Monday, May 20, 2019

When Nayantara Sahgal Compared the Nehru Dynasty to Monkeys Holding Peanuts

Excerpt from an article that Nayantra Sahgal, Jawaharlal Nehru's niece, had written thirty-five years ago criticising the Nehru dynasty

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Do you recall Nayantara Sahgal? She of the award-wapsi notoriety. She’s also the oldest and perhaps the last living relic of the original Nehru dynasty. For those who came late, Nayantara Sahgal is the daughter of Vijayalakshmi Pandit, the sister of Jawaharlal Nehru. For all her self-righteous bluster over the supposed intolerance in India under PM Narendra Modi, she has perhaps conveniently forgotten what she herself had written about the Original Dynasty of Intolerance, suppression, and dictatorship. Her own bloodline. Indeed, if there’s one distinctive feature of the Congress Dynasty and its entire ecosystem, it is its capacity for breathtaking hypocrisy.

Let’s rewind.

It was the final two or so months of 1983. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s isolation and paranoia especially after Sanjay Gandhi’s death three years earlier was complete. Rajiv Gandhi’s grooming was also in full swing. In her eyes, only the Nehru dynasty had the Divine Right to rule India. Delhi in the 1980-84 period witnessed a slew of PR blitzkrieg aimed at further solidifying the Nehru-Indira myth and the indispensability of Dynasty for India.

In this context, Nayantara Sahgal wrote the following essay in the Leftist journal, The Seminar, dated January 1, 1984 titled, “On Dynastics.” An excerpt is provided here. Emphases added.


On Dynastics

What kind of rope trick conjures up a socialist rope with a throne at the top whose occupant does not disappear? A trick that reproduces itself in miniature up and down the land, with a proliferation of little ropes topped by little thrones? … But this strictly commercial scenario has therefore made State-size dreams of power and riches less damaging to the future of India…than the centre’s obsessive hunger for an inherited Prime Ministership. It is the central leadership’s relentless pursuit of its ambition to establish a bloodline that has demanded fealty and extra-curricular loyalty from State chiefs and tolerated their wheeling and dealing…The gangrene cuts through the entire fabric of society. There is almost nothing to match the decadence that comes to surround a regime that is built around a single…personality who treats the country as a personal possession.

[…]

…a country whose first priority was to do away with zamindari, and all forms of privilege based on birth, has a Prime Minister whose party bosses chose her for the job because of her family, but who now considers it her family’s right to rule, and who pushes this ambition with a singlemindedness that triumphs over the terrifying grass-roots needs realities of party and country.

The myth-making machine in support of dynasty was set in motion in 1969, but the process has been intensified and accelerated, as though there is no time to lose…Anything might happen, as it did, in 1977. Strike now to accustom the populace to continuing Gandhi rule, lock dynasty into a democratic-looking structure, and meanwhile speak and act like royalty….

And the technique is showing results on different fronts. A cushion of privilege supports and surrounds Rajiv Gandhi’s son, Rahul, at the Doon School. He can take a jaunt to America in the middle of term with his parents and grandmother, and there are security arrangements at school for his protection (against whom?). His sister, Priyanka, is likely to be admitted to boarding school without passing the entrance examination. His mother, an Italian till now, has seen fit to change her nationality, and now, fifteen years after her marriage, has acquired an Indian passport. Care has been taken to separate the Sanjay Gandhi paraphernalia—the Memorial Trust with its fund-raising and awards, the Maruti-Suzuki collaboration, the flowers-and-incense routine at the samadhi, the public meeting commemorating the day he died, the Points, and the frightening folklore of fantasy hero-hood being built up around his abrasive and unprincipled career, from his widow. Care has been taken, too, to discredit her via scurrilous pamphlets and her mother-in-law’s public pronouncements, accompanied by distraught weeping, Sanjay’s son, according to reports, is exceptionally bright—which may be another point of tension with Maneka, since Rajiv’s children are not—so Feroze Varun, rather than Rahul, may at some, when Maneka’s isolation is total, be taken and groomed for future heirdom.

Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra

And that is not all. The eighty-fourth birth anniversary of Kamala Nehru is, for no clear reason, suddenly being celebrated this year for the first time since she died in 1936. Two films on Nehru are now in the making, though they could have been made at any time during the past nineteen years…Whatever they accomplish in artistic terms…in the re-creation of Nehru, they will undoubtedly project ‘family’, its continuity in politics, and its natural right to power. Chief among the ‘family’ projectors, apart from key members of the family, all of whom have been provided with political posts or comfortable berths and excellent business opportunities, is Swraj Paul, who houses a permanent Nehru exhibition at his residence in London, and has founded and funded a Nehru chair at Cambridge…again, one is apt to conclude, less in memory of Jawaharlal Nehru than as enduring publicity for Mrs. Gandhi.

The gesture has its ironic side. Distinguished British personalities serve on the selection committee for the Nehru professorship, while the Indian side is represented by Rajiv Gandhi and Swraj Paul. As Paul is contributing the money…he would have a say in the selection, even if he were illiterate. Rajiv’s place on the committee is more a touching mark of Paul’s loyalty than of commonsense or a proper regard for the fitness of things. Neither Mrs. Gandhi nor her sons distinguished themselves academically. Sanjay did not qualify for university, and Rajiv, like his mother, entering university on high recommendation, showed little interest in his studies. After his first year at Cambridge, he was politely asked to make arrangements elsewhere. There is no reason why those who insist on their right to rule us forever should have good school (and college) records to their credit—except that it is more insulting to be ruled by the brainless.

why [is] Mrs. Gandhi not content to leave behind her own individual name and fame, why she feels she must also make a gift of India to her son…Even the dictators in which the Third World abounds, have not so far tried bequeathing power to sons…

Inheritance presupposes stability, and India has demonstrated a political stability that even American businessmen are now willing to trust. A plan for dynasty needs at least as much confidence in continuing stability…It is the promise of ‘business as usual’ that fires dynastic ideas…

Power…soon becomes a matter of sheer comfort and appetite, of largely free living, of houses and estates, servants, air conditioners and constant attention, of holidays, travel and a river of perquisites that flow from the State, sometimes without the State’s knowledge. In India, it has also meant Swiss bank accounts, real estate deals abroad, rich benefactors, a percentage out of government contracts, and a screen of civil servants, relations and friends to shield the entrepreneurship of the mighty from the public gaze. The notorious fund-collecting methods of a Cabinet Minister’s daughter-in-law, the job-dispensing by a wife…all begin to look like fly specks on this, the gleaming mirror of real power now pursuing permanence.

[…]

In the end, the mystery of the personality that clings to power, even unto the next generation, may be as simple as holding on to what one has got, much as the monkey hangs on to his peanuts though he dances on the rising heat of the laboratory floor. And monkeys clutching peanuts must be what some of history’s rulers will look like when viewed by people of a more advanced era. Even today, what other view can we take of a personal power buildup that ignores the…hard facts of an entire subcontinent where poverty and misery still rule the day…and will not be wiped out by a coronation at Delhi.


Postscript: In November 2015, the selfsame Nayantara Sahgal praised the selfsame Rahul Gandhi as “impressive.” She had earlier declared that he and his sister were “not so bright.”

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Sandeep Balakrishna
Writer, author, and translator. Author of the bestselling "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore," "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History," and "Seventy Years of Secularism." English translator of Dr. S L Bhyrappa's blockbuster Kannada novel, "Aavarana".