Chidambaram's response to Narendra Modi's dare misses mark: Nehru-Gandhi family has always dominated Congress
P Chidambaram was very economical with the truth when he responded to Narendra Modi’s dare to the Congress to make a non-Nehru-Gandhi family member its party president for five years.
P Chidambaram was very economical with the truth when he responded to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dare to the Congress to make a non-Nehru-Gandhi family member its party president for five years.
Chidambaram may have thought that given his famed intellectual capacity, he would succeed in building a counter-narrative by mentioning the names of over a dozen leaders from outside the family. However, he did not realise that he was pitching himself against Modi. The Congress leader unwittingly gave ammunition to Modi and Amit Shah, helping them make the Nehru-Gandhi family's dynastic rule, and the perceived prevalence of a culture of sycophancy in the Congress, an election issue in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
Shashi Tharoor had begun the debate by crediting Jawaharlal Nehru for creating institutions that allowed a “chaiwala” Modi to become the prime minister. Chidambaram and Tharoor are among the Congress’ foremost intellectual faces.
Although Tharoor is from Kerala, he conveniently forgot that in July 1959, a democratically elected government in Kerala led by communist leader EMS Namboodiripad was dismissed by the Centre. At the time, Nehru was the prime minister and Indira Gandhi was the Congress president. This was the first-ever sacking of a democratically elected government by the Centre in India, and it happened shortly after Indira’s tour of Kerala. Katherine Frank in her book “India Gandhi: the life of Indira Nehru Gandhi” mentions how Feroze Gandhi blamed his wife for this dictatorial act.
The list of Congress presidents and their tenures can be broadly divided into four categories – first, when members of the Nehru-Gandhi family directly held the post of party president; second, when a non-family loyalist became the Congress president (leading to the question as to how the person was treated); third, when the family nominated a chosen protégé as the party president; and fourth, when a person from outside the Nehru-Gandhi family became Congress president when no one from the first family was available to take up the mantle.
The fate of the likes of PV Narasimha Rao (1992-96) and Sitaram Kesri (1996-98), who took up the top post in the party because no one from the Congress' first family was around to do so, was a particularly bad one. Modi, at his rally, recalled in detail how Kesri was thrown out of his post and the party headquarters in 1998 to make way for Sonia Gandhi to become the Congress president. Responding to Chidambaram, Amit Shah recalled another instance about how the mortal remains of Rao (the only non-first family leader to have been Congress president for five years) were not allowed to be brought into the Congress' headquarters at 24, Akbar Road. Rao had become the prime minister and Congress president in the aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. He could take up the top post in the party only because no one from the Nehru-Gandhi family was then ready to enter politics. Rao’s name does not figure in the Congress’ hall of fame.
Sitaram Kesri, a wily OBC leader from Bihar, could succeed Rao only because Sonia Gandhi was still unwilling to accept any responsibility.
Since independence, the family — including Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi — have held the Congress president's post for a total of 38 years between them. In the history of the Congress party spanning over 133 years, Sonia Gandhi has been the longest serving party chief, from 1998 to 2017.
The first person from the family to become the Congress president was Motilal Nehru in the pre-independence era in 1928. His son Jawaharlal Nehru succeeded him to the post in 1929 and 1930, and again in 1936.
Consider the following — Acharya Kripalani, who as Congress president oversaw the transfer of power in 1947, soon quit the party to form the Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party, which later merged with Socialist Party to form the Praja Socialist Party. Nehru was then the prime minister. It is a no-brainer as to why Kripalani would have left the party, after having fought so hard during the freedom struggle to see India as an independent country and the Congress as the ruling party.
With support from Nehru, Pattabhi Sitaramayya succeeded Kripalani and remained the party president for two years. Then came Purshottam Das Tandon. His candidature was strongly backed by Sardar Patel. Tandon’s tenure was short lived, as owing to differences with Nehru, he resigned. As fate would have it, Patel died in December 1950.
Nehru took up the Congress president’s post in 1951, and continued till 1955. He was both prime minister and Congress president, a tradition which Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi followed later. In 1955, Nehru relinquished the top post in the party. UN Dhebar was made Congress president, but midway through his tenure, Dhebar resigned to make way for Indira Gandhi. With Nehru as prime minister, Indira became Congress president at the age of 42 in 1959.
She was succeeded by Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, K Kamaraj and S Nijalingappa — leaders who later were collectively known as the Syndicate and were later instrumental in making Indira Gandhi take a decision which they would rue all their lives. She forced a split in the party.
As soon as Indira established her control over the party and the government, the Congress' president's post went to the gentle Shankar Dayal Sharma, and after that, an outright loyalist Devkant Barua, who was known for his remarks — “India is Indira, Indira is India." Indira Gandhi took over the Congress president’s post in 1978, which she held till her death in 1984. Subsequently, Rajiv Gandhi took over both as prime minister and Congress president, and held the latter post till his death in 1991.
Similarly, from 2004-2014, Sonia Gandhi, as Congress president, UPA chairperson and chief of the National Advisory Council, became an extra-constitutional authority over the Manmohan Singh government.
Rahul Gandhi is now Congress president. When he took over from his mother Sonia Gandhi, a party spokesperson on television proudly claimed that he was going to lead the party for the next fifty years.
Chidambaram’s response to Modi’s challenge is thus clearly misplaced.
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