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From Indira to Sonia to Rahul, the Nehru-Gandhis’ Chequered History on Handling Rebellion

Congress (I) party workers carry cutouts of party president Sonia Gandhi and her mother-in-law and former premier Indira Gandhi ahead of the 81st Plenary session of the party in Bangalore, 16 March 2001.  (Photo by INDRANIL MUKHERJEE / AFP)

Congress (I) party workers carry cutouts of party president Sonia Gandhi and her mother-in-law and former premier Indira Gandhi ahead of the 81st Plenary session of the party in Bangalore, 16 March 2001. (Photo by INDRANIL MUKHERJEE / AFP)

In 1969, a group of senior Congress leaders, called the Syndicate clique, had evicted Indira Gandhi from the Congress. Years later, Sonia Gandhi had to face humiliation at the hands of Sharad Pawar and PA Sangma at a CWC meeting.

The Congress plans to move into the new party office on Delhi’s Pandit Deendayal Upadhyay Marg around its 136th foundation day on December 28. Preceding these plans, two questions are doing the rounds -- would it have a full-time new party president and would it remain united.

Both questions assume significance in the context of the ongoing tug-of-war between 23 dissenters and Congress office-bearers who are led by interim chief Sonia Gandhi. On the face of it, a letter written by these 23 dissenters, seeking sweeping changes in the party, may not appear to be ‘anti-party’ activity. But a careful reading would indicate the signatories’ lack of confidence in the top political leadership represented by three members of the Nehru-Gandhi family -- Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka.

Sonia Gandhi has sought six months' time to hold party elections, but it is always easier said than done. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, it will be a difficult task to hold party polls, particularly if a contest for Congress president's post takes place. It will be curious to see whether dissenters would challenge Rahul Gandhi if he throws his hat in the ring.

Prior to the present crisis, Gandhis have had a chequered history of facing political challenge from within.

There has been no precedence of a failure of a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Therefore, the current round of power struggle within the Congress assumes significance on how Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka would negotiate the challenge posed by a group of 23 prominent leaders.

In 1969, a group of senior Congress leaders, called the Syndicate clique, had evicted Indira Gandhi from the Congress, leading to a split in the party. An emotional Indira insisted that Congress membership was her ‘birthright’ and that she had been irrevocably born a Congressperson many years ago in Anand Bhawan.

“Nobody can throw me out of the Congress. It is not a legal question, nor one of passing a resolution to pronounce an expulsion order. It is a question of the very fibre of one’s heart and being,” she had thundered before bouncing back in 1971 general elections.

Indira's win over Morarji Desai in the Congress Parliamentary Party in 1967 by a margin of 355 to 169 was incomplete as she subsequently lost control over the party organisation and headquarters at 7, Janatar Mantar Road. She had a strong emotional link to 7, Jantar Mantar as she had become the Congress president, for the first time, in that office in 1959.

After the 1969 split, the Congress(O), led by Morarji Desai, took possession of 7, Jantar Mantar Road. Later, Desai merged Congress(O) with the Janata Party in 1977. Desai, who was then prime minister, cleverly took control of 7, Jantar Mantar by forming a separate trust in the name of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, called the Sardar Patel Smarak Sansthan, which owned the building. Only the second floor was rented out to the Janata Party, which was in power.

Years later, under Sonia Gandhi, the Congress tried to regain control of the building, pointing out that the trust had become defunct.

Sometime in 2000, AICC general secretary Oscar Fernandes wrote to the Congress chief minister in Delhi, Sheila Dixit, claiming ownership. Fernandes wanted the Registrar of Trusts, which comes under the state government, to revive the Sardar Patel Smarak Sansthan by appointing AICC office-bearers as its trustees. But a goof-up occurred. The Sheila Dixit government tried to get 7, Jantar Mantar Road registered directly in the name of the Congress party and sought a no-objection certificate from the urban development ministry, which was then headed by former civil servant Jag Mohan Malhotra, a confidant of Sanjay Gandhi during Emergency.

