Interim president Sonia Gandhi and former Congress president Rahul Gandhi at the recent CWC meeting
A file photo of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi | Photo: Suraj Singh Bisht | ThePrint
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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.


Also read: Talk Point: What does Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification mean for democracy in Pakistan and its politics


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.


Also read: Why Modi is using Nehru to try and demolish the Gandhi dynasty and Congress


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.

Read this article in Hindi.

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34 Comments Share Your Views

34 COMMENTS

  1. I believe Sonia should retire from active politics.She can be appointed Chair-person of the party.Let Rahul/Priyanka fight an open democratic election for the position of President/Vice-President in the party with whoever else aspires for the said posts.Inner democracy in the party should be strictly implemented as the first essential step to rejuvenate the dormant Congress party.It will have to take some hard steps to revitalise and counter the severe criticisms it is facing since it lost power in the Centre.It has fallen into stupor for quite some time now and must shake-off the dross if it wishes to stay relevant in the times ahead.

  2. Forgetting the Congress vs BJP aspect, what the current Govt lacks is the ability to listen to contrary views and come to a considered decision based on data. Mrs Gandhi showed tremendous patience and instinct when she maintained touch with Laldenga even when he took shelter in West pakistan, after years of militancy in Mizoram. After many years he was persuade to come to Delhi and open talks with G Parthasarathi and others , out of which came the Mizo Accord. Yesterday’s rebel became a CM of a State .
    One notices the absence of such flexibility and a rigid militaristic approach when we observe how the NDA simply placed the J&K leaders in prison and earlier the way they avoided a frank open dialog on how to abrogate Article 370.

  3. Congress will face it’s doom eventually!
    You can’t pretend long enough that you are up for development of nation when your policies are failing and the senior leaders including the high command are or on bails.
    You can’t pretend that you don’t hate hindus when one of your MLAs is behind protests like shaheenbagh which demands freedom from Hindus

  4. Congress will face it’s doom eventually!
    You can’t pretend long enough that you are up for development of nation when your policies are failing and the senior leaders including the high command are or on bails.
    You can’t pretend that you don’t hate hindus when one of your MLAs is behind protests like shaheenbagh which demands freedom from Hindus

  5. The print. U are ass licking filthy online media of “Congrass”. I mean seriously!! U wrote a long garbage out of ur hangover. Shame on you. Do something for the country. Otherwise “chatukar” medias like you should know their place.

  6. How can one forget ten years of upa rule ………..remote control pm ……loot corruption. Power without any responsibilities. This is the way Gandhi Nehru family wants to run congress and the country. They don’t have a clean image like Modi. These three idiots along with their political advisor Ahmad Patel can never return to the power.

  7. The comments against the congress and Nehru – Gandhi family are unilaterally.Corruotion is not a matter nowadays.In BJP ruling States corruption is in existence.Present conditions are well noticed. Main things is that, the maximum youth of this country not aware about the factual position

  8. First Congress needs to dump Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka. Then reconstruct the party. It can’t be possible without Sr Congress leaders agreeing to elect a leader through election. If Congress can’t do this, it’s disappearance from Indian politics will happen sooner than later.

  9. Rahulji ke baare mein toh aur kya bolne ki zaroorat hai. However, I became aware of the role P N Haksar played in the golden years of Mrs Gandhi’s premiership while reading a review of this book. She should have had the good sense not to let him go, least of all to be replaced by her thuggish son as the principal source of advice. He was worth his weight in gold.

    • Exactly right…..a CLASS POLITICIAN even an opponent PARTY will agree in private….he proved many a TIMES……last ASSEMBLY ELECTION was his METICULOUS ICING on cake……..most of FRAUDSTERS n VICIOUS minded games WILL be no match for this STALWART…..HE HAS RISEN TO HIGHTS EVEN TO EXPIRENCED FRITFUL RIPE AGE TOO!👌👍🌹

  10. Congress party should leave the old leaders and strengthen the party with young and dynamic leaders. This the time to revamp the party ,and take quick decision.

  11. No comparison of Indira ji with Sonia
    One – a product of three generations politicians and the other a former bar tender SEE MODI TO RULE TILL CONGRESS IS IN NEHARU GANDHI FAMILY HANDS

  12. It is unfortunate that some like this writer are still in the mode of wishful thinking of Congress revival. This is nothing but day dreaming ;building castle in the air.
    The reality is Congress has reached to the point of no return. Decimated to the brink. The present scenario, the state of affairs in Congress at present is a clearcut fact that it would not shed the dynastic culture so much rooted in its blood .Come what may. Can you imagine a ship without a captain to steer it from sinking. The Congress is desperately in need of a leader with political acumen to see the light of the day. That is definitely not anyone from Gandhis for sure.It is high time somebody bell the cat and come out boldly within in it’s ranks and voice for alternate other than Gandhi trios S R P. Otherwise Congress is sure to be dumped to dust.
    .

  13. It is unfortunate that some like this writer are still in the mode of wishful thinking of Congress revival. This is nothing but day dreaming ;building castle in the air.
    The reality is Congress has reached to the point of no return. Decimated to the brink. The present scenario, the state of affairs in Congress at present is a clearcut fact that it would not shed the dynastic culture so much rooted in its blood .acome what may. Can you imagine a ship without a captain to steer it from sinking. The Congress is desperately in need of a leader with political acumen to see the light of the day. That is definitely not anyone from Gandhis for sure.It is high time somebody bell the cat and come out boldly within in it’s ranks and voice for alternate other than Gandhi trios S R P. Otherwise Congress is sure to be dumped to dust.
    .

