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Nehru-Gandhi family nostalgia is just not enough to win elections in India anymore

One Dynasty Dimming, I had written in February 2013, on how Gandhi family could no longer swing votes for Congress. That ‘National Interest’ has aged rather well.

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I had framed the following questions in a 23 February 2013 ‘National Interest’ headlined: One Dynasty Dimming. What has changed fundamentally in politics over the past decade, or what hasn’t? Or, what is it that has changed radically and dramatically, and yet looks like the continuation of an old, familiar pattern?

My answer then to this muddled question was: Dynastic politics. We can ask the very same questions again. The answer will also be the same.

Put more simply, dynastic politics is now on the decline, yet the phenomenon has acquired deeper roots. Dynasties of the Congress and other BJP rivals have been wiped out in these elections, but the BJP’s are thriving. We are dealing with a paradox where dynastic hold on India’s politics has declined and grown at the same time.

These conflicting political cross-currents have brought about a fundamental shift. They have hurt the Congress most of all. You could have asked any Congress leader 2012 onwards — leaders who contest elections (unlike its star cast of chronic Rajya Sabhaists) — and they will admit to you, albeit in whispers and fearfully glancing left and right, that the days when the Gandhi family could win them their seats are over. In the elections, now, it has been every man for himself for nearly a decade. So those who nurse their constituencies, or have local, caste-based or family vote banks, win their seats. Of course, it helps if the Gandhis visit to campaign as it endorses them within the party. But beyond that, their ability to win seats beyond the Amethi-Rae Bareli enclave has diminished to insignificance. Even Amethi has pulled away this time.

I had then asked a senior (and always elected) Congress leader, then why was the Gandhi family still so important and had total sway over the party? He said, surely they cannot help anybody win elections, but they keep the party together. Their word is law and the party needs that discipline. Illustration: The moment Sonia or Rahul says something, everybody nods and falls in line. If Narasimha Rao or Sitaram Kesri said something, everybody broke out in rebellion.

You could assess Rahul’s debut speech accepting the top party post in Jaipur in 2013 in this perspective. It tugged immediately at fellow partymen’s heartstrings, but made little impact beyond. So here is the answer to the first half of our question: The dynasty has become even stronger within the Congress, with not even a whiff of discontent of the kind Nehru (occasionally), Indira (twice and substantively so) and Rajiv (most significant of all) faced. From 1996 onwards, the dynasty has owned the party as never before. But its pan-national vote-catching appeal is history.

Also read: How Rahul Gandhi could have defeated Narendra Modi

One reason the Gandhi family has lost its pan-national appeal because several new dynasties — at least 15 of them politically-significant — have risen in key electoral zones of India. Each one of these now has a strong, proprietary votebank and total ownership of its party. A pan-national dynasty no longer has the ability to breach these fortresses. From the Abdullahs in Kashmir, Badals in Punjab, Mulayam Singh in Uttar Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu and Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu, Gowdas in Karnataka, the Thackerays and Pawars in Maharashtra, Lalu in Bihar to Naveen Patnaik in Odisha and the Sangmas in distant Meghalaya, all represent dynasties that may be limited by geography but cannot be challenged by a national party. So, a Lalu may be thrashed by a Nitish, but his vote share will still remain ahead of the Congress, or even the BJP, particularly if the party was out of its alliance with the JD(U).

The inability to counter, or now challenge, the rise of these dynasties is the Congress party’s biggest failure. It has also, therefore, become the greatest game-changer in our politics. Each one of these dynasties is represented by a strong local leader who has tasted and exercised elected power. Each one has learnt the art of leveraging his regional power to grab a share of the national pie. They have also learnt that real clout, and money, is now in the states. This was explained to me most honestly by H.D. Kumaraswamy, Deve Gowda’s son, when he was briefly chief minister of Karnataka. “My father,” he said, “committed a great mistake in becoming prime minister of India.” In return for that job for a few months, he said, his father lost control over the state of Karnataka. “We all have to learn from the DMK,” he said. “Keep your hold in your own state, and then negotiate with whoever leads the coalition in Delhi for a share of national power.” The Gandhis haven’t found an answer to this. Nor can they complain about it, because they were the ones who established the principle of a political party as a closely-held family concern.

In fact, so lazy has the Congress leadership been with its politics that while its own vote base has been taken away by these satrap families, a number of mini or sub-dynasties have risen within the party. Partly because that’s where the leadership’s comfort level is: Isn’t it so much easier to deal with familiar faces, to be among your “own”, generation to generation? And partly because the party had no other mechanism to produce new crops of leaders from student, trade union or even tribal or farmers’ movements, the traditional nurseries of Indian political talent. So, the party now has Amarinder Singh, wife and son etc in Punjab, the Hoodas in Haryana, where Kiran Chaudhary represents the Bansi Lal lineage as well, Sheila Dikshit and son in Delhi, Virbhadra Singh in Himachal, Sachin Pilot, Jitin Prasada, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Milind Deora, all of whom represent sub-dynasties and are mostly capable of winning their own seats. You can go on counting, from Narayan Rane in Maharashtra to even Pranab Mukherjee and son in West Bengal. The Congress owns them all, but is no longer capable of challenging them. It tried to defy one such, in fact the most prominent of these, and ended up creating the political disaster called Andhra Pradesh.

