Not long ago, I found myself in a panel discussion on television with three politicians. One was a Congress Member of Parliament, a second an MP from the Bharatiya Janata Party, the third the President of one of the smaller regional formations. In the course of the conversation I found reason to criticize the three netas for their sectarian stands. As the argument grew more heated, I found myself ignoring the others and turning on the Congressman in particular.
Coming out of the studio, and driving home, I later reflected on this partisanship of my own. Why had I been less harsh on the others? It may have been because from them a historian can expect no better. Despite its occasional disavowal of the Hindutva programme, the BJP is a party of bigots which detests minorities and atheists. For their part, the regional parties use the rhetoric of caste and linguistic discrimination mostly to advance the wealth and power of their leaders.
The case of the Congress is different. This was the party that led the movement for freedom, the party that united India and brought people of different religions and languages into a single political project. Its finest leaders were not confined by national boundaries; they had a universalist vision. Its ministers and legislators were men and women of high personal integrity. When confronted with the Congress of today, an Indian who knows some history cannot but be struck by the chasm between the present and the past. Hence the savagery with which I turned on the Congressman in the television studio. Unlike the representatives of the BJP or the regional party, he should have known better than to defend dynastic rule, duck the question of the massacre of Sikhs in 1984, disregard the growing evidence of corruption in a Congress-led government, and so on.


Despite what it has done to itself in recent years, the Indian National Congress is one of the great political parties of the modern world. It has a lineage and record of achievement comparable to that of the Labour Party in Great Britain, the Social Democratic Party in Germany, and the Democratic Party in the United States. From its beginnings in 1885 its ambitions were immense, these contained in its very title, with the last, definitive word indicating that it would not be sectarian, but embrace Indians of all shapes and sizes, or castes and communities.
In the first few decades of its existence, the Indian National Congress built a network of branches spread across the country. The most intense Congress activity was in Eastern India, where the major figures included Surendranath Banerjee and Bipin Chandra Pal, and in Western India, where the acknowledged stalwarts were Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gopal Krishna Gokhale. With their sophisticated intellectual cultures, Bengal and Maharashtra were in the vanguard—but the Congress had a reach and presence in North and South India as well.
By the time Mohandas K. Gandhi returned home from South Africa in 1915, the Congress was a genuinely national organization. Still, it had two serious, and inter-related, weaknesses—it was active only in the major cities, and its debates and proceedings were conducted only in English. Given the shallow social base of the Congress, it was easy for the British to dismiss it as a front for lawyers and other English-speaking professionals seeking the loaves and fishes of office.
Gandhi felt this criticism keenly, and sought to refute it. First, he encouraged the Congress to function in the vernacular, by forming provincial committees that operated in Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Oriya, and other languages of the people. Next, he brought in peasants and women, two groups that had previously been excluded from the proceedings. Third, he campaigned to abolish Untouchability and to promote Hindu-Muslim harmony, to answer the charge that the Congress was a party of upper caste Kayasths, Banias, and (especially) Brahmins. Fourth, he worked to nurture a second rung of political leadership, that would work with him in deepening the social base of the Congress and make it more representative of the nation-in-the-making.
In the short and medium term, Gandhi was successful in all but the third ambition. The rejection of colonial provincial categories—the Madras Presidency, the Bengal Presidency, etc—through the creation of local Congresses based on language proved to be a superbly effective link between the metropolis and the periphery. Through the 1920s and 1930s, the nationalist credo was conveyed in newspapers and magazines printed in languages other than English. The flow was not uni-directional; rather, the concerns of the different linguistic communities were also brought to the attention of the All India Congress Committee. Long before Amartya Sen, Gandhi had concluded that a person possessed multiple identities—and that it was perfectly consistent to be both Bengali and Indian, or Kannadiga and Indian, and so on.
It was also Gandhi who brought the rural masses into the freedom struggle. Operating in the vernacular helped here; as did his dress and lifestyle, which resonated far more with the peasantry than the turbans and suits of an earlier generation of Congress leaders. Peasants played a notable part in the non-co-operation movement of the 1920s and the civil disobedience movement of the 1930s, although (as historians such as David Hardiman and Shahid Amin have demonstrated) they were motivated more by their own livelihood concerns—lower taxes, higher wages, freer access to forest and grazing resources, etc.—than by abstract political categories such as ‘nationalism’ and ‘anti-colonialism’.
