Ramachandra Guha (INDIA)

One of the forgotten heroes of Indian democracy is Kumaraswamy
Kamaraj. This withdrawn, monosyllabic, self-educated man from a
backward caste background was instrumental in building a base for the
Congress party in South India. Later, as President of the national
party, he helped mediate between different factions of the Congress.
But perhaps his greatest service to his party and nation was to
successfully oversee two major transitions.

First, when Jawaharlal Nehru died in May 1964, he consulted the
party's MPs before arriving at the conclusion that Lal Bahadur Shastri
would be the best choice to take over as Prime Minister. Eighteen
months later Shastri died suddenly of a heart attack. Now Kamaraj
again moved swiftly to contain the damage, by helping choose Indira
Gandhi as Shastri's replacement.

Growing up as an only child, with a sick mother and a father
frequently abroad or in jail, Indira Gandhi did not allow herself to
easily trust anybody. Least of all the Congress Old Guard. Thus, the
very men who had helped make her Prime Minister were the men she broke
away from, soon after assuming the top job in Indian politics. In 1969
Indira Gandhi divided the Congress party. The faction that stayed with
her was soon recognised as the real Congress, especially after it won
an authoritative victory in the General Elections of 1971, riding to
power on the backs of the slogan of 'Garibi Hatao'.

To retain control over party and government, Indira Gandhi adopted
four different strategies. First, she built a core of loyal advisers
outside the Congress. She increasingly took her counsel not from her
fellow Cabinet Ministers but from civil servants and technocrats in
the Prime Minister's Office, which was headed by her fellow Allahabadi
P. N. Haksar. Second, she disbanded the old, decentralised structure
of the Congress - where district and state units had substantial
autonomy - and placed individuals who were personally loyal to her at
the head of Pradesh Congress Committees.

Third, at Haksar's inspiration, she floated the idea of the
'committed' civil servant and the 'committed' judge, so that key
positions in the bureaucracy and the judiciary were also now occupied
by individuals known to be loyal and subservient to the Prime
Minister. Fourth, at election time she appealed directly to the
voters, asking them to place their trust in her as an individual
rather than in her party or its programme.

The dangers of Indira Gandhi's brand of politics had been anticipated
by the chief draughtsman of the Indian Constitution, Dr B. R.
Ambedkar. In his final speech to the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar
warned his compatriots against an unthinking submission to charismatic
authority. He quoted John Stuart Mill, who had cautioned citizens not
'to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust
him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions'.

>From the time she split the Congress in 1969, Indira Gandhi worked
systematically to dismantle the institutions and procedures of
constitutional democracy. This she did by privileging loyalty over
competence - in her party, in her Council of Ministers, in the
legislative and judicial branches of government. Ministers,
Congressmen, bureaucrats, judges, and in time even ordinary citizens -
all were encouraged to lay their liberties at the feet of this Great
Woman, the submission conveyed in the slogan 'Indira is India, India
is Indira'.

It is important to note that this undermining of democratic
institutions was well under way before the imposition of the Emergency
in 1975. By suppressing freedom of expression and jailing opposition
politicians, the emergency completed a process begun in the late
1960s. Shortly after its imposition, Indira Gandhi introduced a
further departure from democratic functioning, by naming her second
son, Sanjay, as her heir apparent. The locus of decision-making now
shifted from the Prime Minister's Office to the Prime Minister's

When Sanjay died in an air crash in 1980, Mrs Gandhi immediately
drafted her other son into the Congress party. When she was herself
killed in October 1984, this son, Rajiv, was sworn in as Prime
Minister. One of his first acts was to bring his old school friends
into politics. Like his mother, he could not bring himself to trust
his own party men. While promoting his friends, he behaved arrogantly
towards senior leaders of the Congress, and towards senior

Jawaharlal Nehru did not hope or desire that his daughter should
succeed him as Prime Minister - a fact that is not as widely known as
it should be. On the other hand, Indira Gandhi worked to make first
Sanjay and then Rajiv her political successor. Sonia Gandhi has
followed her mother-in-law scrupulously in this respect, for she has
likewise ensured that her own son would head the party, and, perhaps
in time, the government. The example set by India's greatest political
party has been followed by many lesser ones. Had Indira Gandhi and
Sonia Gandhi not acted in this fashion, perhaps Bal Thackeray, Prakash
Singh Badal, M. Karunanidhi and Mulayam Singh Yadav would not so
brazenly have treated their own political parties as family firms.

The novelist Gore Vidal once remarked of his adopted homeland, Italy,
that it combined the worst features of socialism with the worst
features of capitalism. The Republic of India goes one step further -
it adds, to the worst features of socialism and of capitalism, the
worst features of feudalism. When family and kin are so influential in
other spheres of social life, perhaps it was merely a matter of time
before they made their presence felt in party politics. It may be that
the Congress of Gandhi and Nehru was an aberration. Even if Indira
Gandhi had not accidentally become Prime Minister, for how long would
the Congress have continued as a political party with a robust
organisation, its top jobs open to all regardless of birth or status?
Would it not have succumbed sooner or later to the culture of nepotism
and favouritism that is so ubiquitous in India?

I think that we must resist this cynical conclusion. For much of its
history, the Congress was a democratic, decentralised, party, with
strong state units and a cadre of dedicated and patriotic workers. Its
best leaders were, in terms of intelligence and integrity, a match for
politicians anywhere. Before Indepedence, the Congress party promoted
a distinctive form of nationalism that was inclusive and
non-adversarial. After Independence, it united a nation from its
fragments and nurtured the institutions and processes of democracy. It
is only in the last three decades that the Congress has worked instead
to degrade rather than deepen democracy.

A Spanish journalist recently asked me what I thought the 'greatest
enemy of the Congress' was. I answered, immediately and instinctively,
'Itself'. The decline and degradation of the Congress does not bode
well for the future of Indian democracy. For the rival parties are
steeped in one or other variety of parochialism, based on caste or
region or religion. The Congress remains, at least in theory, the only
national party. Were it to rid itself of control by a single family,
it may once more begin to contribute constructively to the redemption
of the idea of India.

Ramachandra Guha an eminent Indian historian and author, most
recently, of India after Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest
Democracy. This article is published in arrangement with the author
and the Telegraph, Calcutta. He can be reached at ramg...@hotmail.com

Article Source :

Reply via email to