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A New, Nuclear, India?

Mrs. Gandhi’s decision to campaign for the Congress came after a prolonged period during which she was repeatedly importuned to take an active role in politics by fractious party leaders who would only agree with one another about the need to make Mrs. Gandhi supreme leader. The pictures of white-clad Congress leaders contorting themselves into postures of obeisance on Mrs. Gandhi’s impeccably mowed front lawn became a regular feature in the morning papers. Their exertions were prompted by the fact that the Congress Party had declined more rapidly in the last seven years, when no member of the Nehru-Gandhi family was at its helm, than at any other time in its 113-year history.

Even before she was officially appointed the president of the party, its relentless wooing of Mrs. Gandhi bestowed a lot of authority on her. Her reticence only added to her mysterious aura; she now commands a curiously Olympian extraconstitutional status in New Delhi. Her special privileges were maintained even during the two years the Congress was out of power. Visiting heads of state continued to call upon her at her house in Delhi’s most exclusive district; she was seated along with former prime ministers at official occasions; government regulations were circumvented in order to keep the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation well supplied with money.

During the campaign, many commentators discounted Mrs. Gandhi’s influence over the electorate on the grounds that the political climate had greatly changed since the heyday of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, when Pandit Nehru or Indira Gandhi, by sheer personal charisma, could carry with them such utterly diverse groups as the Brahmins and the Dalits (low-caste Hindus)—not to mention the Muslims who used to vote en masse for the Congress. The feeling was that the old days of consensus politics were now gone, and that the Indian electorate had entered a new phase of maturity. To the stereotypical pictures of the long queues of expectant villagers outside polling booths—perhaps the most powerful and misleading image of Indian democracy yet—were added pictures of the low-caste shoemaker in a small village, someone who was no longer tempted by the Congress’s promises or dazzled by the Nehru-Gandhi name. He recognized his self-interest and knew how he could protect it by voting for men of his own caste. The representatives he voted for, genuine sons of the soil, were said to constitute a new, aggressive class of political leaders.

But the election demonstrated how much such analyses underestimated the great appeal of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Mrs. Gandhi evoked a rapturous response almost everywhere she went—and she went to a lot of places, four or five every day. Huge crowds—up to 100,000 strong—waited for long hours in all extremes of weather for her helicopter to arrive. A single gesture from her two children sent the crowds into frenzies of applause and cheering. People wept on TV while listening to her speak about the sacrifices of her assassinated relatives; tearful mothers pointed to the resemblance, which is actually very slight, between Mrs. Gandhi’s son, Rahul, and his father.

Sonia Gandhi’s Italian background, at first thought to be a liability, and her association with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty only made things easier for her. No Indian leader outside that dynasty has been able to effectively project for himself the pan-Indian identity it almost effortlessly possesses; or to avoid the taint of regionalism, casteism, or communalism. Nehru was a Brahmin from Kashmir but resident in Allahabad, an Urdu-speaker, and an Anglophile. Indira Gandhi was educated partly in Switzerland and England, and married a Parsi man. Her half-Parsi son, Rajiv Gandhi, went to Cambridge and married an Italian woman. The melange of cultural identities is unusual in Indian politics; also, glamorous. So it is that mass perceptions of the Nehru-Gandhi family usually coincide with the family’s careful self-presentation: secular, cosmopolitan, and possessed of a larger (for Nehru, almost mystical) feeling for India and Indians, above all for the toiling millions.

Public memory in India is notoriously short (Indira Gandhi was back in power three years after the worst excesses of the Emergency), and few people remember much of the dynasty’s political record. Nehru, who died in 1964, is now a legendary figure to most Indians. Sanjay Gandhi’s ruthless uprooting of whole communities in Delhi, Mrs. Gandhi’s cynical Realpolitik in Punjab, where she encouraged Sikh militancy to unsettle an opposition government, Rajiv Gandhi’s disastrous military adventures in Sri Lanka: all these events, mulled over by political analysts, seem not to matter much to the masses. What has proved most persistent in memory is the brutal manner of the deaths of Mrs. Gandhi and her sons, the patched-up corpses, the images from their funerals (all but the earliest telecast live across India), of first a grief-stricken mother, then a son, and then his widow and tender-aged children.

Sonia Gandhi used this memory to good effect, and her speeches, which blended melodramatic legend-making with harsh facts about poverty and underdevelopment, went down well in a predominantly rural country—particularly among women—oppressed by high inflation, lawlessness, and corruption. It was a campaigning style that owed much to her mother-in-law, who when pushed into a tight corner would send an emotional message of hope and consolation that bypassed preexisting political and economic realities and reached out directly to the masses. Like Indira, who was hailed as Durga (the Hindu goddess who is the incarnation of female energy) after the defeat of Pakistan in the 1971 war, Sonia Gandhi was well aware of the symbolic value of presenting herself as a benevolent mother-goddess figure—a tactic that, to judge by the number of prominent women leaders in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, appears to work well not only in India but throughout South Asia.

