixit and Ahmed Patel, as well as Rahul Gandhi’s mother, were against his decision. And yet on June 7, Rahul Gandhi publicly announced his decision: “As President of the Congress Party, I am responsible for the loss of the 2019 election,” he wrote in his resignation letter, in a rare and honorable gesture of admitting one’s mistakes.
It remains uncertain whether this decision will remain final, however. Even if Rahul remains adamant on leaving the post, the dynasty may continue to lead the party, as the control panel may be handed over to his sister: Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra. While she certainly deserves her chance and may as well reveal political talents (like her mother Sonia Gandhi and her grandmother Indira Gandhi once did), the party should also consider another option: stop choosing its supreme leader from the same family.
Can the Indian National Congress succeed without the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty at its helm? I think it can, but I am not sure it is willing to try. I remember reading years ago that the Gandhi-Nehru family line was the glue that kept the party together. Many regional leaders, the opinion went, would have not accepted any other party supremo than somebody with a Gandhi surname. But this assumption should be put to test now.
Is there any way of proving that the Congress would have fared worse without the dynasty? In its glory days, during the independence struggle, the party was much more democratic, and its presidents changed annually. There were two transitory phases of the post-independence era when it did not have a Gandhi-Nehru family member as its leader for a brief period: 1964-1965 and early 1990s. Both of these times actually happened to be chapters of Congress’ considerable successes and of far-reaching reforms achieved in very testing times (the commencement of the Green Revolution, the won war with Pakistan, the liberalization of economy).
Many Indian parties are led by political families, but this is connected to how often the occupation and influences are inherited in this country. This does not prove that this model is in any way superior when applied to political party, and evidence from around the globe does not corroborate it. The current Indian experience does not prove it either. The BJP, the Congress’ main rival, has many dynasts in its ranks as well, but not in the central leadership – it actually never was ruled by a dynasty and yet it is now by far the most powerful party in India.
What parties need is strong leadership. It may be fortified by dynastic leadership, but may be corrupted by it as well. The Samajwadi Party, once a major power in the state of Uttar Pradesh, is now being burned from the inside by a family feud. Similarly, a conflict over inheritance of the party throne once led to a split of the Shiv Sena party in Maharashtra, leaving it weakened.
A debate about dynastic lineages in parties is like a discussion on the merits and flaws of monarchies. Could a wise king have a wise son, and if so, wouldn’t it be prudent to let the son take over the throne? Certainly, but if the son turned out to be incompetent, there was usually no peaceful mechanism to relieve him of the crown and choose a better person.
More importantly, leadership is a test to be passed, not a quality to be inherited. It is true that Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, turned out to be skillful politician and a popular leader for a long time. It should be remembered, however, that she had been chosen in 1965 only because the five major, non-dynastic party leaders wanted a prime minister who they thought they could easily control. She was selected because she was perceived as weak, not strong. Had the central leaders chosen differently, the dynasty could have as well died back then. While it was the family background that gave Indira Gandhi her post in the first place, it was the political skills that allowed her to retain it, letting her defeat the leaders who once anointed her.
As for the BJP, its currently most popular politician — and India’s Prime Minister — Narendra Modi ruled the state of Gujarat for 13 years, winning a string of elections in that region. Even after this it was not easy for him to push through to the central leadership and be made the candidate for the prime minister’s office. Within the party ranks Modi was a self-made man at least in the sense there was no family to promote him. Modi’s trial of fire of lost and won elections, and his years of administration was something Rahul Gandhi never had to go through.
In a federation like India, many leaders of national parties are either those that had been with their organization for decades and served it in most testing ties, or the regional, state-level leaders who could only climb to the top of the party structure after proving themselves on the lower levels (like Modi did in the BJP). The Indian National Congress should become much more meritocratic and search among those that have already had that kind of experience, such as its state Chief Ministers. Letting the Nehru-Gandhi family go would have also allowed the Congress to wage a more even public relations fight with the BJP, as the rivals would not longer be able to throw the “dynasty” label at the party.
“The Congress Party must radically transform itself,” Rahul Gandhi wrote in his resignation letter. This is certainly true. But is willing to do so and able to undertake this task?