“Dynasty, a political tool in the hands of the ruling class, has become the catalyst for a new colonization of a country whose soul has already been deeply scarred by centuries of it”. If there was one line we could use which embodies the soul of “Durbar”, the newly published autobiographical account of Tavleen Singh, then it could very well be this line from the author’s note in Durbar.
But what is it about dynastic politics that so animates Tavleen Singh? That she was self admittedly a part of 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 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 Rajiv Gandhi era? Consider the evidence:
- Modern Kashmir problem: There is a historical Kashmir problem which started in 1947 and in the circumstances of the 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 have a democratic future in India. As Tavleen recounts, 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 Farooq’s 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 5 years Rajiv Gandhi had managed a miracle – indigenous Kashmiris lost all hope in democracy. People who had contested the 1987 elections 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 of Rajiv Gandhi. We now had a modern Kashmir problem which we are still grappling with, 25 years later.
- Punjab and terrorism: By Tavleen’s account, Operation Blue Star was conceived by Rajiv Gandhi and friends and it is they who finally convinced Indira Gandhi for the go ahead. That set in motion a process which resulted in death of Indira Gandhi, the anti Sikh pogrom on the streets of Delhi in 1984 and a decade of militancy in Punjab, causing 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 which was started by Sikhs and carried over by Jihadis till this day. What group likes Babbar Khalsa did in the 1980s, Indian Mujahedeen did in the last decade.
- 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 – 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. Once down this path, it was only a matter of time when compromises would be made to please fanatics each day. Not surprisingly, Rajiv Gandhi’s government became the first government to ban Satanic Verses. So it was only natural that 20 years later his wife allegedly cried when she saw pictures of dead terrorists of Batla House – terrorists who had just a few days ago murdered many dozens of innocent 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 realized that it will no longer work and in any case it could not be a permanent solution. So he and in concert with his wife, 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 will 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 mentions the classic example of M.J. 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 did their bidding. What Tavleen 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 Pandit Nehru and Indira Gandhi, yet 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 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 alleged 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 recounts in some detail the overnight transformation of Rajiv Gandhi’s party circuit friends from middle class lifestyle people to globetrotting businessmen. From rice contract for USSR to high-end defense 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 poor and destitute continue to vote for the dynasty. Rajiv Gandhi started it with Indira Aawaas Yojna. 30 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 into their poverty and easy catchment for the Congress party.
- Compromised institutions: Justice Ranganath Mishra was appointed to head an enquiry commission into the 1984 anti Sikh pogrom. Ironically, it was at the possible intervention of Sonia Gandhi, as Tavleen 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 Congress party 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 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 Congress party and even become a minster. Loyalty would continue to play and important part in the life of these compromised officials. Wajahat Habibullah, one of the architects of the disastrous Kashmir policy in 1980s would continue to thrive since he was loyal to the Durbar. Of course the trend would replicate in even cruder form at state levels 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 organize 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 houses rather than propound one concrete policy. No wonder still then that Narendra Modi was slammed for not wearing a religious hedger ( 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 colonizing our country: Rajiv Gandhi’s ascent was the first direct dynastic accession in Indian politics at any level. It opened the floodgates. Except 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 colonized by a group of roughly 5000 interconnected families – politicians, bureaucrats and media.
It all began with Rajiv Gandhi’s ten year era in politics – five as a MP and adviser to Indira Gandhi and five as Prime Minister himself. We as a nation are still paying the price.
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 suicide bomber, the rise of the bimbo brigade in the Congress party and how Naveen Patnaik had a very lively past before he became the somber politician of today.
Updates: A version of this blog was published on Niti Central on 2nd December 2012.