Dynasty, a political tool in the hands of the NEHRU pariwar changed India to a Family Of Durbar, (autobiographical account of journalist Tavleen Singh.
But what is it about dynastic politics that so animates Tavleen Singh? That she was self-admittedly part of the durbar of the dynasty for a while, before her conscience as a journalist conflicted with demands of dynastic loyalty, is only part of the story. The other part, which is the theme running right across the book, is how dynasty eats into the vitals of every organ of the state, slowly but surely and with studied effectiveness.
Durbar is a chronicle of the times of Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. An intriguing thought that springs after reading the book is this: Are most of the problems that India faces today a construct of the Rajiv Gandhi era? Consider the evidence:
- Modern Kashmir problem: There is a historical Kashmir problem which started in 1947 in the circumstances of the State’s accession. However, the historical problem was almost completely over in 1975 with the signing of the Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Abdullah accord. The free and fair elections of 1983, in which Farooq Abdullah won a majority, finally convinced most Kashmiris that they had a democratic future in India. Rajiv Gandhi and his Doon School friends did not think this was good enough. Under their advice, Indira Gandhi dismissed the Farooq Government in 1984 and installed his brother-in-law as a Congress stooge. He ruled for a disastrous 20 months before he was dismissed. By the time elections were held again in 1987, Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister. This time, he along with Farooq, who was coerced into an alliance, rigged the elections. Within a span of five years, Rajiv Gandhi had managed the miracle –Many Kashmiris lost hope in democracy. People who had contested the 1987 election became overnight jihadis. By the time Rajiv demitted office in 1989, we had jihad in Kashmir. That Pakistan was fresh from success in Afghanistan and only too willing to meddle was of course one of the reasons. But the supply of local Kashmiris to carry out this jihad, for the first time since 1947, was a direct result of policies Rajiv Gandhi. We now had a modern Kashmir problem which we are still grappling with 25 years later.
- Punjab and terrorism: Operation Blue Star was conceived by Rajiv Gandhi and friends and it is they who finally convinced Indira Gandhi. That set in motion a process which resulted in the death of Indira Gandhi, the anti-Sikh pogrom on the streets of Delhi in 1984 and a decade of militancy in Punjab, causing loss of thousands of life. Operation Blue Star started, for the first time, a trend when Indians began crossing over to Pakistan to get trained and come back and exact mayhem in India. A trend started by Khalistanis and carried over by jihadis till this day. What groups likes Babbar Khalsa did in the 1980s, Indian Mujahideen is doing now.
- Communal politics: The craven surrender by Rajiv Gandhi in the infamous Shah Bano case is perhaps one of the most shameful chapters in Indian history. But what is even more shameful is that it could have been all so different. It was not as if this episode demanded Rajiv Gandhi to demonstrate any great moral or intellectual leadership. In fact, he had to do nothing. All that was required was to say that the highest court in the land has opined and that is the law and it will stand. Yet, he chose to act. He chose to use his brute majority in Parliament to subvert the Supreme Court’s judgement. Once down this path, it was only a matter of time when compromises would be made to please fanatics each day. Rajiv Gandhi’s Government itself became the first Government to ban Satanic Verses. So it was only natural when 20 years later, his widow allegedly wept when she saw pictures of dead terrorists of Batla House – terrorists who had just a few days ago murdered many dozens of innocents Indians and killed a brave police officer in an encounter.
- Compromised Press: Indira Gandhi used the sledgehammer of Emergency to muzzle the Press. Rajiv Gandhi realised that it would no longer work and in any case it could not be a permanent solution. So he devised a more sophisticated and long lasting solution – The Durbar. If only you were part of the Durbar and saw the world as Rajiv Gandhi wanted it to be seen, were you welcome. Else you would find the world so hostile to you and opportunities in literary and academic fields drying up so fast that you might even find it hard to make ends meet. Tavleen Singh mentions the classic example of MJ Akbar in her book and quotes the great dynasty sycophant Mani Shankar Aiyar: “One interview was all it took to have the great rebel Editor in our pocket.” What was an experiment in 1985 became a practiced art form in 2005 when Sonia Gandhi wanted to project her Saint Sonia image. Just check the people she has directly given an interview since she joined politics in 1998 and if they have ever spoken a word against her. If you wanted to report on the Gandhi family, the only way possible was access journalism. That access will only be given if you do their bidding. What Tavleen Singh chronicles through he own life experience is there for all of us to see today.
