How Cong 'chamchagiri' made Sonia India's No 1 politician

The closest English word for the desi word chamchagiri is sycophancy. But sycophancy doesn't have the same depth as chamchagiri does. Sycophancy doesn't make my tongue twirl in the same way as chamchagiri.

So let me take this opportunity to explain chamchagiri in some more detail through a song from the late Jaspal Bhatti's superhit television serial Flop Show. For those who don't know or don't remember, each episode of the serial highlighted corruption from a different facet of life.

One particular episode dealt with the travails of a PhD candidate and his attempts to get a PhD. The PhD candidate (played brilliantly by Vivek Shaque, who died a few years back in a plastic surgery gone wrong) carries out various household chores, including buying vegetables for his guide (played by Bhatti) in the hope of getting his PhD.

Towards the end of every episode of Flop Show there was a parody of a hit Hindi film song. This particular episode had a spoof of the song jo tumko ho pasand wohi baat kahenge, tum din ko agar raat kaho raat kahenge.

The lines of the parody were different and went like this:
Jo tumko ho pasand wohi baat kahenge,
beaker ko agar jar kaho to jar kahenge.
(You can listen to the complete parody here)

This is the level of commitment required of a chamcha, something that the word sycophant simply does not convey.
Now before you start to wonder, dear reader, as to why have I gone into so much detail in trying to define or rather differentiate between chamchas and sycophants, allow me to explain.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to you if I tell you that most Indian political parties are full of leaders who are essentially chamchas who have risen to the top or full of leaders who have become chamchas after being brought in at the top.

Some of the cadre-based parties like the Left Parties and Bharatiya Janata Party (to some extent) are exceptions to this.

But India's number one party when it comes to chamchas is the Congress. Most recently the chamchagiri was in full show when top leaders of the party like P Chidambaram, Veerappa Moily, Jayanthi Natarajan, Kapil Sibal, Manish Tewari and Rashid Alvi (all lawyers to boot) spoke out to vociferously defend the shenanigans of Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Sonia Gandhi, their supreme leader.

But India's number one party when it comes to chamchas is the Congress. AFP

The real estate capers of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, bared by the irrepressible Subramanian Swamy, also drew the expected defence or dismissal of the accuser as lacking in credibility.

But Congress was not always a party of chamchas and chamchagiri. At least not till 1969. Historian and writer Ramachandra Guha explains this in an essay titled A Short History of Congress Chamchagiri, which is part of his recently released book Patriots and Partisans.

"Most Indians are too young to know this, but the truth is that until about 1969 the Congress was more or less a democratic party,writes Guha.

Some time before Jawaharlal Nehru died, Indira Gandhi had been planning to settle in Great Britain. After Nehru died in May 1964, she was invited to join the cabinet as the minister of information and broadcasting by Lal Bahadur Shastri, who took over as the next prime minister.

"When Shastri died in January 1966, Mrs Gandhi was, to her own surprise, catapulted into the post of the prime minister. There were other and better candidates for the job, but the Congress bosses (notably K Kamraj) thought that they could more easily control a lady they thought to be a gungi gudiya (dumb doll),writes Guha.

But instead of being a gungi gudia she turned out to be a control freak who split the party in 1969 and what was a essentially a decentralised and democratic party till that point of time became an extension of the whims, fancies and insecurities of a single individual.

Thus started an era of chamchas and chamchagiri in the Congress. Dev Kant Baruah, who was the President of the Congress Party between 1975 and 1977, went to the extent of saying "Indira is India and India is Indira". What was loyalty to the party earlier became loyalty to the individual and the family.

Also Indira Gandhi had total control over the system, effectively overriding democracy and imposing emergency on 26 June 1975.

famous cartoon made by Abu Abraham showed President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed in his bath during the emergency signing ordinances and saying "if there are any more ordinances just ask them to wait." Other than this, Indira Gandhi also took to firing both chief ministers and governments at will.