From the perspective of the modern feminist, some of Gandhi’s statements about women appear to be less than emancipatory. He was opposed to contraception, for example, and decidedly ambivalent about the role of women in the workplace. At the same time, he extolled their character and goodness, and considered them more courageous than men. At first, he was hesitant to allow them to offer satyagraha, but his reservations were overcome by his independent-minded colleagues, such as Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Sarojini Naidu. In the end, thousands of women courted arrest during the Salt Satyagraha of 1930 and the Quit India movement of 1942. Thus, as Madhu Kishwar once pointed out, more women participated in Gandhi’s campaigns than in movements led by any other man in modern history. In this respect he was conspicuously more successful than ostensibly more ‘modern’ and less ‘chauvinist’ leaders such as Lenin, Mao, and even Mandela.
One of Gandhi’s less noticed achievements was his making leaders of followers. Vallabhbhai Patel was given charge of building the party organization; Jawaharlal Nehru instructed to reach out to the youth and the world outside India; C. Rajagopalachari asked to take the nationalist message to the South; Maulana Abul Kalam Azad told to take this message to the Muslims. The delegation of responsibility was also followed with regard to the constructive programme; thus J. B. Kripalani was asked to establish khadi centres, J. C. Kumarappa set to work on reviving the agrarian economy, Zakir Hussain charged with designing an educational curriculum. In later years, the trust reposed in them by Gandhi helped these individuals make substantial contributions to the political and cultural life of the nation.
A unique and very appealing aspect of Congress nationalism was that it did not demonize the foreigner or the alien. Here Gandhi and his colleagues were acting under the inspiration of Rabindranath Tagore, who made a necessary distinction between the Nation of the West and the Spirit of the West. The former had manifested itself in pillage and imperial exploitation, and had to be resisted. The latter had promoted freedom of expression, equal rights for all, and the spirit of scientific enquiry—all this had to be made India’s own.
To be sure, there was often a slippage between the ideal and the practice. Dalits and Muslims did not always feel at home in the Gandhian Congress—hence the appeal of rival leaders like B. R. Ambedkar and M. A. Jinnah. While emphasizing freedom, the Congress did not lay adequate stress on equality—industrial workers and agricultural labourers did not feature strongly in its programmes. Among the Congress leaders in the Gandhian era were some Hindu conservatives, who were deeply unsympathetic to the idea that Dalits and women could enjoy the same rights as upper caste men.
Withal, despite its failures and inconsistencies, the Congress that brought India freedom was a party of distinction and achievement. It had many imitators, such as the African National Congress. Across the colonized countries of Asia and Africa, the party of Gandhi and Nehru acted as a beacon of hope and inspiration. Even when they did not mimic its name or its methods, anti-colonial nationalists remained in thrall to it. Indeed, among the admirers of Gandhi and company was that gun-toting Marxist revolutionary, Ho Chi Minh.


A charge often laid at the door of the Indian National Congress is that it has doctored the school curricula to diminish the role of other actors in the freedom struggle. The part played by the Bengali revolutionaries in opposing British rule, or the struggles and sacrifices of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, do not always feature in textbooks written under the aegis of Congress Governments. It is further alleged that these books also ignore or underplay the contributions of individuals and groups to the right of the Congress party, as for example the liberals or the Hindutva-wadis.
These accusations are not altogether untrue. The Congress under Gandhi’s leadership was the major strand in the nationalist movement, but there were other tendencies as well, which, in works written by or under the supervision of Congress Governments, do not always get the attention they deserve. The Congress should also be charged with a more curious crime, which is of not properly acquainting schoolchildren with its own role in the making of modern India. The textbooks sponsored by it may devote excessive space to the contributions of the Congress before Independence; at the same time, they lay inadequate stress on the contributions of the Congress after Independence. For the party of Gandhi and Nehru was not merely in the vanguard of the freedom struggle. This party also helped create and nurture the democratic Indian nation-state.