Because of Mrs. Gandhi’s last-minute efforts, Congress was granted a reprieve. It recovered, thanks to her, some of its old support among the poorest of voters and among Muslims. Instead of being reduced to double digits in the parliament, it has managed to remain a major player by winning 142 seats, while the BJP won 179 seats. In the months ahead, the Congress at least theoretically has enough power to topple governments, or even, with a bit of horse-trading, to form its own government, with Sonia Gandhi again in her now customary role of aloof and mysterious arbiter. Nevertheless, particularly in view of the strong support for the BJP after the nuclear tests, Congress still looks like a party in its last stages: a party with one attractive figure, but with no program, or even leaders—some of its old stalwarts were defeated in the recent elections and the younger ones have been unable to rise above the party culture of sycophancy and internecine squabbling.

For much of the time it ruled India, the Congress had no effective opposition in the parliament.1 But this advantage has not been good for Indian democracy, and it has been even less good for the Congress. Mahatma Gandhi may have had in mind the unhealthy consequences of the Congress’s hegemony when he said he wanted it to disband after independence.

The Insider by P.V. Narasimha Rao, the last Congress prime minister of India—who served between 1991 and 1996—is a remarkable new book that tells us more about the inner workings of the Congress, and hence India’s rulers, than any other book in the last fifty years. 2 Rao is a scholar and linguist of some repute in his native language, Telugu, and has spent five decades in national politics, during which time he worked very closely with the Nehru-Gandhi family. Few Indian politicians, active or retired, ever write books, and those who do are careful to spill only a few largely irrelevant beans.

The Insider is the first attempt of its sort: an account of Indian politics that is both personal and broadly historical, and also, startlingly, has the ring of truth. It raises serious doubts about the nature of Indian democracy, the way India has been ruled by the Congress, the increasing decay and corruption. In the process, it exposes the wide gap that exists between the appearance and reality of India’s Westminster-inspired democratic institutions. According to Rao, with India’s independence, “imperial authority…merely turned into Central authority…. Neither the democratic nor the federal principle had taken root to supplant the feudal ethos… [of] past centuries; the concept of kingship…was ingrained in the collective consciousness…. Democracy in action at best consisted of the question: Who should reign?”

Thus “chieftains appeared in the garb of chief ministers.” A good part of The Insider is taken up with dramatizing the attributes of one such chieftain called Mahendranath: “iron-handed administration, cruelty, sadism, egocentrism, intolerance, arbitrariness, aggressiveness, ruthlessness, sexual license as of right…and an utter contempt for the people except, of course, at election time.” “Umpteen Mahendranaths,” Rao asserts, “[dotted] the length and breadth of the country.” One of them is Chaudhury, a politician “with no particular ideology other than power.” Chaudhury does not “believe in any of the rhetoric of the Party’s statements and resolutions. In a country of sub-naked illiterates living in sub-human conditions, what is the relevance of any ideology, he often asked…. We wanted to rule our own country, so we made the British quit. That doesn’t mean we have to reject British techniques of administration. Rule with a firm hand and to hell with ideology!”

The main character of The Insider is Anand, who is very clearly based on Rao. From his childhood in a South Indian village, and then as a student inspired by the idealism of Gandhi and Nehru, Anand charts Rao’s own journey through the Congress to the highest executive job in the country. Shrewdly, Rao has written a book that is halfway between autobiography and fiction. Although recently sidelined within the Congress, Rao is still an active member of the party under Sonia Gandhi; he also has several corruption cases against him in the courts. Straightforward autobiography would have inhibited him; fiction probably has enabled him to be less economical with the truth.

It has also allowed him to reinvent himself. Anand is portrayed as being disenchanted by the cynical power games played by his party, by the skullduggery, hypocrisy, and corruption that are the Congress’s legacy to the Indian state. This is disingenuous. Rao himself was a player, and a rather good one at that: one of the charges he is currently facing is that, as prime minister of India from 1991 to 1996, he bought five MPs for $1.2 million each from a regional party in order to prop up his minority government.

It is Rao’s larger view of his subject that redeems his frequently ponderous narrative and pedestrian prose. Anand, as minister for land reforms in a provincial government, is eloquent on the government’s failure in the 1950s to redistribute cultivable land: once again, high-minded programs originating from Nehru’s office in Delhi became victims of vested interests within the Congress. The landlord class, from which many of the Congress’s leaders came, could not be antagonized; and thus the cruel economic disparities of rural India continued even as the men of the Congress learned to mouth the rhetoric of socialism.

  1. 1

    The only example offered by democratic countries of this is the long, corrupt, and corrupting monopoly on power of Mexico’s PRI.

  2. 2

    New Delhi: Viking/Penguin India, 1998.

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