India's political dynasty flounders 30 years after Indira Gandhi's killing

Indira Gandhi, assassinated three decades ago, was the architect of Congress' growth, but party may soon look beyond family for leadership

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 October, 2014, 5:24am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 October, 2014, 2:43pm


When Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her bodyguards on October 31, 1984, the instant elevation of her son Rajiv to the post of prime minister appeared to confirm her family's status as India's natural-born rulers.

But three decades on from the assassination of India's "Iron Lady", even members of her Congress party are beginning to question whether they may now have to look beyond the Nehru-Gandhi clan for survival.

After a crushing defeat in May's general election, things hit a new low this month when Congress trailed in third place in two state polls with Rahul Gandhi - the dynasty's latest scion - having all but disappeared from view.

"Indira Gandhi was the real architect of the Congress party's expansion. She had the ability to directly speak to the masses across India and get votes," said Rasheed Kidwai, who has written several books on Congress.

"For the first time, instead of the party depending on the family, the family depends on it for its survival," he added.


The centre-left Congress has ruled India for more than 50 of the 67 years since independence, while a member of the family has been at the helm of the party for all but a handful of those years.

But now, while few within Congress speak out against the family, analysts say there can be no illusions about the scale of its troubles.

"It is defeated and directionless with a serious leadership crisis," said Zoya Hasan, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Although Priyanka Gandhi is seen as an alternative leader, she says she is dedicated to raising her children and is hampered by controversy over her husband's property business dealings.

Rahul Gandhi - once described in a US diplomatic cable as "an empty suit" - has shown no such appetite and likened power to "poison" before being persuaded to become Congress's election frontman. His mother, Sonia Gandhi, remains party president.

Since May, Rahul has been barely seen in public and has left Sonia to rally the party.

For years, it seemed almost unthinkable that anyone but a Gandhi could lead Congress.

But asked recently if someone from outside the family could lead the party, former finance minister Palaniappan Chidambaram told NDTV: "I think so ... some day, yes."

The party's plight has added to the nostalgia for Indira even though she was a massively divisive figure, especially after her 21-month state of emergency.

Critics say her authoritarian streak was again illustrated by her order to storm the Golden Temple, the Sikhs' most revered shrine, in June 1984 when part of the complex in Amritsar was taken over by militants.

After at least 400 people were killed in the assault, two of her Sikh bodyguards took revenge by shooting her dead in her garden.

"She was a very great leader, a world leader, who I saw was respected wherever she went," said K. Natwar Singh, a former foreign minister who accompanied her on numerous trips.

Singh, who fell out with Sonia after being sacked in 2005, sees little chance of any immediate Congress revival.


Indian premier Narendra Modi urges bureaucrats to cut luxury spending

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ordered civil servants to forgo the luxury of flying first class and start paying for their spouses' air tickets as he tries to deliver on a promise to cut the fiscal deficit to a seven-year low.

The ban on first-class travel, which could save US$3,000 on a long-haul flight, is part of an austerity drive launched by Modi to cut discretionary spending by 10 per cent in the fiscal year to next March.

While yesterday's small-bore measures copy a playbook New Delhi has relied on since 2012 to trim a bloated deficit, they fit in with the frugal image that Modi has cultivated since becoming prime minister five months ago.

"There is a need to continue to rationalise expenditure and optimise available resources," the finance ministry said in its directive.

The ministry has also barred meetings at five-star hotels, the purchase of cars for government officials and the creation of new posts in federal departments.

However, interest and debt payments, the defence budget, salaries and pensions will not be affected.

"Such measures are intended to promote fiscal discipline, without restricting the operational efficiency of the government," the finance ministry said.

India's longest economic slump since the 1980s has slashed tax receipts, forcing New Delhi to scale back public spending by nearly 2 trillion rupees (HK$253 billion) in the past two years to deliver on its deficit goal and retain its investment-grade credit rating.

In its first budget, Modi's government pledged to narrow the fiscal deficit to a seven-year low of 4.1 per cent of gross domestic product.

A slide of 25 per cent in global oil prices since June has made government officials more confident of meeting a tough target without deeper spending cuts.