It is said that when the British left these shores, Gandhi told his colleagues that ‘freedom has come to India, not to the Congress party’. This statement was immediately acted upon by his two chief lieutenants, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel. Thus Patel played a key role in peopling the Constituent Assembly with legal experts who had no previous party or political affiliation. On his part, Nehru inducted, into the Union Cabinet, politicians who had vigorously opposed the Congress in the past (and were to do so again in the future). They included B. R. Ambedkar of the Scheduled Caste Federation and Syama Prasad Mookerjee of the Hindu Mahasabha. In this ecumenism the Congress was being faithful to the spirit of its founders, who sought to reach out to all Indians, regardless of caste, class, religion, gender, or ideology.
In the gossip that circulates in such places as RSS shakas, as well as in some Internet chat rooms, Nehru and Patel are made out to be rivals. To be sure, they had differences, as any two individuals would, such as husband and wife or even mother and daughter. However, what united the two men was far more important than what divided them. We Indians owe Nehru and Patel an enormous debt for what they did together, in partnership, in the years 1947 to 1950, when they helped construct a nation from its fragments and gave it a democratic Constitution. In this heroic and noble task they had many helpers and associates, most of whom belonged to their own Congress party, but also some who didn’t, such as the chief architect of the Indian Constitution, B. R. Ambedkar.
I have spoken of the differences between Nehru and Patel. On two occasions these threatened to split the Congress party–in January 1948 and again in the monsoon of 1950. Each time, the two men had the sense to work together in the common cause. Each time, the decision to submerge their differences was made partly in homage to their common hero, Gandhi, and partly to save the organization to which the two owed a lifelong allegiance. For both Nehru and Patel, the Congress was their family and their pride. It had given them a home, and it had given meaning to their lives. Both knew that a schism between the party’s top leaders would have dealt a body blow to the Congress. When they chose, on both occasions, to make peace among themselves, Nehru and Patel helped save the Congress, and, quite possibly, the idea of India itself.
The first years of Indian independence were very fraught indeed. Had there been lesser men and women at the helm, or a lesser party than the Congress, the Centre might very well have given way. India could have come under military rule, or broken up into several different parts, or been subject to mass scarcity and famine. But the Centre held. In January 1950 a new, republican Constitution came into being. Two years later India held its first national elections based on the principle of universal adult suffrage.
Through the 1950s and 1960s the Congress party ruled at the Centre and in most of the states. The elections it won were mostly free and fair. The Congress came out successful because it was the legatee of the freedom struggle and because its leaders were seen, for the most part, as individuals of character and probity. To be sure, voters had the option, which they sometimes exercised, of choosing other individuals and parties. Thus in 1957 they sent the Communists into power in Kerala, and in 1963 they sent three remarkable opponents of the Congress into the Lok Sabha to harry Nehru after his humiliation at the hands of the Chinese. (These critics were the socialist Rammanohar Lohia, the liberal M. R. Masani, and the Gandhian J. B. Kripalani.) Even if such successes were few and far between, by participating in regular elections the people of India were acquiring the habits and mores of democracy.
The Congress established a democratic Constitution, and oversaw a series of mostly fair elections. Another great gift it gave the people of India was a positive ideology of hope. Some other new nationalisms consolidated themselves on an ideology of fear and paranoia, seeking to unite citizens on the basis of hatred of a particular community or of another nation. On the other hand, the post-Independence Congress sought to unite Indians in pursuit of the common goals of secularism and economic development, assuring citizens equal rights regardless of their caste or religion, and working to end the endemic poverty to which most of them had been subject.
For this historian, the Congress of the 1950s and 1960s is best regarded as a school for democracy. Under its capacious umbrella, Indians learned to vote freely and speak their minds freely. They learnt also to craft and trust independent, impersonal, rule-bound institutions such as the judiciary, the press, and (not least) the Election Commission. Like any school there was a gap between precept and practice. Not all Congressmen were squeaky clean. There was inadequate stress on land reforms. And there was a shocking failure in the field of primary education.
