What next for the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty?
Illustration credit: Pixabay | Unsplash

The Nehru-Gandhi family has dominated Indian politics for almost a century. The dynasty has produced three Prime Ministers out of the total 15 that have served thus far and has practically been in command of the Indian National Congress (INC, often called the Congress Party or simply Congress)  for decades now. The INC has its roots in the Indian nationalist movement opposed to British rule; it has since become a major political party that has formed most of India’s governments since gaining independence. Currently, they are the main opposition party to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Even today, the Nehru-Gandhi family heavily influence the Congress Party and the political situation in India as a result. Therefore what they do next will have huge ramifications for the future of India. 

The History

The patriarch Motilal Nehru was a two-time INC President, a notable leader of the Indian independence movement, and the father of Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi and a principal leader of the independence movement. When Gandhi took a step back from his leadership responsibilities in the mid-1930s, he “publicly proclaimed that Nehru was his heir”. He was pivotal during negotiations in the lead up to Indian independence and Partition, before assuming Prime Ministership from 1947-64. Nehru left an indelible mark on Indian politics and his role in shaping the young country can never be forgotten. 

This chain of political power was extended when Nehru’s only daughter Indira Gandhi (neé Nehru) became the country’s first female prime minister. She served from January 1966 to March 1977 and again from January 1980 until her assassination in October 1984, making her the second longest-serving Indian prime minister after her father. The question of her legacy is quite a controversial one. For some, she is the woman who personally reached out to the poor and ensured food security while mitigating the impact of a global recession on India’s economy by nationalising banks. Yet others see her as a tyrant, a manipulator of power. It was under her order that India entered the ‘Emergency’ – a period of 21 months that is often called the darkest phase of independent India’s history. Opponents jailed, freedoms suspended, the media suppressed. All in the name of “internal disturbances”.  

She has also been accused of perpetuating dynastic politics. Her younger son Sanjay Gandhi had been groomed to take over from her, while his older brother Rajiv remained largely apolitical. However, when Sanjay passed away in an aviation accident in 1980, she insisted that Rajiv enter politics. Which he did, albeit reluctantly. On October 31st 1984 Indira Gandhi was assassinated, and Rajiv Gandhi took his oath later that day, becoming the youngest Prime Minister of India. At the tender age of 40, and having only had 3 years of experience as an MP, he was relatively obscure and inexperienced. One could argue that even on Indira Gandhi’s deathbed, nepotism was flourishing. 

Rajiv Gandhi was himself assassinated in 1991 and was survived by his wife, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, and his two children, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi. Whilst Sonia Gandhi was reluctant to enter politics, she eventually did so, and was Congress President for a record 19 years, from 1998 to 2017. She led the Congress party to election wins in 2004 and 2009 and surprised many when she turned down the post of Prime Minister both times. Yet, in reality, she was always considered the head of the Congress government.

Meanwhile, her son Rahul Gandhi had entered politics, and was named the party’s secretary general in 2007, and the Congress vice-president in 2013.  His ascent to the eventual presidency of Congress in 2017 was inevitable and ‘though many within the party saw his move into politics as positive, some said the decision highlighted the party’s lack of alternatives and its continuing reliance on the Nehru-Gandhi family for leadership and direction’. This decision came under further scrutiny following the 2014 elections. 

The 2014 Elections

The 2014 elections saw Congress’ worst defeat since the first Indian general elections in 1951-52. They won only 44 seats of the Lok Sabha (Lower House of the Indian Parliament) while the BJP stormed to a landslide victory, winning 282 seats. This was largely put down to the widespread corruption during the Congress’ previous 10 years in power and lacklustre leadership from top officials, prompting many to desire change. However, one could hardly ignore the relentless attacks that Narendra Modi, leader of the BJP had launched against Rahul Gandhi and his privileged background; so much so, that he became an object of mockery and ridicule.

Nevertheless, Gandhi retained his seat in Parliament and appeared to be making huge strides ahead of the 2019 elections. The appearance of his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra – usually thought to be the more charismatic sibling – on the campaign trail seemed to invigorate the Congress party’s efforts, and although they were not expected to win outright, there was hope that they could improve significantly on their poor performance five years prior. 

However, as the results started to come in, it began to look very bleak for Rahul Gandhi and the rest of Congress. They won only 52 seats against the BJP’s total of 303 seats, and to rub salt in the wound, Gandhi lost his own seat in the family stronghold of Amethi, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Although he won another seat in Wayanad in Kerala – and is therefore still able to sit in parliament – Amethi was more than just another constituency for Rahul Gandhi. It was the seat that his uncle, father, and mother had all contested and won, and that he himself had held since 2004.

Overall, it was a shock for many, and in the aftermath- numerous questions were raised about the future of the Congress party. These were apparently put to rest when Rahul Gandhi resigned as Congress president in July 2019. Penning a four-page letter, he took responsibility for the defeat, stating that “Accountability is critical for the future growth of our party”. Moreover, he said: “While it is important for someone new to lead our party, it would not be correct for me to select that person.” However, despite this mandate to elect a new Congress president and inject some much-needed vigour into the party, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) chose Sonia Gandhi as its interim president.

What happens next?

More than one year later, and there is still no permanent president of Congress. The CWC met on August 24th and after a seven hour meeting, appointed Sonia Gandhi to remain as interim president. . Gandhi reportedly asked the CWC to relieve her of her duties, but they urged her to continue and resolved to elect a new Congress president within the next six months. This decision was made in the aftermath of ‘a strong letter of dissent’ that was written by over 23 senior party leaders ‘seeking an immediate organisational overhaul and a collective leadership’. 

However, it is uncertain whether there will actually be a new permanent president within six months as the process may be fraught with issues due to the pandemic, internal politics, or both. Whether or not the case, there appear to be at least three different camps in the Congress party – those who are eager to elect a new full-time president, those who are waiting for Rahul Gandhi to pick up the reins again, and those who would prefer that Sonia Gandhi continue.

Rahul Gandhi, however, has expressed no willingness to return, and when asked during a press conference on May 8th, replied: “Please see my letter from a year ago”. Despite this, he continues to determine the party’s stance on various issues and has taken on an even more active role during the nation-wide lockdown – whether by attacking Prime Minister Modi over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic or the border skirmishes between Indian and Chinese soldiers. He is still the face of Congress, the main opposition party. What’s next is uncertain, and it appears as though no one, not even Mr Gandhi himself, is aware of his next move. What is certain though, is that Congress must get their act together quickly or they may find that the country has moved too far beyond their party’s vision of a secular India.