Dynasties and mini-dynasties

An interesting, indeed intriguing, debate is on among the capital's chattering classes. What was stronger? The recent gale that, despite the vast devastation it caused, was welcome to the Delhiites on the verge of a heatstroke? Or the tidal wave of extravagant and embarrassingly lavish praise heaped on the Congress president and Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sonia Gandhi, that swept away all other business at the AICC's special session? The verdict, insofar as it can be ascertained, seems to be in favour of the latter.

Several newspapers have described the scene at Talkatora Garden, the usual venue of AICC meetings in Lutyens' Delhi, as an ``orgy of sycophancy''. This is perhaps an understatement. For, the hyperbolic homage senior party leaders behaving like fawning flunkeys offered her, in a no-holds-barred compensation with one another, was closer to Bacchanalia. Such competition has become routine because just as the satellites around the sun draw their sustenance from it, so the position and worth of a Congress leader depend on how far he or she is in the good books of ``the leader'' at any given time.

To say that all this is entirely in keeping with the Congress' tradition would be only partially correct. For, while it is true that sycophancy has been the hallmark of the ``Congress culture'' since the late Sixties when Indira Gandhi first acquired total supremacy in the party, the privilege of deification has been reserved only for the members of the Gandhi clan. No one extended it to P.V. Narasimha Rao even when he was both Prime Minister and Congress president. In fact, so far he is the only individual not belonging to the Nehru-Gandhi family to have completed full five years as Prime Minister.

The personality cult built around Indira Gandhi was not easily transferable in toto. But short of that, after her assassination, the Congress did everything possible to bestow the same aura and authority on Rajiv Gandhi. Sonia Gandhi is the current beneficiary of that inheritance. Indeed, in some respect she has been luckier than her forerunners.

No one should forget that Indira Gandhi had to wage an uphill struggle before her metamorphosis from the derided ``dumb doll'' (`goongi gudiya') to the formidable combination of invincible Durga and Empress of India.

By contrast, the party has treated Sonia Gandhi — also hailed as Durga during the Talkatora talkathon last Friday — as the reigning queen. This was so even when she was neither Congress president nor an MP nor even a primary member of the Congress! After assuming the two offices of party president and Leader of the Opposition, she had nowhere to go except up.

Having said all this, it is only fair to add that neither the dynastic pattern, nor sycophancy is the monopoly of the Congress. The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty may be the most dazzling of them but it is the only one on the Indian political scene. Quite a few political dynasties have sprung up in the recent past and more are mushrooming all the time. Their arena of dominance is necessarily limited. But within their fiefdoms, the heads of these mini-dynasties strut around as monarchs and are sometimes treated as icons. One has only to mention the worship at the feet of Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, a form of obeisance she has inherited from her mentor, M.G. Ramachandran, better known as MGR. In their respective bailiwicks, who can dare to say boo to Laloo Yadav (with wife Rabri Devi nominally ruling Bihar) or Mayawati (now Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh for the third time)? Or, for that matter, to Mulayam Singh Yadav (with son Akhilesh at his elbow), Farooq Abdullah (preparing to pass on to son, Omar, the mantle he had inherited from his own father) and so on?

In the case of Sonia Gandhi and the Talkatora `tamasha' there are two not-so-hidden messages that merit attention. First, the Congress is suddenly swept by the feeling that power is flowing its way. It may be that it is, to use the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee's words, counting its chickens before they are hatched. The contrary feeling among Sonia Gandhi's flock is that, under Atalji's leadership, the NDA Government is doing a fine job of destroying itself.

Secondly — and this is more important — the Congress has evidently come to grips with a question it was hitherto evading, Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin is clearly a problem with the middle class that does not want a foreign-born Prime Minister. Having pretended that this problem did not exist, the party has now grasped the nettle. Its message from the Talkatora podium is that Sonia and Sonia alone is its candidate for the office of Prime Minister, regardless of the consequences. For the Congress it is ``from Indira Amma to Sonia Amma''.

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