The post-Gandhi Congress could have done somewhat better. And it could have done a lot worse. A fair measure of its achievement lies in the fate of other countries in Asia and Africa that obtained their independence as the same time as ours, many of which came under military rule, or disintegrated into civil war. The Indian National Congress may not deserve all the credit for the British leaving the sub-continent. But it does deserve more credit than it has thus far got for laying the foundations of a somewhat united and somewhat democratic Republic of India.


One of the forgotten heroes of Indian democracy is Kumaraswamy Kamaraj. This withdrawn, monosyllabic, self-educated man from a modest social background was instrumental in building a mass base for the Congress party in South India. Later, as President of the national party, he helped mediate between different factions of the Congress. But perhaps his greatest service to his party and nation was to successfully oversee two major transitions. First, when Jawaharlal Nehru died in May 1964, he consulted the party’s MP’s before arriving at the conclusion that Lal Bahadur Shastri would be the best choice to take over as Prime Minister. Eighteen months later Shastri died suddenly of a heart attack. Now Kamaraj again moved swiftly to contain the damage, by helping to choose Indira Gandhi as Shastri’s replacement.
An only child, growing up with a sick mother and a father frequently abroad or in jail, Indira Gandhi did not allow herself to easily trust anybody. Her insecurities were compounded by the fact that, at the time she became Prime Minister, her administration had to contend with food scarcities, insurgencies in Nagaland and Mizoram, discontent in the Tamil country, the birth of the Naxalite movement, an acute foreign exchange crisis, and the still open wounds from wars fought against China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1965. The voter’s faith in the party of the freedom struggle was at an all-time low. The Congress somehow managed a majority in the General Elections of 1967, but it lost power in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, in Bengal and Orissa, and, after a spate of defections, in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh as well. One could now take the Kalka Mail from Delhi to Howrah and not pass through a single Congress-ruled state. Even in the capital the party’s hold was not entirely secure; it ran the Union Government, but it was the Jana Sangh which now controlled the New Delhi Municipal Corporation.
In a comparable situation, Gandhi, Nehru, or Patel may have worked in even closer collaboration with their party colleagues. However, in the years before she became Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi had little sustained interaction with senior Congressmen. In any case, she did not entirely trust them; least of all her Deputy Prime Minister, Morarji Desai. So, in this moment of crisis, she circumvented the party, instead drawing upon a cadre of loyal advisers, who—not entirely coincidentally—happened to be mostly Kashmiri Pandits. She took the counsel of a Kaul, a Nehru, and two Dhars, but the person she most relied upon was her fellow Allahabadi (and fellow Kashmiri Pandit) P. N. Haksar. As the Principal Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, Haksar quickly emerged as the second most powerful individual in India. On Haksar’s advice, Indira Gandhi acted against the Congress Old Guard, accusing them of being reactionaries who were against progressive policies such as the nationalization of banks and the abolition of the titles and purses of the erstwhile Maharajas and Nawabs. In 1969 the Congress party was broken into two. The faction that stayed with the Prime Minister was soon recognized as the real Congress, especially after it won a comfortable majority in the General Elections of 1971, riding to power on the backs of the slogan of ‘Garibi Hatao’.
Indira Gandhi’s victory at the polls was followed by an even more authoritative victory on the battlefield, against Pakistan in the war of December 1971. And yet Mrs Gandhi continued to be unsure about her authority. To make herself more secure, she disbanded the old, decentralized structure of the Congress—where district and state units had substantial autonomy—and placed individuals who were personally loyal to her at the head of Pradesh Congress Committees. At the same time, she floated the idea of the ‘committed’ civil servant and the ‘committed’ judge, so that key positions in the bureaucracy and the judiciary were also now occupied by individuals known to be loyal and subservient to the Prime Minister.
It is important to note that this undermining of democratic institutions was well under way before the imposition of the Emergency in 1975. By suppressing freedom of expression and jailing Opposition politicians, the Emergency completed a process begun in the late 1960s. Shortly after its imposition, Indira Gandhi introduced a further departure from democratic functioning, by naming her second son, Sanjay, as her heir apparent. The locus of decision-making now shifted from the Prime Minister’s Office to the Prime Minister’s House. (An early casualty of this shift was P. N. Haksar, who was transferred from the PMO to the Planning Commission after he suggested that Sanjay Gandhi stay out of politics.)
