Readers Write In #400: Lessons from a Grandmother to her Grandchildren

Posted on August 24, 2021


(by Aman Basha)

What Rahul and Priyanka ought to take from 1960s Indira Gandhi to get the Congress its groove back

An India suffers its worst crises since Independence, two years after a conflict at the border with Pakistan, there are still high tensions after a conflict with China, Hindu Muslim tensions rear their ugly head in horrific riots and farmers suffer as agriculture provides diminishing returns. Amidst this chaos, the Congress Party is at its lowest point till then, least number of Lok Sabha seats and states under its control, obituaries and post mortems being published all over while its leader is the latest scion of Nehru’s dynasty, chosen as there was no alternative, a leader who was always part of the Youth Congress leadership but had little to no administrative experience, not a reassurance to a country reeling under crises. This 50 year old leader’s Oxbridge education is little help as criticism is heaped for the lack of communication, seeming absence and further hampered by a dismissive nickname. Little seems to be going well for this leader as even senior party leaders join together to voice criticism.

Had anyone else faced the challenges Indira Gandhi was beset with as she ascended to the post of Prime Minister after Shastri’s sudden death in 1966, they would mostly fold or at best be a footnote. Yet Indira, long mocked as a Goongi Gudiya, soon raised her voice, taking control and transforming at once both how India practices its politics and the course of Indian history forever, becoming its most powerful prime minister.

There is a strange paradox in stating that Rahul Gandhi faces the same challenges Indira Gandhi did, for Rahul’s greatest challenge can be best summarized in the context of the past as what if…Indira Gandhi was born with literal balls and joined the BJP. Yet it seems just like how only Rajni was the right villain to match Rajni these days (in Endhiran/Robot), only an Indira rehash could beat another, difference being one Indira rehash (as practiced by Modi) is from the 70s, the time when the ordinary man from Gujarat took a dive into politics and the right Indira rehash to defeat him should be from the 60s, a time when Rahul Gandhi’s parents had married.

Ms. Gandhi had begun her political journey campaigning on behalf of her father’s party and her husband contesting from Rae Bareilly. While certainly charismatic and possessing a connection with the common man/woman, no one ever knew what she was ideologically. In fact, debate still goes on today whether her embrace of the left was her natural choice or a wily calculation. 

Whatever it was, she was astute enough to realize that the country was taking a turn to the left and went along with the tide. Today, the tides of history push India towards the right, if not entirely in economics then at least in terms of culture (It is also telling of the state of Indian politics that the cultural left and right are explicitly associated with religions). For whatever reason, a perception has permeated into the common people that the Congress is not patriotic enough, that it sympathizes with Muslims but disrespects Hindus. This feeling is only hardened when there is such an obvious bit of pandering in Shiv Bhakti and jeanudharan, quite unlike Indira who was all too happy to cast herself in the image of Maa Durga vanquishing evil. The right mythological touch drove a Telugu Bahubali to record levels of success, the right religious metaphor and allusion can help bridge what is growing distance between Congress and the voter.

For all of Indira’s charisma and perceived popularity with the voter, her image too took a major hit in her first years as Prime Minister. As the positivity and good will towards Nehru’s daughter dissipated, she learned the hard way what a tough job she was put up to. A poor performance at the AICC meeting in Jaipur where her dramatic declaration only opened up more questions and protests till Kamaraj had to take over and restore order to the floor was only a trailer for the next Parliament session. 

Though a star campaigner, she was a poor parliamentarian, turning silent in front of questions. The opposition only harangued her more and even the slips of paper passed by her party men could not stop her from faltering. It was this dismal performance that led Ram Lohia to affix the now infamous “Goongi Gudhiya” nickname. 

Where I would be really stretching it is comparing the grandson’s foreign trips to Indira’s America visit. Both Indira and Rahul received a warmer reception abroad than in India, but had to reckon with swift backlash once they returned home. The backlash hit Indira, for acquiescing to the demands of the Americans and with Rahul, for a plethora of reasons with the most common being “not around when you were needed the most”. The first election campaign Indira led in 1967 brought the Congress down even further, to its lowest tally till then.

Embattled, weak and at her political low point, Indira soon made a stunning comeback. The signs were always there, even while in an election which clearly wouldn’t have gone well for the Congress, she still stuck on give a fight, in a relentless campaign covering 15,000 miles and hundreds of public meetings, even suffering hits from rocks on her nose. When she was seemingly cut down to size and pushed to a corner after the results, she put up the biggest fight. In May 1967, she announced a ten point program to further her turn left and slowly raised the pressure against her opponents while also securing new allies. It was in 1969 that Indira first became Indira, when she transformed what was till then and has been since, a simple and low intensity election for President as a referendum on her power and furthermore into an ideological contest, defeating her party’s official candidate (a first for a ruling party) for her own favorite. The rest is, as they say, history.

For all the bad press, criticism and bad press Rahul Gandhi has been subject to, the currents of time have favored him by bringing to the same juncture his grandmother was at before she ascended to her primal position. The stats and studies have come out explaining how the BJP has to better its performance in UP from 2017 to ensure its presidential candidate a win by itself in 2022. There is still six months for assembly elections in India’s biggest state and a chief minister who is widely seen as the next big thing for the BJP. Despite the chief minister’s popularity across the BJP national base, his own state has a much more mixed view.

It is true that the Congress has not only the state but a very hostile media to deal with that gives them little coverage, yet Indira, facing all these challenges and much more with the Syndicate, never backed down, campaigning so long and wide that nearly 20 million people had either seen or heard her. Even tightening the BJP’s win margin would do wonders to the morale of the despondent Congress cadre (or whatever is left of them). 

While the BJP may still manage to swing the presidential election even in the case of losing UP, their plans, just like in 2019, might come to naught if faced with the wily political brilliance of Sharad Pawar. I do not profess to know what Mr. Pawar is thinking, of course no one except him ever really knows, but the incessant speculation points to his interest in contesting the presidential elections, but only if he’d win. 

Making the UP election nail biting enough would hurt the BJP, a huge blow would be dislodging Yogi, but what would you make of a Prime Minister who despite controlling the Lok Sabha cannot get his presidential candidate elected easily? 

More than Modi, 2022 will be about Rahul (and to that effect, Priyanka) Gandhi. This is their make-or-break moment, and by extension for the Congress as well. In the next 12 months, Rahul Gandhi must transform as his grandmother did, or he would merely remain a reminder of India’s past and not be the harbinger of the future course of India’s history.