Many of us have been witness to this almost feudal style of functioning that has come to define the Sonia Gandhi era in the Congress.
A young colleague in the Indian Foreign Service related an interesting story. Amongst the thousands who came to greet Sonia Gandhi and her children, Rahul and Priyanka, after the Congress Party’s unexpected victory in the 2004 elections was a person whom the children recognized as an erstwhile security officer assigned to the family. They could not recall the visitor’s name. Before the person concerned had paid his respects and reached home, he had been traced and his appointment to a gubernatorial post was being processed.13 What, I asked, would have been the reward if they had remembered his name? Pat came the reply, he would have been appointed a cabinet minister.
Many of us have been witness to this almost feudal style of functioning that has come to define the Sonia Gandhi era in the Indian National Congress.
In June 2001, Sonia Gandhi, along with Congress leaders Manmohan Singh, Natwar Singh, Murli Deora and Jairam Ramesh, was to travel to Iceland and the United States. On their way, they made a stop in London, where I was serving as
the deputy high commissioner.
Their flight was to land in London in the wee hours, and I was deputed to receive the leader of the Opposition and her party members. Two instances from this meeting still remain with me. I received them at the aerobridge and took them to
the Hillingdon Suite at Heathrow. After we had settled down, I noticed that not one of her colleagues had taken a seat on the same sofa as Gandhi—Manmohan Singh and Natwar Singh were seated at one end of the room, while the others stood behind their leader. Unaware of this ‘protocol’, and finding it rather strange that senior leaders of the party refrained from even sitting on the same sofa as their president, I decided to take a seat across from Gandhi.
The second instance, which I remember vividly, happened when we were leaving the airport for their hotel. As the vehicles we had arranged arrived at the gate, not one of Gandhi’s colleagues took the rear seat in the same car with her.
I found this entire episode rather peculiar and was reminded of the ‘divine right of kings’. Gandhi was treated and put on the pedestal as though she were a monarch in the sixteenth century, asserting power over her subjects in the Indian National Congress. It is still not clear whether this kind of subservience was demanded or was readily forthcoming. God, for the Congress party, was somehow synonymous with the Nehru–Gandhi surname.
The present day ‘cult’ status of the Nehru–Gandhi is largely thanks to Nehru’s daughter, Indira. Facing a bitter revolt from within the party, she proceeded to systematically destroy the institution.
Much has been written about the legacy of Indira Gandhi. Many praise her for taking the bold decision to take on East Pakistan and liberate the peoples of modern-day Bangladesh; others are rightly unforgiving for she put the tantrums of her son (Sanjay) ahead of the interests of the nation.
Her ultimate ‘gift’ to Indian politics, however, is the deep-rooted dynastic nature of our polity. The Indian National Congress, which once had presidents of the stature of Subhash Chandra Bose and Vallabhbhai Patel, today cannot look beyond the Gandhi surname.
This excerpt was taken with permission from the book ‘Delusional Politics’ by Hardeep Singh Puri. It was published by Penguin Random House.