When Sanjay died in an air crash in 1980, Mrs Gandhi immediately drafted her other son into the Congress party. When she was herself killed in October 1984, this son, Rajiv, was sworn in as Prime Minister. One of his first acts to bring his friends and relatives into politics. Like his mother, he could not bring himself to trust his own party men. This was in part a product of social snobbery, and in part a fear that some senior Congressman desired the top job themselves. Even so, the decision to rely on cronies rather than on professional politicians and administrators was to cost him, and India, dearly. It was his chums from outside politics who advised Rajiv to open the locks in Ayodhya and to overturn the Supreme Court’s judgement in the Shah Bano case. These hasty actions contributed to the defeat of the Congress Party in the next General Elections. They also resulted in two decades of almost continuous religious conflict, in which tens of thousands of lives were lost, and the lives of millions of other Indians made more troubled and insecure.
Before he joined politics, Rajiv was a polite and well-mannered young man. When he visited his old school, for example, he touched his teachers’ feet in a spontaneous and sincere act of devotion. However, as Prime Minister he could be quite arrogant. At least one Chief Minister and one Foreign Secretary were dismissed at impromptu press conferences. However, the failure of the Congress to command a majority after the 1989 elections chastened him; perhaps he might have acted in a more mature and (dare one say) democratic fashion had he ever enjoyed another term as Prime Minister.


Unlikely as Barack Obama’s rise to political power has been, it has scarcely been as unlikely as Sonia Gandhi’s. Obama’s ascendancy defies history and social prejudice; Sonia’s runs counter to the currents of culture and geography as well. Not even Bollywood could script a beginning so obscure—a woman born in a modest home in a small town in postwar Italy—with an ending so remarkable—as the most powerful person in the world’s largest democracy.
Sonia’s story would stretch the imagination of the most imaginative film director, as well as the sensitivities of the most sensitive biographer. From the point of view of the historian of the Congress, however, all one needs to note is that, like Indira and Rajiv before her, she is a profoundly insecure person. She was a devoted wife and mother; secure and happy in her family life, she watched with horror as her husband was dragged into public life, and thrust into the office of Prime Minister. And then he was murdered, as brutally and unexpectedly as his mother had been.
The assassinations of her husband and mother-in-law must have made Sonia deeply vulnerable. Even now, nearly twenty years after Rajiv’s death, the insecurities persist. She trusts her children, implicitly and wholly; has faith in a few of her husband’s old friends, and in her political secretary, Ahmed Patel. For the rest, she is prepared to watch and observe.
Jawaharlal Nehru did not hope or desire that his daughter should succeed him as Prime Minister—a fact that is not as widely known as it should be. On the other hand, Indira Gandhi worked to make first Sanjay and then Rajiv her political successor. Sonia Gandhi has followed her mother-in-law scrupulously in this respect, for she has likewise made clear her wish that her son should take control of the party, and, in time, the Government.
This December, Sonia Gandhi will preside over the one-hundred-and-twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Indian National Congress. It is not clear how deep is her acquaintance with the history of the party she now leads. Does she know, for example, that for most of its existence, the Congress was a democratic, decentralized, party, with strong state units and a cadre of dedicated and patriotic workers? It seems unlikely. Sonia Gandhi moved to India in 1968; the next year Indira Gandhi split the Congress. Between 1969 and 1984 she knew the Congress to be merely an extension of her mother-in-law’s will and whim; a pattern that was to continue through the seven years that her husband was in control of the party.
Sonia Gandhi is fanatically devoted to the memory of the two Congress Prime Ministers with whom she shared a home. This past October, she visited the Indira Gandhi memorial on Safdarjung Road, to personally supervise its dusting and cleaning on the eve of the twenty-fifth anniversary of her martyrdom. Sonia adored her husband; and he adored her. This is common knowledge, especially among Congress Chief Ministers, who know that the best way to ingratiate oneself with their Party President is to name a large and permanent new structure after her late husband (as with the ‘Rajiv Gandhi’ Sea Link in Mumbai and the ‘Rajiv Gandhi’ International Airport in Hyderabad.)
