Few people, within or outside her Congress party, expected Mrs Sonia Gandhi not to accept the office of Prime Minister after the Indian elections results were out. Her decision to renounce the post in favour of the economist Dr Manmohan Singh has prompted the most extravagant comparisons. Some have gone back as far as Gautama Buddha, who gave up life as a Nepali prince to search for salvation. Others have gone back further—invoking the mythical Lord Rama, who renounced his throne and went into exile so that his father could keep his word.

The best way to appreciate Sonia Gandhi’s act, however, is to set it not against ancient history or myth, but against the practice of her own family. By the evidence of his biographer, S. Gopal, there were no fewer than seven occasions on which Jawaharlal Nehru threatened to resign as Prime Minister. In February 1948, bowed by Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination and the continuing violence in Kashmir, he told the Governor-General that he ‘might have to consider my position in Government’. Two years later, when bloody riots broke out in East Pakistan, Nehru offered to resign and work to stop them. In March 1950 he wrote to the President (India by now being a Republic) that ‘it is my intention, soon after the Budget is passed, to offer you my resignation…’. Towards the end of that year, the elevation, against his will, of a conservative candidate to the post of Congress President prompted him to think again of quitting. He could not ‘possibly continue to function’ after receiving ‘a public slap’ on his face: he saw ‘no point in my being Prime Minister in these circumstances’.

The first few years of Indian independence were a time of great stress and conflict. Faced with religious violence, with war against Pakistan, with dissension in his own party, one can sympathize with Nehru’s dilemmas. But it is noteworthy that these hesitancies persisted even after the situation stabilized, and he had asserted his authority over both party and government. Thus in September 1954 he said he was tired and wished to retire. Four years later the thought returned. In April 1958 he told a meeting of Congress M. P.’s that he wished to become a private citizen, as he ‘was not in tune with many things…. not in tune with the country, not in tune with the organization’.

Nehru was deeply ambivalent about power. By instinct and upbringing a rebel, he could not quite reconcile himself to the post of head of Government. As he once wrote to C. Rajagopalachari, ‘throughout my public life I have drawn my strength chiefly from contacts with the people. These contacts grow less and less and I find no recompense for them in my new environment.’ As Prime Minister, divorced from intimate contact with the people, Nehru found that he worked ‘more as an automaton in a routine way rather than as an active and living person’. Hence the desire to immerse himself once more in society—as he put it, ‘if I have to be of any real use in the future, I must find my roots again’.

Each time, Nehru was persuaded that to resign would be to run away from responsibility. In retrospect, it might have been better for his reputation if he had resigned after he had spent a decade in office. Lord Mountbatten once claimed that if Nehru had died in 1958 he would have been regarded as the greatest statesman of the twentieth century. This might also have been the case if he had resigned rather than died¬—for his greatest achievements were behind him in 1958, while his failures were yet to come.

In the event, Nehru came to spend seventeen uninterrupted years in office. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, was Prime Minister for almost as long. There is no evidence of her ever wishing to voluntarily relinquish the post. On one occasion, however, she was almost compelled to do so. On June 12, 1975, the Allahabad High Court found her guilty of electoral malpractices. Her lawyer, as well as some close friends, advised her to resign pending an appeal in the Supreme Court. They thought that decorum demanded this, and in any case abdication in favour of some other Congressman would be temporary, since she was likely to win her appeal.

Other friends thought otherwise. Party loyalists organized massive rallies on the streets of Delhi in support of Mrs Gandhi. At a meeting of the Congress Parliamentary Party, it was announced that there was no question of a change in Prime Minister, since Indira was India and India was Indira. It soon became clear that the nation was indeed identified with the individual. On 26 June a national emergency was proclaimed. Opposition leaders were jailed, the press curbed, and a dictatorship proclaimed in intent and, with the help of amendments to the Constitution, in law.

In 1977 the Emergency was lifted. Mrs Gandhi lost the elections she called, but two-and-a-half years later returned as Prime Minister. In November 1984 she was assassinated. Her son, Rajiv, was appointed in her place. At that time he had been in politics for only three years, and was not even a member of the Cabinet.

Jawaharlal Nehru thought that the Prime Ministership was a duty. Mrs Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi seemed to think it was a right. Their eagerness to embrace, even to cling to, power, are in keeping with one kind of Hindu tradition—the tradition of non-renunciation. In an important book, the anthropologist T. N. Madan has argued that it is a mistake to overemphasise the importance of renunciation in Hindu tradition. For sanyas is only one of four stages in a person’s life. As Madan argues, the texts and doctrines place as much emphasis on the stage of grihasta. The head of the household has a crucial obligation to care for the material and other needs of his family members. In this respect, Mrs Indira Gandhi appeared sometimes to act as if India was a household of which she, as Prime Minister, was in sole charge. She certainly treated dissent with the same contempt as does a male grihasta of a Hindu household.

In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi did not think that lack of experience was a handicap to his assuming the office of Prime Minister. Like his mother and grandfather, but with far less reason, he took it for granted that if the Congress was in power there was no other person qualified for the post. Twenty years later, his widow turned down the job, although she had, in a manner of speaking, fully earned it. Since becoming Congress President in 1998 she has worked hard to renew the party, campaigning in three General Elections to help bring it back to power. But when victory finally came, she turned her back on the main prize.

Some have seen Sonia Gandhi’s refusal to be Prime Minister as being in keeping with the Indian tradition of renunciation. Following T. N. Madan, one may question how significant this tradition has been in the first place—for is not non-renunciation more the way of the Hindu? Be that as it may, it is clear that Sonia Gandhi’s act was emphatically not in keeping with the traditions of the Indian family into which she married. Despite the entreaties of her followers—these shown on national television for all to see—she understood that Sonia was not the Congress, still less India. Her own mother-in-law would have been ashamed of her.

Published in The Hindu, 6/6/2004