While she was building her own career, Mrs Gandhi's two sons Sanjay and Rajiv were trying out their own careers as well. As Guha writes, "The elder boy, Rajiv, after having followed his mother in having failed to complete a degree, took a pilot's license and joined Indian Airlines. The younger boy, Sanjay, prudently chose not to go to university at all. He apprenticed at Rolls Royce (in Great Britain), where his lack of discipline provoked a flood of anguished correspondence between his mother and the Indian high commission."

Sanjay Gandhi came back to India with the idea of manufacturing what he called a people's car. "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 Khushwant Singh, then the editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, claimed that his factory would roll out 50,000 cars a year," writes Guha. But nothing of that sort happened.

Sanjay Gandhi got out of cars and gradually got into politics, effectively becoming number two to his mother Indira. Rajiv Gandhi, on the other hand, wasn't interested in politics. "His greatest professional  ambition was to graduate from flying Avros on the Delhi-Lucknow run to flying Boeings between Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Bombay. By June 1980 he had been flying for 12  years, but his record did not yet merit the promotion he so ardently desired," Guha points out.

In June 1980, Sanjay Gandhi died in an plane crash and Rajiv had to enter politics to support his mother. And in politics he was luckier than he was as a pilot. As Guha writes, "Once he had answered Mummy's call, and changed his career, the rewards were swift. Within five years of joining the Congress he had become prime minister of India."

And the Congress party had effectively become a family run concern. As Guha writes in the essay Verdicts on Nehru, "Mrs Gandhi converted the Indian National Congress into a family business. She first bought in her son Sanjay, and after his death, his brother Rajiv. In each case, it was made clear that the son would succeed Mrs Gandhi as head of Congress and head of government."

Once Indira Gandhi had placed her family at the helm of the Congress it was time for other parties across the country to follow suit. "Indira Gandhi's embrace of the dynastic principle for the Congress served as a ready model for other parties to emulate...The DMK was once the proud party of Dravidian nationalism and social reform; it is now the private property of M Karunanidhi and his children...Likewise, for all his professed commitment to Maharashtrian pride and Hindu nationalism, Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray could look no further than his son. The Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal claimed to stand for 'social justice', but the leadership of Mulayam's party passed onto his son and in Lalu's party to his wife," writes Guha.

There are other examples as well. Sharad Pawar is grooming his daughter to take over the reins of his party. Dr Farooq Abdullah passed on the leadership of his family party, the National Conference, to his son Omar. And this is deeply inimical to the practice of democracy in India, feels Guha.

He gives the example of once travelling through Tamil Nadu a few years back. "I was met at every turn by ever-larger cut-outs of the chief minister's son and heir apparent – cut-outs of MK Stalin smiling, Stalin writing, Stalin speaking into a cell phone. The only other place where I have felt so stifled by a single face was in Syria of Bashar Assad."

And all this has happened because Lal Bahadur Shashtri died rather suddenly and Indira Gandhi was catapulted into a position of immense power. So the question is what would have happened if the Shastri had lived for another five years?

"Had Shastri lived, Indira Gandhi may or may not have migrated to London. But even had she stayed in India, it is highly unlikely that she would have become prime minister. And it is certain that her son would have never have occupied or aspired to that office...Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi would almost certainly still be alive, and in private life. The former would be a (failed) entrepreneur, the latter a recently retired airline pilot with a passion for photography. Finally, had Shastri lived longer, Sonia Gandhi would still be a devoted and loving housewife, and Rahul Gandhi perhaps a middle-level manager in a private sector company," writes Guha.

In short, the world that we live in would have been a very different and probably a better place. But as the great Mirza Ghalib, who had a couplet for almost every situation in life, once said “hui muddat ke ghalib mar gaya, par yaad aata hai wo har ek baat par kehna ke yun hota to kya hota?


It's some time that Ghalib died, Yet is remembered
So widely
Especially his way
Of always asking
About everything
If this would have happened
Then what would have happened
And if that would have happened
Then what would have happened

(Translation borrowed from: Ghalib in Translation O P Kejariwal, UBS Publishers, 2004)

Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at vivek.kaul@gmail.com