But Malhotra, author and conservationist, who had indulged in a rainbow spectrum of ideologies before joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), firmly denied the Congress its former place of work. Fernandes repeatedly visited Malhotra in his Nirman Bhawan office, but the latter kept referring him to LK Advani in North Block or Ram Jethmalani and Arun Jaitley, who manned the Union law ministry.

The impasse continued till Fernandes conceded defeat.

The Congress’ first-ever electoral loss since Independence in 1977 resulted in a mass exodus from the party. But the fighter in Indira Gandhi was far from disturbed. Some senior party leaders, including the then Congress president K Brahmananda Reddy, on January 1, 1978, announced that Indira had been expelled from the party.

Reddy had the support of many powerful leaders like YB Chavan, Vasant Dada Patil and Swaran Singh. DK Barooah, who had coined the slogan ‘Indira is India, India is Indira’, was nowhere to be seen. The CWC met at the residence of Maragatham Chandrasekhar at 3 Janpath. Twelve members sided with Indira, but the AICC chief was not in a mood to be accommodating.

In the absence of loyalists like VC Shukla, Bansi Lal, Ambika Soni, Karan Singh and Barooah who had all switched sides, a somewhat lonely Indira found a new band of loyalists -- Buta Singh, AP Sharma, GK Moopanar, Syed Mir Qasim, Maragatham Chandrasekhar -- all members of the CWC. They marched to Reddy to challenge Indira’s expulsion.

Buta Singh, who was formerly with the Akali Dal, spoke harshly to Reddy, demanding to know how Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter could be expelled from the Congress. “She is the Congress,” Buta said, before walking out of Reddy’s residence.

In 1978, the split had cost Indira Gandhi dearly. Apart from losing the support of 76 of 153 members of the Lok Sabha, her new party was homeless. It had also lost control over the party symbol of a cow and calf.

The bitter split of 1978 left the Indira Congress with absolutely nothing. The then office secretary, Saddiq Ali, had declined to hand over any official records, papers or books to Indira. So, the party no longer had any files, old records, correspondence, office stationery, flags or typewriters. Indira was greatly pained to lose her party’s invaluable archives, but when she returned to power with a thumping majority in 1980, like a true believer in destiny, she refused to stake claim on 7, Jantar Mantar.

“I have built the party from scratch, not once but twice. The new office premises will rejuvenate the party rank and file for decades,” she told Sanjay Gandhi, when her politician-son broached the subject of returning to 7, Jantar Mantar.

Since 1978, the Congress has been functioning from 24, Akbar Road, New Delhi.

Rahul Gandhi’s mother Sonia, too, had to face humiliation and dishonour in a working committee meeting on May 15, 1999 when everyone was growing restless, anxious to catch up with India’s World Cup cricket opener against South Africa in England.

The CWC was meeting to finalise the list of candidates for the Goa assembly polls. Sitting on spotless white sheets, Sharad Pawar smiled and PA Sangma stood up. The rebellion in the Congress had begun, signalled by the mighty Maratha, executed by the diminutive samurai with a swish of his razor-sharp tongue, and watched by Sonia and the rest of her stunned council.

As recounted by those present at the meeting, Sangma slowly built a case for how the BJP campaign against Sonia’s foreign origins was seeping deep down to even remote villages.

Suddenly, the reality had dawned upon Sonia: she continued to be a loner in what she had thought to be her own ‘parivar’. The revolt by Pawar-Sangma-Anwar was a chilling reminder of 1977, when Indira had received a letter with a similar message — challenging Indira’s authority as she had lost the confidence of the party and the people — from Jagjivan Ram at a CWC meeting.

Sonia, unlike Indira, had little illusion about herself. When some CWC members approached her asking her to fight back like Indira Gandhi, Sonia is said to have retorted in an uncharacteristic manner – “I am not the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru!”

Rahul is the fifth generation and sixth member of the Nehru-Gandhi family to have headed the Congress. In the post-1978 history of the Congress, Indira, Rajiv, Sonia and Rahul have occupied the top party job for 34-35 out of the last 42 years.

Disclaimer:The author is a visiting Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal.

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