The poet Dom Moraes has written of how, fresh from Oxford, he went to call on India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru liked young writers, and this one had come with good credentials; he was the son of one of India’s leading editors, and had won a sheaf of literary prizes himself. The conversation was friendly and warm, until the Prime Minister asked Dom Moraes what he intended to do when he came back to India. The young man said he would stay on in England, as he wanted to make a career as a writer. The Prime Minister answered that he could have become a writer too, but had chosen to put service of country above indulgence of the self.

This was no idle boast. For Nehru wrote English as well as any Englishman. He had, too, a wide range of reading, and a wider range of experience, these used to good effect in the three major books he wrote: Glimpses of World History, Autobiography, and Discovery of India. He could have been a professional writer and also, if he had so chosen, a professional lawyer. After graduating from Cambridge he had trained in law in London; while his father, Motilal, had a flourishing practice in the courts of Allahabad. When Jawaharlal returned from England, he did the logical (and safe) thing—he joined his father. But in a few years he had left the law, and made Motilal leave the law too. Together they plunged deep into the national movement. Now commenced years of sacrifice and struggle. Motilal died in 1930. but it was another seventeen years before India became free. Much of that time Jawaharlal was in jail.

Jawaharlal Nehru could have been a lawyer or writer, but he chose to be a freedom fighter and politician. The career options open to his daughter Indira were rather more limited. She was not a scholar; she came down from Oxford without a degree. She married and had children, and then spent a decade-and-a-half as her father’s hostess. The first job she ever held was the Presidency of the Indian National Congress, to which she was appointed in 1959, when she was forty-two. After a year in this post she went jobless again. Then, in 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri made her Minister of Information and Broadcasting, this more a gesture to the memory of her father than an acknowledgement of merit or capability. When Shastri died she was, to her own surprise, cataputled into the post of Prime Minister. There were other and better candidates for the job, but the Congress bosses (notably K. Kamaraj) thought that they could more easily control a lady they thought to be a ghungi gudiya (dumb doll).

It turned out otherwise. In power Mrs Gandhi displayed a streak of ruthlessness few had seen in her before. She split the Congress, threw out the bosses, and with the slogan of ‘Garibi Hatao’ re-fashioned herself as a saviour of the poor. While she was growing into her new job, Mrs Gandhi’s two sons were trying out careers of their own. The elder boy, Rajiv, after having followed his mother in having failed to complete a degree (at Cambridge this time), took a pilot’s license and joined Indian Airlines. The younger boy, Sanjay, wisely decided not to go to university at all. He apprenticed at Rolls Royce, where his lack of discipline provoked a flood of anguished correspondence between his mother and the Indian High Commision in London, who were naturally worried about the repercussions of the son’s waywardness on the reputation of the Prime Minister.

In time Sanjay returned to India, and sought to set up a car factory of his own. He said he would manufacture not limousines but a ‘people’s car’ named Maruti. Despite the gift of cheap land (from a sycophantic Chief Minister of Haryana) and soft loans from public sector banks, the project failed to deliver on its promises. Another of Sanjay’s chamchas, the editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, claimed that his factory would roll out 50,000 cars a year. ‘Soon little Marutis should be seen on the roads of Haryana and Delhi’, wrote the editor: ‘and a month or two later they will be running between Kalimpong and Kanyakumari’.

As it happened, Sanjay Gandhi’s factory did not produce a single roadworthy car. (The little Marutis that now run on Indian roads are based on the Japanese design of a standard Suzuki vehicle.) It seems that Sanjay anticipated this for, in 1975, when his factory was yet to be completed, he went in search of another career. He had not to search very far; no further than his own home, in fact. Isolated by the Emergency, his mother needed support, and her younger son was happy to provide it. He soon showed that he enjoyed authority even more than Mrs Gandhi himself. Some of the more notorious events of the Emergency, such as the forced sterilizations and the demolitions of homes in Old Delhi, were the handiwork of Sanjay.

By the time the Emergency ended Sanjay Gandhi had discarded any pretence of his being a maker of cars. Henceforth it was all politics for him. He fought two Lok Sabha elections, became General Secretary to the Congress, and served as his mother’s deputy on all matters concerning the party and (from January 1980) the Government. But then in June of that year he died in an air crash. The mother, bereft, turned to her elder son to take Sanjay’s place.

While Sanjay was alive, Rajiv Gandhi had shown no inclination to join politics. His main ambition, he said, was to graduate from flying Avros on the Delhi-Lucknow run to flying Boeings between Calcutta and Bombay. By June 1980 he had been flying for twelve years, but his record did not yet merit the promotion he so ardently desired. He was rather luckier in politics. Once he had answered Mummy’s call, and changed his career, the rewards were swift. In less than five years of joining the Congress he had become Prime Minister of India.

The historical retrospective I have provided here explains why young Rahul Gandhi had to join politics sooner rather than later. For, like his father and his uncle, he had tried other careers and failed. His name, and little else, got him admission into India’s most prestigious undergraduate college, St. Stephen’s. After a year there he transferred to a place more highly regarded still, Harvard, the wires being pulled for this at the highest levels. There is no record of his having completed a degree there. It is believed that he then went to Cambridge, but details of what he did there are hazy. At any rate, he then took a job, but doesn’t seem to have been especially suited for the world of management and commerce. For this assertion we have his word. When asked in a recent interview whether he felt any regret in leaving his job in the corporate sector, Rahul Gandhi candidly answered: ‘I was getting hammered there, too’.

Which brings me back to Jawaharlal Nehru. The first family of the Congress is sometimes referred to as the ‘Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’. This is a misnomer, and grossly unfair to Nehru. For there is no evidence that he wished to create a political dynasty, no evidence that he desired that his daughter should become Prime Minister of India. It was Indira Gandhi who created the dynasty; she brought her sons into the Congress, and made it clear to all, within and outside the party, that she expected them to succeed her.

There is another, and perhaps more consequential reason, to separate Jawaharlal Nehru from later generations of the family. It is this; whereas for him joining politics was a matter of commitment and sacrifice, for the others politics has served as a comfortable safety net. Jawaharlal could have been a top lawyer, or an internationally renowned writer; he chose to fight for the freedom of his country instead. The cases of Rajiv, Sanjay, and Rahul are all too different. After having failed to distinguish themselves in other fields—flying, car production, and management, respectively—they took their mother’s advice to enter the family business—where there was a place reserved for them at the very top.