It used to be said, in a quote attributed to everyone from Woodrow Wilson to Henry Kissinger, that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low. But the same suddenly seems truer of politics in India. Who would have thought that the grand old party would see so much conflict over the assignment of a handful of Rajya Sabha seats?
Surrounded by the remnants of an old order, bowing and scraping, it might have escaped Rahul Gandhi’s notice that time has passed. The only thing that is constant is change, and to adapt to that change, even belatedly, might be the only option. The point is to face the test of a lifetime: that of challenges within the party. An inter-generational challenge, if some commentators are to be believed, of Sonia Gandhi and Ahmed Patel versus the not-so-young Turks led by Rahul Gandhi. But more likely, of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty against a not-so-new crop of talent, patiently waiting in the wings in some cases, bursting at the seams in others.
Comparing Sonia with Indira
Reading Jairam Ramesh’s Intertwined Lives: PN Haksar and Indira Gandhi is instructive, not least because it shows us how problems, never-ending and sometimes seemingly intractable, were resolved deftly and quite often, graciously, in an earlier time. To equate Indira Gandhi’s early years as prime minister with Sonia Gandhi’s and briefly, Rahul’s tenures as Congress presidents these last two decades may be construed as a case of glaringly false equivalence. But insofar as Indira had a strong role in determining who was Congress president when she was prime minister, and Sonia Gandhi has been Congress president for much of the last two decades, the comparison holds value.
In all of Jairam Ramesh’s analyses of the big changes that principal private secretary P.N. Haksar wrought, be it in bank nationalisation or the liberation of what would become Bangladesh, it is the little details that reveal a more thoughtful leadership at the helm of Congress’s affairs. For instance, Haksar emphasised that each member of the Political Affairs Committee of the Cabinet — Jagjivan Ram, Y.B. Chawan, Sardar Swaran Singh, and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed — voice their views on the ‘aims and objectives of our negotiations with Pakistan’ before Indira Gandhi met with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto at the Simla Conference of 1972. The idea of collective responsibility meant speaking out, raising objections, and having them clarified, not hiding one’s apprehensions and nodding along at the prime minister’s proposals. It meant that the prime minister cared for, and be advised to care for, the counsel of her cabinet.
The same held true for the opposition. When the young Jana Sangh leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee attacked the Indian government for not being critical enough of the Soviet Union’s decision to supply Pakistan with arms, Haksar urged Indira Gandhi to meet with him privately, explain the intricacies of the Indo-Soviet relationship, and “leave a line of retreat for him”.
In a similar vein, Haksar insisted that Indira Gandhi reassure academic heavyweights taking on new tasks that she would personally support them in their new roles as administrative leaders. This included Satish Dhawan, successor to Vikram Sarabhai as chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation as well as V. Radhakrishnan who came back from Australia to head the Raman Research Institute. Haksar knew they were nervous in their new roles and needed a bit of handholding; she, in turn, accepted his advice.
Yet, what is remarkable is how, in the eventful years that he served Indira Gandhi, Haksar was also blunt with his boss. This meant writing to her that it was “unrealistic” and “lacking in seriousness” for her to suggest that India approach China for a Treaty of Friendship shortly after they had signed one with the Soviet Union, and then proceeding to give the prime minister an extended lesson in diplomacy. At this time, India and China had yet to resume a normal ambassadorial relationship so it was far-fetched to think in terms of a special treaty of friendship and cooperation. At another point, it meant admonishing her so that she was forced to establish a protocol for diplomats and others seeking appointments with her. It meant, in short, taking their jobs seriously, being professional at all times.
The long wait to meet the high command
Fast forward to the present: What would Haksar make of very senior (and some not-so-senior) leaders being asked to wait for months to meet with the ‘high command’, or put on hold on the telephone time and again? Haksar would have been characteristically blunt, and, in the less forgiving years that were to come, it cost him his job. The second half of Jairam Ramesh’s biography covers the years Haksar worked hard, but not in the glow of the prime minister’s secretariat. We see Haksar being sidelined, and, at the same time, the slow unraveling of Indira Gandhi’s carefully constructed power in a less confident time. That the family in the shape of Sanjay Gandhi played a massive role in creating this less confident time hardly needs to be reiterated.
What does it mean to hold power, electoral power, political power today? To be among the 100 most powerful people in India or among the 100 most powerful women in the world? The power of leading an election rally, the rush of hearing your name on loudspeakers, seeing your name emblazoned on banners, posters, hoardings. The power to nominate candidates, build a political career, bring down a political career. The power to give darshan, to refuse to give darshan, to take a phone call, to refuse to take a phone call. The sense to use power responsibly and carefully, the incredible and appalling lack of sense, the thoughtlessness of tearing up an ordinance with all the media in attendance.
A recent article by senior Congress leaders Sanjay Jha and Salman Soz suggests that there is a widely felt need within the Congress for “a formal shadow cabinet”, the inclusion of “outstanding talent” whose “collective brilliance remains untapped” and the need to nurture and build “a surfeit of independent state leaders.” The Congress has its strengths; for the ‘high command’ to fear rival sources of power is not a sign of internal party democracy, but more in keeping with Putin’s Russia. A wishy-washy, half-time leader isn’t the kind aspirational India needs or can look up to. The Congress, if it wishes to make a comeback, will have to push to positions of leadership professional, committed, worthy politicians, not part-time dynasts.
Neeti Nair is associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Views are personal.
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