This is the central problem with the party: Its top leadership can no longer win national elections. Its efforts to rekindle the Gandhi-Nehru family nostalgia cannot go beyond the party faithful today. And it has no regional leaders to counter these 15-odd regional dynasts. Its own group of political scions is like a chamber of princes. They have failed to extend their influence beyond their own constituencies. The party’s politics is trapped now in this rut. And you cannot pull it out of this simply by invoking the name of the family, even five generations of it. This just won’t do in the India of 2014, three decades after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

A version of this article was first published on 23 February 2013.

Also read: Indira Gandhi to Modi — India’s secular democracy has been dying for a while now


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  1. A seasoned journalist like you need not have wasted so my space on something that is so obvious to everybody.

  2. Modi may not be from dynasty the entire BJP is from RSS parivar without which the party would fall like pack of card. It is RSS caders who are helping its political wing to spread across India. They waited for nearly fifty years. In Bengal they were joined by left party caders to attack TMC. Many may not agree, it is RSS which also made people to vote enmass for Rajiv in 1984. It is same RSS which packed off Vajpayee in 2004 for questioning present PM over Gujarat riots

  3. / So, a Lalu may be thrashed by a Nitish, but his vote share will still remain ahead of the Congress, or even the BJP, particularly if the party was out of its alliance with the JD(U) /

    Nitish Kumar essentially revived a dead party in 2015. NDA Bihar will get 180/243 next year.

  4. Non Voilant Independence moment is the genisis for Socialist ideology of congress party which was very much relevant for the initial growth of the country, at the same time Right wing started making foot with the steady growth of society and economy. Though communist party has its roots before independence, it failed attract masses except lower and marginalised classes which further reduced due to Indo China war. Right wing under current become visible in 70s after Bangladesh liberation war with anti Muslim sentiment over Indo Pak tensions which was used to create political unrest by Jam sangh and at the same time descenting Splinter parties started creating more trouble to Indira Gandhi which made her ill advised decision of Emergency. So effectively three ideolgies thrived One is Majoritarian religious based Right wing, Socialism oriented Centerist and Communist Leftists. During Indira period, the centrist congress party drifted from ideology base to person centric and later on completely transformed to family oriented political party while ideology based association eroded. After Indira Gandhi, the Splinter so called centrist polical parties turned into either a person centric or cast oriented. In the mean while since no dreath of communal fodder and penitration of RSS into sub urban and rising middle class helped BJP gain political prominence in 90s. Demolition of babri masjid was a greater turn around for BJP for long term and and intermittent communal violence only added strength to right wingers. Due to collapse of ideological base, the affiliation of congress party workers and leaders limited to loyality to gandhi family or crossed over to BJP or splinter regional parties. Though Leftists maintained ideological base but there are no takers for their ideology after Indo China war. In 90s Industrialists and Business men shifted from Congress boat to BJP boat. BJP quickly strengthned its ties with business community and continued with communal polarisation. Today the end result is Masses communally divided, BJP financially strong and on the other side centrists with lack of leadership and ideology base reduced to near non existence. Key option before congress for its revival is re develop ideological base and merge all the Splinter political parties which were formed by breaking away from Congress party. For the Leftists, returning back to CPI fold and work democratic communism

    • Since congress party’s strongest support and glue to keep party Cadres is Gandhi family, any attempt to replace President OF Congress with non gandhi family person is just a knee jerk reaction which only help right wingers destroy congress. Congress party should first concentrate on bringing back its ideological base which should be “Unity in Diversity” on socity and “Inclusive Development” on Economy…. Oppsing to Majoritarian Religious supremacy, Crony Capitalism and Religious Nationalism of BJP. Once ideological base is developed then only one can think of change of guard in Congress leadership. Congress should work towards building strong state level leadership and at the same time make sure that they don’t turn it to vanshvaad at state level. Some good happened in the present elections that the cast based regional political parties influence got declined. Congress should work to gain foot hold in those regions.

  5. The Congress party needs to rebuild itself, from the bottom up. At the moment, the President and the General Secretary are both needed at their posts.

  6. Nehru Gandhis should be exiled to North Korea or Venezuela. Congress should be disbanded. ‘Socialist’ word expunged from the constitution.

  7. Mr Kumaraswamy is right that his father committed mistake by becoming PM. And all regional dynasties should learn from DMK to keep in their respective states and bargain with who so ever is in power in Delhi. Those who like DMK and BJD, kept themselves to own region, survived. And those who, although all not dynasties looked towards Delhi power, like Kejariwal,most ambitious, perished.

  8. Right on spot. Who will administer the purgative when the apex family itself is worthy of evacuation?

  9. I think there is not much benefit to India from journalists spending too much time on analysing failures of the Congress and suggesting how to revive this dying party. Instead it would be more beneficial to India if journalists spend more time on getting the best from Modi’s next five years of rule. India has numerous things to accomplish and to accomplish fast. Isn’t it the duty of every journalist to positively contribute?

  10. Though Shekhar Gupta mentioned that dynasts in BJP have not faced the rout as faced by dynasts in Congress party but he didn’t explain why it’s so. May I request him to cover analysis of BJP dynasts also in his future posts.

    • Other dynasty developed their constituencies and states whereas Nehru Gandhi’s destroyed Uttar Pradesh from 1951 to 1990’s (50 years) after which the people shifted to SP, BSP, BJP.

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