India's Dynastic Politics
The Nation
December 1, 1997
For nearly 40 years, India has been ruled by one family, the Nehru dynasty, through the Congress Party. Power is what the leadership of this party has always aspired for. The fact that in the process Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi met a tragic demise has not prevented Congress (I) leader Sitaram Kesri from pinning his hopes on Sonia Gandhi, the Italian wife of late Rajiv Gandhi, for reuniting the party in trouble. And his most recent act of withdrawing support from the United Front is also aimed at reviving the Congress’s dynastic rule in India—an act that has been widely criticized by the Indian media.

Wrote Shekhar Gupta in The Indian Express: “Now, the dynasty has devoured the idea and its orphans know no politics other than one to somehow bring the same family magic back to life…If the President is as indignant as the rest of us citizens at this blatant subversion of democratic spirit and constitutional principles, he must not allow the Congress to get away with this robbery. As for the rest of the political parties, it is a timely reminder that the threat of dynastic rule is still not behind us. But in its latest folly, the Congress has given them an opportunity to lay that ghost to rest. And take the Congress where it must go for its own, and India’s good. To the cleaners.”

Now when the Congress (I) moves a no-confidence motion in Lok Sabha against the UF government set-up of which it was a partner, India will see its fourth government collapsing within a period of two years. Immediately after the Congress decision to withdraw its backing of the UF, Inder Kumar Gujral resigned from premiership.

President Narayanan accepted his resignation, asking him to act as caretaker prime minister until a new coalition government is set up or the next national elections are held. Barring the new election option, there can be only two eventualities, a government led by Congress or a government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party. The Congress hopes to break into the ranks of United Front.

The BJP has the largest number of Lok Sabha seats—193, including those of its allies, as against 177 of UF and 144 of Congress in a house of 545. After last year’s general elections, it was the BJP which was first given the chance to form government, which it did—though only for 13 days, as it could not muster enough parliamentary strength within the proposed period. This time, however, the BJP may try to build on its recent past political experience in the Uttar Pradesh—where, despite its Hindutva agenda, it formed a coalition government with the lower caste Bahujan Samaj Party for well over six months.

Secondly, soon after the BSP ditched it last month, it succeeded in winning over several MPs, including some 19 from Congress. The Times of India editorial has portrayed a dismal scenario for the Congress insofar as its hopes for forming the government are concerned. It stated, “The Congress’ plans rest on spoiling the UF, which so far is showing no inclination to oblige. The TMC and the SP may be persuaded to cross over, but not necessarily the others. Of the United Front members, the DMK has been made out to be the villain of the piece by the Congress, while the AGP and the TDP both genuinely fear that they may be the next targets—the former for its ULFA connection and the latter because of the recent bomb attack in Hyderabad on Congressmen film star Mohan Babu.

The two parties have also to fight the Congress on the ground. The Left Front has never been comfortable in a political arrangement with the Congress either. In other words, the members simply don’t add up the way things are”.

The BJP is said to be in a better position to form a coalition government or, if the mid-term elections are held, win them. Already wrecked by corruption scandals and the lack of sound leadership crisis, the Congress is in no position to form the government. Many of its leaders have already expressed the fear that if elections were held, the BJP might come to power. That’s why they were not in favour of breaking the current coalition set-up. The blame for breaking this set-up is being placed on Sitaram Kesri, who ever since taking over the Congress leadership has repeatedly expressed his inflexible attitude.

Former UF prime minister Deve Gowda was his first victim. And, last month, it was on his insistence that Gujral was forced to ask the president to dissolve the UP assembly and impose Governor’s rule there. This time, the whole row between Congress and the UF was over Jain Commission’s report, which held one of the UF members, the DMK from Tamil Nadu, responsible for the May 1991 killing of Rajiv Gandhi. The UF under Gujral’s leadership refused to budge.

Wrote Gupta, “Inder Gujral can probably draw some solace from the fact that the three other prime ministers whom the Congress had similarly betrayed—Charan Singh, Chandar Shekhar and H D Deve Gowda—had pretensions to being more formidable power players than him. He was far too decent to last too long in his game where he was more than a circumstantial aberration, a mere night watchman. So the issue is not his departure but the preposterous gameplan that the Congress is unfolding now. A party that roundly lost the mandate just last year now wants to hijack power through sheer blackmail.

In this desperate, cowardly pursuit for power without elections, the Congressmen won’t even permit a debate in Parliament. Power is their birthright and they must have it for free. How ironical that the party that received the worst drubbing in its history in 1996 now wants to teach the voter a lesson by grabbing power in so brazen a manner….Sad that such an outrageous con on the people and the Constitution comes from a party that had emerged more then a century ago as a formidable pre-dynasty, pan-India idea…In the winter of 1984, this resurrection was enacted over the corpses of 3,000 innocent Sikhs. The beneficiary, Rajiv Gandhi, dismissed this with an argument profoundly philosophized by his modest intellectual standards when a large tree falls, the earth is bound to shake a bit. Six years after his death, his Congress would not mind tarring all the Tamils with the same brush of reason.

If the United Front has so far called the Congress party’s bluff by staying united, for once, it is now necessary for all the others, including the BJP, to stand by the Tamils and firmly remind the Congress that it is not the sole guardian of national interest. The party’s only hope now is that the fear of election would still cleave the UF and help it cobble some sort of a coalition, however short-lived. If nothing else, it will then be able to control the caretaker government when a mid-term poll inevitably happens.”

If President Naryanan gives the BJP and the Congress separate chances to form the new government and both fail, the only option left for India will be to hold new elections—which, as Indian media has predicted, may either show results similar to those of the last year election—a hung parliament—or the BJP may hit the Indian political scene with a bang. Kesri’s hope of reviving the dynastic rule by bringing in Sonia to lead the party or cashing in on the Jain Commission report on Rajiv’s murder, may never be fulfilled. In all probability, politics in India is likely to be in deep turmoil for a long time.