Intrigues of dynastic democracy

NEARLY 50 years ago, when we were first covering Parliament and had gained access to the gossip and behind-the-scenes information of Central Hall, I was amazed and impressed by Inder Malhotra's ability to retain and sift whatever we heard. Exchanging the latest gossip with Ministers and MPs, he was soon on first name terms with them. And, he kept in touch with them after they disappeared from media view to update his sources.

Nuggets of information and recollections of bygone personalities have enhanced Malhotra's prolific columns and journalistic writings over the years. But to display them against an adequate background required space. Some was provided in his Indira Gandhi: Personal and Political Biography (1989), which, as the title promised, indicated his ability to bring out the interplay of personal and political factors behind the known details of her life.

In Dynasties he is limited neither by space — the book spans 350 pages — nor the need to follow the fortunes and misfortunes of a single personality. It is not even limited strictly to case histories of dynastic succession in South Asia. Malhotra draws, from his prodigious memory bank, fascinating accounts of the intrigues surrounding conflicts over succession to office in which blood relationship or blood proximity figures. And places them within a wider canvas delineating the pulls and pressures of the period. Numerous characters fill the space, like the figures in a Rajasthani phad painting, each doing his own thing, yet part of the whole.

The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty could not but be the centrepiece of the book. Its lineage can be traced to the dawn of Independence, when Jawaharlal Nehru became our first Prime Minister (or further to his father Motilal), to Sonia Gandhi's current aspirations to the office based on marriage and the projection of daughter Priyanka. The family has attracted much reportage and writings on current history in India and abroad. But these accounts are dry and academic. Dynasties enriches history with the direct perception and readability of good journalism.

One review cannot range over the entire canvas. I choose to focus on the book's detailed account of India's very first experience of succession to the Prime Minister's office. It provides a taste of the multi-level intrigue generated by the mix of blood and ambition when power is the bait. We find that the primary intriguers are not necessarily the blood descendants themselves but courtiers with linked fortunes, a feature common to the subcontinent. The author does not believe that Jawaharlal Nehru plotted to have Indira succeed him as Prime Minister. Well before he died, he took steps to place Lal Bahadur Shastri in line for the job. Even so, many contemporaries are quoted who believed that it was a tortuous manoeuvre to facilitate her eventual succession.

In the event, that was the way it turned out. The book takes us backstage for a view of the scheming and backstabbing that attended India's first experience of succession to power. We find that the intrigue is not generated by regard for Indira or Shastri, but to ensure that Morarji Desai did not get the job. The unravelling of the plots that began with intimations of Nehru's terminal illness and ended with Indira's election as Prime Minister — the first chapter in the Nehru-Gandhi saga — is unputdownable.

The scene opens with the Kamaraj Plan providing Nehru with an opportunity to ask Desai, along with other Congress Ministers and Chief Ministers, to step down and work for the party. Shastri also resigned, but returned to the Cabinet as Minister without Portfolio and the Prime Minister's right-hand man when Nehru suffered a stroke. Nehru's preference was thus made clear and came to pass. But Desai saw it as "Machiavellian manoevring" to pave the way for Indira. The book quotes others, including Shastri, who believed that Nehru wanted Indira to succeed.

An insight into the depths of intrigue behind these events is provided by the recollections of D.P. Mishra, a veteran politician who became Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh and was known as a minor Machiavelli. He advised Desai to declare his support for Indira for the reason that "when you propose Indiraji for the post, Lal Bahadurji (Shastri) will not accept it. Indiraji will not therefore contest the election and will support you." Desai turned down the devious advice. He was not prepared to take the risk and, anyway, preferred Shastri to Indira.

Indira's ambition to be Prime Minister surfaced with Shastri's death. But at that stage, it was not her capacity for intrigue that won the office. She benefited from the machinations of a group of Congress leaders, fittingly named the Syndicate. They calculated that Nehru's daughter could secure more votes than any of them at the coming elections. And when it was won, an inexperienced woman Prime Minister, a goongi guria (dumb doll) would defer to them. They were right about the elections; wrong about Indira. When they found her inflexible, and turned against her, they were crushed by a far more talented practitioner of intrigue.

Unlike her father, Indira Gandhi provided an example of a parent set on ensuring succession by progeny. The book chronicles the tragic consequences of such blind longing, enhanced by the connivance of courtiers. Her weakness for her younger son Sanjay led to the Emergency. The description of senior politicians competing to fulfil his often illegal wishes indicates the power of the dynasty cult.

But there is no uniformity in dynastic succession. Content as a commercial pilot, Rajiv had to be pushed by Indira to get into the line when Sanjay died. One scene that the book fails to recapture is of Sonia tearfully imploring her husband not to agree to be Prime Minister at the hospital where his mother had just died, as vividly described in My Years With Indira Gandhi by the Prime Minister's Principal Secretary, P.C. Alexander. He recalls another level of intrigue: the conflict between those like Arun Nehru who wanted the Vice-President to swear Rajiv in immediately and his own insistence that constitutional propriety required that they wait for President Zail Singh. His view prevailed but the incident lifted the lid on the uneasy relationship between the President and the Congress leadership.

It was left to Sonia Gandhi to establish that proximity to dynasty is enough to propel political ambition and draw crowds despite the handicap of foreign birth. The media glare on Priyanka whenever she appears is the latest evidence of the allure of dynasty. The Nehru-Gandhi saga provides a foretaste of the Mughal court-like atmosphere of the many episodes described in Dynasties.

The book is comprehensive and well researched. But the reasons suggested by the scholars quoted by the author to explain the appeal of dynasty throughout South Asia seem inadequate. To me it seems that the uncertainty and corruption generated by the manner in which governments are seen to be elected and replaced enhances nostalgia for the traditional dynastic line of succession. The rise in the allure of dynasty reflects the fall in standards of politics.

Dynasties of India and Beyond: Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Inder Malhotra, HarperCollins, 2003, p.363, Rs. 495.

Recommended for you