- High office corruption: While corruption scandals did hit the Governments of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, no one ever accused them of personal corruption or corruption by their friends and family. In fact when Indira Gandhi lost power in 1977, she found it hard to make a living since she had no personal money. This changed with Rajiv Gandhi. Their closest family friend was the direct accused in the infamous Bofors scandal. And so began the saga of loot at the highest echelons of Government and the use of state machinery to protect the corrupt. What we see today in 2G and Coalgate is only the manifestation of the Bofors phenomenon – people at the highest levels of Government using official powers to benefit friends and family.
- Crony capitalism: Tavleen Singh recounts in some detail the overnight transformation of Rajiv Gandhi’s party circuit friends from middle class lifestyle to globetrotting businessmen. From contracts to export rice to the USSR to high-end defence deals, it all began then. If the Durbar was doing it – rewarding the loyalists to become rich – why would the minions not follow? So some 20 years later, Coal mining contracts were awarded, arbitrarily, to friends and families. Without apology.
- Politics of phony socialism: Capitalism thrives on competition. Different ideas compete and the best idea wins. Dynasty is the very antithesis of competition. Here the best man does not win. So it is not accidental that socialism is the chosen economic vehicle of the dynasty. It is not accidental either that socialism was put in the Preamble to the Constitution, not by the founding fathers but by Indira Gandhi. Free enterprise enables people to chart their own destiny. But if they move up the value chain, they would aspire for ‘more’ and might vote for the candidate who promises that ‘more’ better and not the dynasty. Phony socialism ensures that people never move up the value chain, remain always bound in poverty and destitution, and each time an election comes, some new sop is promised, the dream of which makes the poor and destitute continue to vote for the dynasty. Rajiv Gandhi started it with Indira Aawaas Yojana. Thirty years later, the poor are as homeless as then. Sonia Gandhi conjured NREGA. None of these schemes are designed to make the poor prosper – they are intended to keep them entrapped in their poverty and make them a catchment for votes for the Congress.
- Compromised institutions: Justice Ranganath Mishra was appointed to head an inquiry commission into the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom. Ironically, it was at the intervention of Sonia Gandhi, as Tavleen Singh chronicles. Of course not one murderer was ever identified by Justice Mishra in his report. What did happen though was that Justice Mishra became a Congress MP many years later. Mani Shankar Aiyar officially joined the Congress in 1989. But he began doing Rajiv Gandhi’s bidding from 1985 itself while still in service. Ajit Jogi was able to quit the IAS within hours (normally it takes months) to join and contest on a Congress ticket. Everyone saw this. All you needed was to catch the eye of the Durbar and the future of your generations would be made. Few years later, a Chief Election Commissioner of India would join the Congress and even become a Minster. Loyalty would continue to play an important part in the life of these compromised officials. Wajahat Habibullah, one of the architects of the disastrous Kashmir policy in the 1980s, would continue to thrive since he was loyal to the Durbar. The trend would replicate in even cruder form at the State level and with regional parties. The principle was the same though. They learnt it, after all, from Rajiv Gandhi.
- Politics of symbolism over substance: What will India rather have – a Government that delivers on basic needs or a politician who eats a meal with you but delivers nothing? The answer might seem obvious now but is it that obvious? When Rajiv Gandhi could have used his historic mandate to change the destiny of India, he used it to organise melas in Delhi and poverty tourism in remote corners of India. Amethi, the family constituency of the dynasty, is perhaps the most backward tract in Uttar Pradesh. Yet, why should it matter if the natives of Amethi get to see their favorite dynast saunter down the dirty alleys once a while? This was the politics of Rajiv Gandhi – where symbolism over substance became high politics. No wonder then that Rahul Gandhi has spent his entire stint in politics eating meals at Dalit homes rather than propound one concrete policy. No wonder still then that Narendra Modi was slammed for not wearing a religious headgear ( another symbolism invented by Rajiv Gandhi) ignoring the fact that the same religious group is the most prosperous in his State as compared to any other State in India.
- Dynasty colonising our country: Rajiv Gandhi’s ascent was the first direct dynastic accession in Indian politics at any level. It opened the floodgates. Except the BJP and the irrelevant Left parties, there is not one political party where this plague does not afflict – SP, SS, DMK, NCP, RJD, TDP, NC and other new entrants. A nation of 120 billion people has come to be colonised by a group of roughly 5,000 interconnected families – politicians, bureaucrats and mediapersons.
India, unlike Western democracies, has a very poor record in well-written memoirs by those still active in public life. Tavleen Singh’s book therefore is a brave exception. Read it for it gives us a fantastic view of our recent history and some interesting tidbits – how a close friend of Sonia Gandhi was under investigation for Indira Gandhi’s assassination, how all Congress people mysteriously survived and only Rajiv Gandhi was killed by the LTTE bomber, the rise of the bimbo brigade in the Congress and how Naveen Patnaik had a very lively past before he became the sombre politician of today.