In an interview she gave the journalist Vir Sanghvi, Sonia Gandhi said she joined politics to honour the memory and sacrifice of the family members whose photographs graced the walls of her house. Passing, several times a day, the portraits of Nehru, Indira, and Rajiv, she could not refuse the invitation to lead the party they had once led. After she entered politics there has been an occasional appreciative reference to Mahatma Gandhi, but the many other remarkable individuals who contributed to making the Congress the most enduring and influential party in India do not seem to have entered her angle of vision. Campaigning in Gujarat, she may be compelled to mention Vallabhbhai Patel; in West Bengal, the name of Subhas Bose is possibly inserted into her speech by her ghostwriter. For the most part, however, the history of the Congress is identified in her mind with the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, and Jawaharlal Nehru—in that order.
How much more does Sonia Gandhi’s son know about the past of the party of which he is now the General Secretary? I was recently discussing the ‘succession’ question with a friend who has experienced modern Indian political history at rather closer quarters than I have. How would his more distant forbears have looked on the possibility of Rahul Gandhi becoming Prime Minister of India, I asked? Motital would have been pink with pride, said my friend, whereas Jawaharlal would have turned crimson with embarrassment.
The Indian National Congress was Jawaharlal Nehru’s true and proper family. Neglectful of his wife, distant towards his daughter, unsuccessful as a lawyer, it was the Congress that gave real meaning and purpose to Nehru’s life. For nearly fifty years it was his primary affiliation and allegiance. In the years before Independence, he worked ferociously hard in building the party’s profile in northern India. He also travelled extensively across Europe and Asia to take the message of Congress nationalism to the world. These activities were interrupted by periodic bouts of jail-going, which however afforded the opportunity of forging ever closer friendships with his fellow Congressmen and, it must be added, Congressswomen.
Nehru’s attachment to the Congress comes out most vividly in his writings. His Letters to Chief Ministers contain frequent references to freedom fighters who had recently died, commending their work and example to those who were alive and still sought to serve India. His most famous book, The Discovery of India, is dedicated to ‘my colleagues and co-prisoners in the Ahmadnagar Fort Camp’. These colleagues were, of course, all Congressmen, likewise jailed for their involvement in the Quit India movement. The preface builds on the dedication in these still moving words:

‘My eleven companions in Ahmadnagar Fort were an interesting cross-section of India and represented in their several ways not only politics but Indian scholarship, old and new, and various aspects of present-day India. Nearly all the principal living languages, as well as the classical languages which have powerfully influenced India in the past and present, were represented and the standard was often that of high scholarship. Among the classical languages were Sanskrit and Pali, Arabic and Persian; the modern languages were Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Guj[a]rati, Marathi, Telugu, Sindhi and Oriya. I had all this wealth to draw upon and the only limitation was my own capacity to profit by it’.

Nehru was not prone to false modesty, so we may take that last caveat as being wholly sincere. At any event, one cannot imagine Indira, Rajiv, or Sonia writing in this fashion. This is so for at least three reasons: they lacked the literary ability, they did not have the good fortune (or otherwise) to spend extended periods in prison, and they did not think that they had much to learn from other members of the Congress.
Rahul Gandhi does not appear to have Nehru’s writing skills, either, nor his knowledge of Indian history or his interest in global politics. And it is hardly likely that he shall spend time in jail. There may however be one aspect of personal biography that he may yet come to share with his great grand-father; namely, a long apprenticeship in the Congress Party. Admittedly, he may still find it hard to learn from his party colleagues; whereas Nehru entered the Congress with tens of thousands of other Indians motivated by Gandhi’s call, Rahul joined the Congress as the presumptive heir of what had by now become a family firm. That said, unlike his father, mother, and uncle (Sanjay), he is acutely aware of this unearned privilege. In several recent speeches he has spoken of his discomfort with having benefited from the accident of birth. He has also spoken of the need to restore inner-party democracy within the Congress, such that it might come to have genuinely autonomous state committees whose members and leaders are chosen by direct elections rather than nominated by the ‘High Command’.
