At a special press briefing on Tuesday to highlight the failures of the Modi government, the Congress projected its next generation of leaders who are expected to take the centre stage in the coming days. But in the process, it ended up underlining the fact that it remains a party of dynasts. The line-up on the stage was undoubtedly impressive. But all the leaders who took the floor that day belong to prominent political families.

Leading the charge against the Modi government was former Union minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, son of Madhavrao Scindia, who held key positions in the party and in the Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao governments before his death in an air crash in 2001.

Jyotiraditya Scindia was flanked by former minister RPN Singh, whose father CPN Singh was a minister of state for defence in the Indira Gandhi cabinet in 1980.

Rajasthan Congress chief Sachin Pilot was also present on the occasion. He is the son of Rajesh Pilot, who was inducted into politics by Rajiv Gandhi and played a leading role in the party and successive Congress governments before he was killed in a car accident in 2000.

Randeep Surjewala, head of the Congress’ communications department, introduced the speakers at this special press briefing. An MLA from Haryana, he is the son of Shamsher Singh Surjewala, an important political figure of the Congress. He was a five-time legislator in the Haryana Assembly, held several ministerial positions in the state and was also a Rajya Sabha member.

Lok Sabha member Sushmita Dev, daughter of veteran Congress leader Santosh Mohan Dev, was also seated prominently on the dais. She belongs to a prominent political family from Silchar, Assam. Her father was a seven-time MP who has occupied important positions both in the government and the party.

However, this is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The Congress has a long list of such dynasts both at the Centre and in the states.

Keeping it in the family

Though it is an acknowledged fact that almost all political parties – from the Samajwadi Party and the Shiv Sena to the Shiromani Akali Dal, the National Conference and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam – across the country are dominated by dynasties, the Congress is held up as the party that set this trend. This is understandable as members of the Nehru-Gandhi family have held the prime minister’s post for 39 years. With the passage of time, the Congress has become synonymous with the Gandhi family, with a senior party leader once remarking, “The Congress is a Nehru-Gandhi party and it is important that we understand this clearly.”

Despite the fact that other parties are equally guilty of treating politics as a family-run business, the Congress, especially party vice-president Rahul Gandhi, is under constant attack from opponents on this issue. Tapping into people’s revulsion to dynastic politics, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other Bharatiya Janata Party leaders never miss an opportunity to deride the Nehru-Gandhi scion for not working his way up and for being handed the party on a platter. The BJP’s persistent campaign has paid dividends as it has succeeded in convincing the people that the Nehru-Gandhi family does not encourage grassroots leaders in contrast to the BJP, where merit and hard work are recognised and rewarded. In this instance, the BJP never fails to cite Modi’s example, who, it points out, was a chaiwala but rose to hold the country’s highest post. According to the BJP, this would never happen in the Congress.

Although many political parties are dominated by families, the Congress is held up as the party that set this trend. (Credit: Money Sharma / AFP)

Although a product of dynastic politics, Rahul Gandhi has made several attempts to introduce an element of inner-party democracy (his pet passion) in the Congress but to little avail. He made a beginning in the Youth Congress when he sought to do away with the age-old nomination culture and decided instead to go in for internal elections. However, this experiment did not succeed as it only encouraged the use of muscle and money power. The purpose of conducting internal polls, which was to find and encourage fresh talent, was defeated as most winners came from moneyed backgrounds and political families.

Similarly, the Congress issues a directive before every election that it will not give tickets to relatives of party leaders. But these directions are always flouted as senior party leaders throw tantrums if their relatives are not accommodated. It is an accepted fact in the Congress that relatives of leaders are given preference in the selection of candidates in elections and for appointments in the party.

Recall how senior Congress leader Margaret Alva resigned as party general secretary in 2008 when her son was denied a ticket in the Karnataka Assembly polls. In an angry outburst, Alva had alleged that tickets were up for sale and that relatives of at least 20 leaders had been given tickets. This story is repeated before every election as party leaders line up to lobby for tickets for their sons, daughters, wives or brothers. The Congress leadership invariably gives in to the pressure tactics of its members because it is nervous that it could lead to a revolt on election-eve. It is a telling comment on the party’s dependence on dynasticism that despite its misgivings about its leading dynast, Rahul Gandhi, the party cadre admit that they need the Gandhis at the helm to prevent the party’s fragmentation. “We cannot do without the Gandhis… only the Family can keep the party united,” is the common refrain in the Congress. “The party will unravel if the Nehru-Gandhi family is not in charge,” say Congress leaders.