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Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, right, and Jawaharlal Nehru on July 6, 1946. (Max Desfor/Associated Press)
Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, right, and Jawaharlal Nehru on July 6, 1946. (Max Desfor/Associated Press)

The Nehru-Gandhi family: A once-mighty dynasty in decline Add to ...

On the walls of Rita Bahuguna Joshi’s whitewashed bungalow in the north Indian city of Lucknow, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty looks as timeless and regal as ever, with family members gazing out reassuringly from photographs that span modern Indian history.

In one, Ms. Bahuguna Joshi’s parliamentarian father sits beside his colleague Jawaharlal Nehru, the revered founding father of India’s independence from Britain whose only child was Indira Gandhi, who became one of India’s longest-serving prime ministers shortly after him.

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On another wall, Ms. Bahuguna Joshi, an Indian National Congress MP herself, stands with current Congress president Sonia Gandhi – who married Indira’s son Rajiv, before he inherited India’s prime ministership when his mother was assassinated in 1984. Rajiv himself was later assassinated, blown up by a female Tamil suicide bomber. The mantle of power eventually fell back – as it almost always has – to a Gandhi, with Sonia presiding over the Congress party.

Then there is the more recent photo of Ms. Bahuguna Joshi standing next to the son of Rajiv and Sonia: Rahul Gandhi. He is currently leading Congress into the final weeks of India’s national elections – the largest democratic exercise in world history, in which more than 800 million registered voters are expected to cast votes on the direction of the world’s second most populous country.

“We have deep confidence in the Nehru-Gandhi family,” says Ms. Bahuguna Joshi, who is heading Congress’s campaign in Uttar Pradesh, a key battleground state with 200 million people.

But these are shaky days for the family clan that has helped shape India since independence. The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty – and the party associated with it – are in trouble, with polls now predicting a Congress rout and a resounding victory for the right-wing opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Such a defeat would be a major blow to Congress’s vision of a secular, social democratic India.

“We are a secular nation. We are a culture that believes in inclusiveness. We are liberals,” Ms. Bahuguna Joshi continues, blurring the lines between the party and the country. “And I’m sure people are going to see through [the BJP] very soon. It will not be a BJP-led government. We will not allow it.”

The BJP is the party of free markets and Hindu nationalism, the exact opposite of the Nehruvian socialism and secular pluralism the family has used to guide the country, virtually uninterrupted, since 1947. Their vision created the modern India of today: the giant welfare schemes and subsidy systems that have prevented mass starvation in a country with more of the world’s poorest people than any other; the secular leadership that has kept India’s combustible patchwork of religions, castes and ethnicities – with a few exceptions – from openly warring.

In the early 1990s, faced with an outdated, socialist-style system, Congress leaders tweaked Mr. Nehru’s vision for the new century, and implemented economic reforms that helped unleash India’s vast economic potential. But after the past decade in power, and particularly with a slowing economy, the nation, Congress and the family all seem weary.

Under the leadership of Narendra Modi, the self-made chief minister of the northwestern state of Gujarat, the BJP has cast Congress as a decadent and corrupted family-run enterprise. After a decade in which India has been subjected to multiple, multibillion-dollar scandals under the Congress-led coalition government, the BJP – a party whose more extremist elements previously prevented its widespread appeal among centrist Hindus and India’s sizable Muslim population – has been able to portray their party as an uncorrupted, pro-business alternative that would revive India’s growth prospects and bring development to the country’s poor, regardless of religion.

The party’s senior leaders dream of an India liberated from the Nehru-Gandhi ideology. “Nehruvian socialism is not the answer,” says Arun Jaitley, a senior BJP leader. “Nehruvian socialism is over.”

It has not helped that Rahul Gandhi, 43, strikes many as a reluctant heir to power. He never formally announced that he was his party’s prime ministerial candidate, fuelling speculation that he did not want to stake his and his family’s reputation on an election the party seemed destined to lose. Congress previously brought out Rahul for the important – but ultimately disastrous – Uttar Pradesh state elections in 2012, for which he publicly accepted blame.

At a BJP rally in Gujarat, Mr. Modi’s home state, the scorn for Congress and the dynasty is palpable. “Rahul is in the nursery of politics and Modi is the master of politics,” says Piyush Pandya, a BJP campaigner, after seeing Mr. Modi’s speech. “Even if my parents stood for Congress, I wouldn’t vote for them.”

Recently, Rahul’s respected sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, has emerged from the war rooms of the Congress party to publicly criticize Mr. Modi and the BJP, likening them to panic-stricken rats. But the attempt to change the narrative has faltered: Ms. Gandhi Vadra has come in for sustained criticism of her own, almost all of it about her husband Robert Vadra and the millions he has made from real-estate deals during Congress’s decade in power. That critique resonates with a population tired of politicians and their associates milking a corrupt system, a situation that has persisted under Congress regardless of its adherence to large-scale welfare schemes for the poor.

The seemingly endless scandals under Congress have left liberal India dispirited. Respected human-rights activist Harsh Mander, who served on Sonia Gandhi’s national advisory council and advised Congress on child labour and food security, says the party represents two ideas – social democracy and pluralism – at its best, but that they have become “flawed and corrupt” in practice.

“I had a ringside view of this at the top,” Mr. Mander says. “It was a government that conducted itself without ideological conviction.”

Political dynasties are common across South Asia, as elsewhere. But it is rare that dynasties are so firmly associated with certain beliefs – which, in turn, are embodied in a particular party. But even if the Gandhi family, and the Congress party, suffer a defeat at the polls when India’s five weeks of voting end next Monday, it is unlikely that those ideals will fade away. Mr. Mander says he assumes voters will stray to the BJP for a while, then return to Congress eventually, as they have before.

But if Mr. Modi wins a strong mandate from the Indian electorate, supporters expect him to bend the country away from the left-of-centre, Nehru-Gandhi model. How drastically India changes direction would be determined by the size of that mandate, but either way, the Nehru-Gandhi ideals – like the family – are more likely to hibernate in opposition than fade away entirely.

“I would not suggest that the prospect of defeat means the end of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty,” says Shashi Tharoor, a Congress MP and former United Nations diplomat.

“Not to say we’re going to lose, [but] I think the party will regroup around [the family] and reinvent itself for a new generation. … Until and unless the family chooses to discontinue its role at the head of the party, it’s unthinkable that the party would not turn to the family.”

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