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04.23.09

The Unstoppable Gandhi

Elections in the world's largest democracy involve not one, not two, but four members of the Gandhi political dynasty. Aravind Adiga, bestselling author of The White Tiger, on the Kennedys of India.

Foreign reporters who have descended on India to cover its elections will have noticed that the country’s democracy has all the other institutions common to the Westminster system—a parliament, free press, judiciary—but then it has one more that is found nowhere else: the Gandhi dynasty. This weird, good-looking family has dominated Indian political life since 1947, and not an election has been held in the country without a member of the Gandhi family either contesting or campaigning. This time round, four of them are in the fray.

The Gandhis are rich, stylish, self-obsessed, not particularly good at anything they do, always insecure, occasionally crazy, and immensely resilient—they keep getting written off, and keep bouncing back.

To begin with, there’s Mum: Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, who runs the ruling Congress party, and has been most powerful person in India since 2004. She’s her party’s star campaigner, traveling across India asking voters to return her party to office—a victory that will surely clear the way for her son, Rahul, to become India’s prime minister. Although Dr. Manmohan Singh, the prime minister handpicked by Sonia five years ago, continues to be the official candidate, senior Congress politicians have been speaking openly about Rahul as prime minister-in-waiting. His sister, Priyanka, is also campaigning for the Congress, drawing huge crowds wherever she goes. The prospect of fighting three Gandhis has the opposition Hindu nationalist BJP party so worried that they have decided to take on a Gandhi of their own. They’ve been using Varun, Rahul’s estranged cousin, as one of their mascots. Varun recently created a stir when he reportedly said, in the course of a fiery speech, that he would “chop off the hands” of those who offended Hindus—a phrase that offended many of India’s Muslims. When Priyanka chided Varun, a Gandhi dynastic squabble broke out—one that the Indian media continue to focus on. As these elections prove, once again, love them or hate them, you can’t understand Indian political life without understanding the Gandhis.

Although sometimes compared to the Kennedys, the Gandhis are more like India’s Julio-Claudians—the weird, paranoid, populist aristocrats whose members formed the first imperial dynasty of Rome. Like the Julio-Claudians, the Gandhis are rich, stylish, self-obsessed, not particularly good at anything they do, always insecure, occasionally crazy, and immensely resilient—they keep getting written off, and keep bouncing back. They fascinate and annoy middle-class Indians; they preserve Indian democracy—and show us its fundamental limitations.

The Gandhis have been in Indian public life from the 19th century. The founder, Motilal Nehru, an Anglophile barrister, was a liberal member of the Indian nationalist movement. His son, Jawaharlal Nehru, educated at Harrow and Cambridge, was converted to the nationalist cause by Mahatma Gandhi, and then handpicked by him to lead India after independence. Nehru was a man with no roots in the Indian heartland—his ancestors were elite Hindus who had migrated from Kashmir—but this very rootlessness allowed him to transcend regional loyalties and appeal to the affections of all Indians. Nehru, India’s Augustus, established peace after the bitter civil war of 1947, quashed the threat posed by Hindu fundamentalists, built dams and colleges, and gave India a voice in world affairs. He was easily the greatest of the generation of post-colonial politicians who came to power after World War II, the Nelson Mandela of his era. Few expected his daughter Indira Gandhi to last in politics (when Indira married Feroze Gandhi, a man unrelated to Mahatma Gandhi, she exchanged the second-best name in Indian politics for the best), but her will-power, cunning, and populist touch swept her into power—campaigning on the slogan “Get Rid of Poverty,” she spoke directly to the masses of the country in a way no other politician has ever been able to. In 1971 she led India to a decisive victory over Pakistan in war, and many nationalists still refer to her as “the only man to ever rule India.” Her weakness was her insecurity, which made her cut down any potential threat to her power; she nationalized industries, increased red tape, and stifled the economy. The woman who defied Nixon and Kissinger seemed to be frightened of only one man: her younger son Sanjay, the Caligula of his clan. Full of idiotic schemes to modernize India overnight, Sanjay plunged his mother into crisis after crisis until he was killed in a plane crash. (His son, Varun, who allegedly made the intemperate speeches against Muslims, is regarded by many observers as a chip off the old block.)

When Indira was assassinated in 1984, her other son—the mild-mannered, apolitical Rajiv, who was married to an Italian girl he had met at Cambridge, and seemed happiest flying planes—was thrust into power by accident, like an Indian Claudius. Rajiv—well-meaning, idealistic, indecisive—took tentative steps to modernize India, then back-tracked, and had squandered the goodwill generated by his mother’s brutal death when he too was assassinated in 1991. The dynasty should have ended there; Rajiv’s two children were too young to enter politics. Other leaders—from the Congress, and then from rival parties, which dislodged the Congress from power in the mid-1990s—stepped forward to rule India. Many middle-class Indians were delighted. The hold of one family over the prime ministership had always seemed an embarrassment: How can the country call itself a democracy if you must have the Gandhi surname to rule? By 2004, thank God, the dynasty seemed finished. The country’s economy was booming under the rule of the BJP, and few gave Rajiv’s Italian-born widow, Sonia, who was now running the Congress party, any chance of coming to power. Imagine the general surprise when the BJP was defeated—and a coalition led by the Congress party was triumphantly swept into power.

The return of the Gandhi clan served as a reminder that life in India for the poor is fundamentally different from life in India for the middle-class. As a boy, I shared in the instinctive midde-class dislike of the Gandhis; one day a cousin and I were abusing Rajiv Gandhi in my grandfather’s house in Madras when a man interrupted us. He was our gardener—a man we had known for years, and who had never made a political statement until then. “Indira Gandhi was the only one who cared about people like me,” he said. When questioned, he could not recount anything specific she had done for him—but he insisted that she cared. I have heard, over the years, poor people throughout India say the same thing.

This is the secret to the enduring power of the Gandhis; millions of poor Indians believe that in a system run by crooks and criminals, the Gandhis—for all their flaws—are the only ones who give a damn about the poor. And this is true, to a large extent. Sonia Gandhi’s government has failed to meet middle-class aspirations—it has not improved India’s infrastructure, liberalized its economy, or cracked down on terrorism. But it has pardoned the debt owed by poor farmers and set up a national employment scheme that guarantees that every poor Indian some amount of paid work. Which is why, years from now, when middle-class Indians are abusing Sonia Gandhi for being an Italian-born interloper, their servants will whisper, "But she did give a damn about us."

Will Rahul Gandhi take over as prime minister in the near future? A law of diminishing returns has operated on the family gene pool since the time of Jawaharlal Nehru; and young Rahul, so far, shows no sign of having inherited anything from his ancestors except their good looks. Congress party workers have long preferred his sister, Priyanka—she looks like her legendary grandmother and the crowds adore her. Mum Sonia has probably picked the wrong child to push into politics—and this may cost the party at the elections. If the Congress party loses, and the BJP or a group of regional parties seize power, many Indians will ask, once again: “Why can’t we be rid of these strange people who think it is their birth-right to rule us?” The Gandhis will be written off again—and yet they will return to power. They will return because the Gandhi family brand-name in politics has come to be identified with two ideas: The first is that all Indians, regardless of their religion or ethnicity, have equal rights in the country; and the second is that India’s government must do something for the poor. These are simple, obvious things to promise voters; and it is a shocking indictment of the Indian political system that after 60 years of independence, no other political organization has been able to persuade voters that it truly believes in these goals. And this is why, no matter what the outcome of this election, India is stuck with this bumbling, good-looking, weird family for a long time to come.

Aravind Adiga is the bestselling author of The White Tiger, which won the 2008 Man Booker Prize.