Sonia Gandhi is in her 15th year as Congress President. In the foreseeable future, son Rahul will no doubt take over the reigns of the party dominated for the better part of a century by the Nehru-Gandhi family. In the popular mind, Indira Gandhi is often seen as the architect of dynastic rule, primarily because of the wild prince she spoiled and groomed. After Sanjay Gandhi’s death in an air crash and Indira’s to an assassin, a somewhat reluctant but inevitable successor flew in, and the rest has been in the newspapers since. This is how people generally view ‘the dynasty’. The people are wrong. The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s roots are much older. They go back, in fact, to the first significant Nehru —Motilal. This is the story of how dynasty rule began in the Congress — and in democratic India. But it must begin not with a Nehru, but with a Gandhi.
Twelve years after Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had moved permanently to India, a period during which he was clearly established as the fulcrum of the Indian freedom movement, he felt the need to plan succession. Gandhi’s poor health around 1927 had made the question of a successor important in his mind even though he was still not 60. In the near future, the key position of the Congress president needed to be filled. It was a post Gandhi had been elected to in 1924, but he had since moved on to become the patriarch of the freedom movement rather than just a Congressman. The new president would have to be someone who would not just run the organisation successfully, but was qualified to take on the much larger mantle of being Gandhi’s political successor.
If the first task was fraught with the intrigue supplied by the politicians within the Congress, the second had an obvious downside: Gandhi’s successor would be judged by Gandhi’s standards. Add to this the fact that in the late 1920s, although the freedom movement in India had had significant successes, it was still something of a sputtering engine.
Within the movement itself, there were divisions over religion and caste. Strategic differences, such as the pace at which reform should come, or the means through which it might be achieved, were still far from settled. Although there was a general drift toward Gandhi’s route of non-violence, there were significant figures in the regions of Maharashtra, Bengal and the Punjab, who remained votaries of armed struggle.
Despite the many differences, pushes and pulls, there was one thing that could be put down as irrefutable: no other individual in the Congress enjoyed the kind of undiluted respect that the Mahatma commanded. And no other leader in the Indian freedom struggle could unite the vast, diverse population of India in placing their faith in one man without a second thought.
It would be fair to say that in the late '20s, a “replacement” for Gandhi in terms of political succession (the post of Congress president, being a step in that direction) had to be found from a field of candidates who fell short on many counts when compared with the towering figure of Gandhi. Many leaders had the narrow interest of groups they represented as first priorities and dreamt of the freedom of ‘India’ in terms that were vague except on the issues that affected their group.
To their credit, most leaders of the freedom struggle recognised these circumstances. Within the Congress, the realisation that Gandhi was the best (and only) man to lead it at this critical time rested on three arguments. First, that the organisation required a clear, unchallenged leader; second that negotiations with the British would require a “seasoned interlocutor”; and third that there was no one else capable or qualified enough to find and solve the complex Hindu-Muslim question.
This was all very well, except for one thing. Gandhi didn’t want the job. And he was a notoriously obstinate man — once he was convinced he was “right”.
So on the eve of the 1929 Lahore Congress, even though 10 of the party’s regional committees had proposed his name, Gandhi found reasons to decline. He was not in good health, he said. The movement needed a younger man. What Gandhi characteristically did not reveal was that he had other plans, some of which were not yet fully shaped in his own head, and none of which were fully understood by others — no matter how well acquainted with his ways they were.
Jawaharlal Nehru, writing about this time says: “Gandhiji was still keeping away from politics… He was, however, in full touch with developments and was often consulted by Congress leaders. His main activity for some years had been khadi (homespun cloth) propaganda and with this object he had undertaken extensive tours of India… In this way he gathered his unique knowledge of India and her people…”. This knowledge, and the resulting contact with millions of ordinary Indians, was to be applied in tasks to be undertaken later. But in 1929, Gandhi had the succession issue to sort out.
His choice of candidate would at once be elevated to a position much higher than just the president of the Congress. This individual would be looked upon as Gandhi’s chosen political heir.
Who were the contenders? The field was strong, and looked like this:
Vallabbhai Patel (54). The Gujarati barrister, whose initial scepticism about Gandhi (he would joke about the Mahatma’s methods at his club in Ahmedabad) had given way to unstinting loyalty and a belief in Gandhi’s leadership strong enough for him to abandon a very successful practice. A widower, Patel had set aside concerns about his children and joined Gandhi full-time.
In 1928, he led a successful Gandhian struggle in his home state. The peasants of Bardoli, where Patel ran ashrams that taught untouchables and tribals spinning weaving and reading, were burdened with a heavy tax. Patel’s forthright, tough, leadership of a completely non-violent movement, resulted in the reversal of the tax order and the return of property confiscated from villagers who had refused to pay the tax as a part of the struggle.
Patel’s case was therefore strong. Apart from being educated, upright and committed to non-violence, he had the additional qualification of having successfully applying Gandhi’s methods on the ground.
C Rajagopalachari (51) A Tamil Brahmin from Madras, CR had joined the freedom movement at the same time as Gandhi — in 1919. The Mahatma would call CR the “keeper of his conscience” and in 1927 actually announced that the Madras lawyer would succeed him. After all, when Gandhi was imprisoned in 1922, CR had stepped into his shoes and driven Gandhi’s agenda forward successfully in the face of opposition from within the Congress. Of all the prospective candidates, Rajagopalachari was the man who grasped satyagraha the best and was able to articulate the idea clearly. He was, however, playing with a handicap that had little to do with him. Gandhi’s son Devdas had proposed to his daughter. As Rajmohan Gandhi points out: “Gandhi would think several times before recommending a potential relative.”
Rajendra Prasad (45) A lawyer from Bihar, Dr Prasad also gave up a flourishing law practice to join the national movement, his chief inspiration being Gandhi, who he met in 1916 in Lucknow. An accomplished scholar (he had studied Persian and arithmetic, and went on to teach economics), Prasad overcame the burden of his conservative, casteist family, to embrace Gandhi.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (41) The only non-lawyer in the fray, Azad was a scholar and journalist. He was a leader of the Khilafat movement, which Gandhi had joined. Azad was also a firm believer, like Gandhi, in the idea of Hindu-Muslim unity and an undivided India.
Jawaharlal Nehru (40) The youngest man in the mix, Nehru had first met Gandhi in Lucknow, outside the Charbagh train station. They had arrived for the 1916 Congress annual conference. Nehru was 27 then, a barrister who had just got married, his father Motilal was an influential figure in the Congress, and had served as its president in 1919.
List of sources:
1. Mohandas: Rajmohan Gandhi p 314
2. Mohandas: Rajmohan Gandhi p 321
3. Nehru, the first sixty years. Vol 1. Dorothy Norman
4. Indian National Movement. Imam Hasan Vol 2.
5. Mohandas: Rajmohan Gandhi p 315
6. Nehru, The first sixty years. Vol 1. Dorothy
7. Qouted in B.R. Nanda; The Nehrus—Motilal and Jawaharlal.
8. Quoted in Dr Pattabhi Sitaramayya; The History of the Indian National Congress, 1935-37. Vol II
9. Quoted in Michael Brecher; Nehru: A political biography.
The writer is an author, journalist and consultant editor with dna