    • Nothing is permanent in politics also. The article suggests open approach and put dynastic thinking behind and welcome well educated new leaders who can make thoughtful changes. BJP is practicing old divisive principle augmenting it with Hindutva which will in bad taste.

  14. 1. Is it not true that the grand old party called Indian National Congress has already lost mass support? Unfortunately, no one cares as all the seniors in the party are living in their own unrealistic world and the juniors have no voice. 2. As we all know the Congress has actually become a regional party, with less than 50 Lok Sabha MPs. Is it not true that Congress’ national status is already under a threat? 3. Regional parties like RLD, and NCP, with whom Congress has alliances in Bihar and Maharashtra respectively, are seen to dictate terms to the Congress party and the Congress’ top leadership appears to be helpless. This is a very sad situation but perhaps it is a bitter reality. 4. As some political analysts have pointed out future of the Congress party lies in the party rightfully claiming its place as a centrist party. 5. Dynasties are there in other political parties too, but instead of opposing dynastic succession of individuals like Rahul Gandhi the Congress party’s leaders out of power since 2014, have become rather desperate. 5. Therefore, my suggestion is that for revival of the Congress party, there is a need for the Congress High Command to come out with a “White Paper”. White Paper (WP) would have to be a comprehensive document that must deal with (a) UPA government’s performance in two terms from 2004-2014, (b) party’s views on problems like lack of jobs, unemployment, (c) farm crisis and farmers’ suicides, inflation, and in particular difficulties of senior citizens who are not govt. pensioners, (c) existing deficiencies in GST etc. It is necessary that the WP gives details as to how the Congress party would deal with all these issues in future when UPA regains power in the Centre. I say that the WP should be released at the earliest.

  15. All of this academic balderdash. The simple fact is – Sonia and Ahmed Patel hate Hindus and are determined to destroy them. They are like the Baathists of Iraq under Saddam Hussain who want to rule over the majority. The Hindu majority is waking up to this stark reality and will not rest until the Congress party is ousted and buried.

  16. Congress with Gandhis at the helm has no future. Rahul Gandhi is most inefficient. Priyanka’s husband Robert Wadhra is a corrupt business man. Sycophants in the party will never allow a non Gandhi person to lead from the front. The party is almost finished.

  17. The article truly defines what ails Congress today.Power without responsibility and hubris brought it down.Its a tragedy for India to see this once great political party brought to its knees by the shenanigans of one family.
    Hopefully some worthy persons will have the courage for course correction

  18. The problem today, is an unwilling Rahul Gandhi,and a pressurising band wagon,of seniors and juniors behind him, asking him to take the reins.there shud be a via media, now with Rahul as president,and one or 2 working presidents.congrez is losing precious time,and the earlier it nominates a president,better.

  19. The writer of this article should be immediately appointed as advisor by congrace…whose image as anti hindu…anti ram mandir..pro..corruption..will haunt for years…the headless chicken…

  20. If Gandhi family settles in Italy Khangress will have some hope.They are a burden to the party, society and the Country

  21. Sonia and Rahul and Priyanka may think they owe it to the Congress to stay in politics. They owe it to the country to go. Ramachandra Guha

  22. ‘Aspirational India’ also needs honest people, not crooks at the helm. Sonia Gandhi and her entire family is a bunch of crooks. They looted the country right and left and pampered the vote bank without doing any improvement for the minority. Time for Sonia and her entire family to retire from politics. Congress in its present form has no chance of coming to power.

  23. It is proverbial that advice is least appreciated by the person who most needs it. Mother-son duo is on a ego trip. They want to enjoy the perks of being MPs, without the responsibility. Why waste valuable wisdom on such people? Both have given up on revising the congress party.

  24. Whether It Was Karnataka Or MP The Aim Was To Make Quick Bucks And Old Guards Riding The Same Rickety Bullock Cart And Whippping Minority Upliftment Which Is Passe Now.Party Needs An Intellectual Face Lift With Clear Cut Forward Path To Country’s Progress.We Have Heard Enough Of Modi Bashing Which Sounds Hollow And Reflects Dearth Of Policy Making.

  25. Knowledge comes mostly from reading. All those who take a short cut by gaining knowledge by methods other than reading i.e. only by talking and listening have serious constrains. When you read different people you form your opinion based on different and diversified opinions, nobody need to know what you read and these opinions are directed towards you possibly with an intent or an agenda.
    Do not know if the two Mrs. Gandhis can be compared no matter who the advisers are.

  26. Most of the writers forget that whatever the Congress does to redem itself out of this hopeless situation, the people of this country will never forgive them for their humongous corruption and also blatant minority appeasement, the result of which we see today. I am surprised that there are many like the author of this article who work in foreign universities and are continuously busy in advising the Congress and the corrupt Gandhi family on the do’s and don’ts. But they do not have the guts to tell the Mother son duo that people will never forget their corrupt ways and that coming back to power is an uphill task unless Modi makes a big blunder. Observing Modi since 2000 tells that he is not a leader who will give a half volly for the opposition to hit him out. Instead of asking the Congress to be be free and fair in finding solutions , these kind of writers need to tell them that the first thing Congress has to do is to stop being seen with the anti nationals who chant bharat tere tukde hone etc. The minority appeasement has to be seen to have ended. For a ruler all masses are equal. Some can’t be more equal than others. Congress needs to convey to the public that it will not tolerate corruption whatsoever….but alas expecting Congress to do all this is like expecting the Sun to rise from the west.

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