Indira Gandhi had just over a year as a junior Minister in Lal Bahadur Shastri’s Cabinet before becoming Prime Minister. Rajiv Gandhi spent three years in politics before becoming Prime Minister. From the time he abandoned his small car project, Sanjay Gandhi acted, with his mother’s approval, as if he were now the second most powerful man in India. By contrast, Rahul Gandhi’s rise has been less meteoric. He has already spent six years as an ordinary Member of Parliament; although one does not know when, or how soon, he shall be asked to join the Union Cabinet or to head it. If he agrees to either, that may be the end of his present efforts to limit sycophancy and enhance transparency within the Congress party.


An overwhelming majority of Indians reject the claims of the far right that the fact of Sonia Gandhi’s birth in Italy somehow undermines her identification with this country. Like her husband and mother-in-law, she is a thoroughgoing patriot. Like Indira and Rajiv, again, she has in some ways contributed positively to the life of the nation. Indira Gandhi encouraged scientists, promoted film-makers and artisans, refused to allow India to serve American imperial interests (in Vietnam, for example), and was a superb war leader in the crisis of 1971. Rajiv supported political decentralization through ‘panchayati raj’, and saw, very early on, the potential of information and communication technology. Sonia has focused attention on the rural poor and bravely stood out against Hindu communalism.
Against these contributions, one must juxtapose some very considerable failures. These include the Emergency of 1975-7, for which Indira and Sanjay Gandhi were largely responsible; the communal conflicts of the 1980s and 1990s, to which Rajiv Gandhi contributed as much as the BJP; and the now near ubiquitous presence of cronyism and sycophancy
in both party and government, for which Sonia Gandhi must take a fair share of the blame.
Borrowing a line from the immortal comic actor Johnny Walker, I once characterized India as a ‘phiphty-phiphty’ democracy. The record of the political party which has most centrally defined Indian democracy is likewise very mixed. The citizen may conclude—as indeed she and he did in the General Elections of 2009—that the Congress is still somewhat better than the other parties in the competition. The historian is obliged to add that the party is nonetheless rather worse than it was. In terms of intelligence and integrity, the best leaders of the Congress once were a match for politicians anywhere. Before Independence, the Congress party promoted a distinctive form of nationalism, that was inclusive and non-adversarial. After Independence, it united a nation from its fragments and nurtured the institutions and processes of democracy. It is only in the last three-and-a-half decades that the Congress has worked as much to degrade as to deepen democracy and national unity in India.
The main form that this degradation has taken is through appointing the wrong people to the wrong jobs. Chief Ministers, Cabinet Ministers, Secretaries to Government, Election Commissioners, University Vice Chancellors, even Directors of Museums, are chosen on the basis of their proximity to the Congress President, or to someone who is close to the Congress President. Ability or competence are merely incidental. This policy, inaugurated by Indira Gandhi, was then emulated by the other parties, except that they fixed appointments on the basis of ideology (as with the BJP and the CPM), or caste and linguistic identity (as with the DMK, the Akalis, the Shiv Sena, the TDP, the AGP, the BSP, the SP, the RJD et.al.). For forty years now, the autonomy of public institutions has been eroded by the appointment of individuals whose main qualification is something other than professional competence. The choice of an insufficiently qualified but politically well connected individual to head an institution leads to a steady erosion in its functioning. The lower ranks are demoralized and demotivated; the upper ranks, focused on flattering their bosses, who, in turn, seek only to maintain their good standing with the politician to whom they owe their job.
India today needs to make its economic growth more inclusive and sustainable. It needs to make its democracy more transparent, and less susceptible to the influence of big money and corporate interests. It needs to reconcile the people of its disturbed borderlands, and to be vigilant against threats from across the borders. For this to happen, our political parties, our bureaucracy, our judiciary, our police, our army, our scientific instiutions, our schools, universities, hospitals, and welfare programmes—these all have to function far more efficiently than at present, and in the Centre as well as in the States. The process of reform and renewal must necessarily be initiated by the Congress, because it is the party in power, and because it remains, at least in theory, the only national party. Were it to rid itself of control by a single family, it may once more begin to contribute constructively to nation-building—by helping to repair, one by one, the institutions that have safeguarded our unity amidst diversity, and by forging, also one by one, the new institutions that are required to meet the fresh challenges of the twenty-first century.


by Ramachandra Guha

(published in Caravan, March 2010)