Family Ties: How the Gandhis Kept a Party but Lost the Country


Hartosh Singh Bal in Caravan:

The party that Indira Gandhi invented anew in 1969 was built around a personality cult, but it sustained itself through her ability to triumph electorally. The old system of organisational loyalty was now replaced by a network of patronage in which people who paid obeisance to the personality cult were rewarded by the benefits that come with a share in political power. There was no longer any question of people being attracted by the party’s vision, because no such thing existed; it is easy enough to define the term Nehruvian, but impossible to give a coherent shape to what Indira espoused. If today what we call the Congress does not have an organisation independent from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and its patronage, it is because Indira excised this possibility in 1969.

This model of politics soon began to show its weakness. The Congress was first voted out of power in 1977, after the Emergency. Although Indira returned to power in 1979, by the time Rajiv was defeated in the general election of 1989 it had become clear that the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty no longer had the appeal necessary to repeat the triumph of 1971. After Rajiv’s death in 1991, Narasimha Rao became the Congress president, and the party managed to cobble together a coalition government under him; it was the first time since 1969 that the party had been guided for any meaningful length of time by someone who was not from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. An electoral defeat five years later confined the party to the opposition until 2004.

With each successive stint out of power, the party’s ability to retain its supporters dwindled. Even where the Congress could win elections, it was not the “same type of political force it was in the 1960s”, Atul Kohli notes; by the mid 1980s, the Congress system “had almost vanished”. This was a natural corollary of the split in 1969: any network of patronage can survive only if it can assure benefits in the near future. Although the party won in 2004 and 2009, the victories were mostly exercises in coalition building; they did not demonstrate any newfound electoral strength among the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, and could not reverse the party’s disintegration at the level that matters—in the states, where local patronage is handed out.

More here.