FEATURE: Nehru-Gandhi family: A dynasty in decline

Nirmala Ganapathy
Congress supporters giving party president Rahul Gandhi a garland during an election campaign meeting on Dec 10. PHOTO: REUTERS


NEW DELHI (The Straits Times/ANN) - The Nehru-Gandhi name no longer carries the political weight that it did in India's past.

In 1977, India's former prime minister Indira Gandhi travelled to Bihar state where nine Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, had been killed by a gang of upper-caste men.

Though the area where the killings had taken place was not easily accessible, it did not deter Mrs Gandhi from going there to comfort the people.

She walked and then got on an elephant to get to the village of Belchi, where caste tensions were high following the killings.

The trip put Mrs Gandhi - who just six months earlier had lost her own constituency of Rae Bareli in parliamentary elections - on the road to a political comeback that saw her become prime minister again three years later.

Four decades on, villagers in Belchi still talk about the day she rode into the village on an elephant.

Yet, not many in the poverty-ridden village had heard of her grandson Rahul until the general election in 2014, when the Congress party suffered its worst electoral performance.

Mr Gandhi, 47, took over the reins of Congress from his mother Sonia this month. But as he gears up to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in coming elections, analysts note that the Nehru-Gandhi name no longer has the same political weight as before.

The Nehru-Gandhi family has produced three prime ministers since India became independent in 1947.

Mr Gandhi's great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, a central figure in India's independence movement, is known as the architect of modern India.

Nehru shaped the country according to the beliefs of socialism - for instance, the state, rather than the private sector, should control key economic sectors from power to transportation. He was committed to secularism and saw India as a country where all religions co-existed peacefully. His foreign policy was guided by the principles of non-alignment.

His daughter Indira continued his legacy but put her own stamp on it.

She nationalised major private banks and oil companies, and played an important role in events that saw Bangladesh become independent after breaking away from Pakistan.

She built an image of being the poor people's saviour with her slogan Garibi Hatao, or eradicate poverty, which propelled her to victory in the 1971 election.

But she was seen as an authoritarian figure who promoted dynastic politics. She had groomed her son Sanjay to succeed her but when he died in a plane crash in 1980, she brought in her other son Rajiv.

Her tenure also saw one of India's darkest periods.

During the state of emergency from 1975 to 1977, she jailed opposition leaders and imposed media censorship.

Rajiv, a pilot by training, came to power on a wave of sympathy after his mother was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984, over her decision to storm the Golden Temple, the most important pilgrimage site of Sikhism, to quell a separatist movement in Punjab state.

As prime minister, he promoted new technologies and is credited with putting India on a path to dominance in the software sector. Yet his tenure also saw one of the country's biggest defence scams related to kickbacks in the procurement of Bofors guns. The scandal continued to haunt the Congress even after he was absolved of any wrongdoing.

Following his assassination in a suicide bombing in 1991, the family moved away from politics. Six years later, Rajiv's Italian-born widow Sonia entered politics to protect the family legacy and, over the years, reminded voters of the sacrifice the family has made for India.

As Congress president for 19 years, she led the party to two consecutive wins before a humiliating defeat in 2014.

Today, the family that set the course for the world's biggest democracy is now at a low point.

Despite being in politics for over a decade, Mr Rahul Gandhi has yet to prove his mettle in politics in a country where 60 per cent of the population is under 35 and has little regard for dynastic politics.

"Young people have forgotten the national legacy," said Professor Bidyut Chakrabarty of Delhi University.

"Politics has also become far more complicated. The Congress used to represent women, Dalits, Muslims... But the party polity has become fractured with the rise of regional parties," he added.

With the Nehru-Gandhi family in decline, "Rahul Gandhi doesn't have any of the advantages of the dynasty", he said.

The family legacy is under constant attack, especially from Mr Modi, who has called for a Congress-free India.

However, Congress spokesman Tom Vaddakkan noted that the BJP's attacks only proved that the Nehru-Gandhi family is not irrelevant.

Still, analysts said the Congress is aware that the Nehru-Gandhi name alone does not guarantee votes.

"The dynasty continues to be important as a symbol of unity for the party. But the dynasty cannot be the central focus in election strategy. That has undergone a change," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, a political analyst and pro-vice-chancellor of Jain University.

"The actual ground work will have to be done by state-level leaders who have legitimacy," he added.

At the same time, some of the old guard in Congress are not comfortable with the direction in which Mr Gandhi is steering the party.

During campaigning for the state assembly election in Gujarat, which is Mr Modi's stronghold, Mr Gandhi went on a tour of temples and the Congress highlighted his Brahmin caste to counter the pro-Hindu BJP.

"This is not the Congress that Nehru gave to the country... Whatever was left of his legacy, it is gone," said a senior Congress leader who did not want to be named. "We have given up on socialism, we have given up on secularism. Non-alignment doesn't exist anymore."