Who is the Most Influential Indian Personality


Rasheed Kidwai

is a journalist, author, political analyst and commentator. Reporting on the Congress Party is one of his specialties. He currently works as a senior editor for the Kolkata daily newspaper "The Telegraph".

Translation: Stefan Mentschel

A political family has shaped the course of the country for four generations

From the first prime minister to the political hope of the present: Since independence in 1947, the Nehru-Gandhi family has influenced and shaped the fate of India. In addition to notable successes, there were always serious setbacks - politically and personally. So far, however, the dynasty has retained power and influence.

Sonia Gandhi (2nd from right) with son Rahul (left) and daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadhera (right) at an election rally in 2004. (& copy AP)

The Asian conqueror Tamerlan (or Timur the Lame) is said to have exchanged views on the fate of dynasties with the famous historian and sociologist Ibn Chaldun. Khaldun has shown that a dynasty rarely lasts longer than four generations. The first generation is occupied with conquests, the second with the expansion and consolidation of power. The third generation - largely freed from administrative tasks - would then have the pleasure of enjoying the achievements and money of their ancestors as well as cultural life. After all, for the fourth generation there is not much left of the former energy and wealth. Therefore, the fall of every royal family is already sealed with its rise. If you believe Chaldun, then no one can escape this process.

In the history of democratic India, the scholar's predictions seem to come true using the example of the Nehru Gandhi family. Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) was the architect. He fought alongside Mahatma Gandhi for the country's independence from British imperialism. His daughter Indira Gandhi (1917-1984) expanded power, won wars (against Pakistan, which led to the establishment of Bangladesh) and became one of the most influential figures of the 20th century.

Her son Rajiv Gandhi (1944-1991) also became Prime Minister, experimented a lot and had to pay dearly for it. Today Rajiv's widow Sonia Gandhi leads the Congress Party, India's most influential political force. The fourth generation of the family represents Rahul Gandhi, son of Rajiv and Sonia. He is considered by many to be the future prime minister, but despite good intentions, things are not really taking off for him.

Interestingly, there are no family ties between the Nehru Gandhi family and the Indian independence hero Mahatma Gandhi. Nehru's daughter Indira married the politician and journalist Feroze Gandhi in 1942, who happened to have the same last name as India's spiritual leader. That is why son Rajiv, daughter-in-law Sonia and grandson Rahul also bear the traditional name.

Jawaharlal Nehru: First Prime Minister after independence

Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru during a session of the All-India Congress Committee, August 1944
The Nehrus come from Kashmir and originally had the surname Kaul. In 1716 the scholarly family of Mughal Mughal Farrukh Siyar, who had a sense of education and literature, were invited to the court of Delhi. There she moved into a house on a canal. In Persian channel is nahar, in Urdu it becomes nehar. The neighbors soon addressed the head of the family as "the one who lives by the canal" - or Nehru.

Jawaharlal Nehru was born on November 14, 1889. He completed part of his training at Harrow International School in London. From there he moved to Trinity College in Cambridge, where he received a degree in science. Nehru also attended lectures by George Bernand Shaw there and spent nights discussing Friedrich Nietzsche with fellow students. He then studied law in London for two years. When Nehru traveled back to Bombay by ship in August 1912, he described himself as a "weird mixture of East and West, out of place everywhere and nowhere at home".

After a short legal career, Nehru gave up the legal profession and joined the Indian independence movement. At the end of the First World War, under Gandhi's leadership, he had become an influential figure in the Congress Party. Nehru distinguished himself as a visionary thinker and leader who understood the old as well as the new India. In the book The Discovery of India, which he wrote while in prison from 1942 to 1946, he convincingly describes India as a historically grown nation with a right to sovereignty.

After India was granted independence on August 15, 1947, Nehru became the first prime minister of the now free country. He stayed in this post until his death in May 1964. Nehru drove moderate socialist economic reforms and promoted the industrialization of the country. He became one of the defining figures of the movement of the non-aligned states, which, as former colonies, wanted to avoid new dependencies on the great powers USA and the Soviet Union. Despite efforts to establish good relations with neighbors, a border conflict with China escalated into war in 1962. Nehru and his government were not prepared for this and the Indian troops were defeated.

Indira Gandhi: Political acuteness and instinct for realpolitik

Indira Gandhi (& copy Public Domain)
Nehru did not specifically set up his daughter Indira as his successor. Nevertheless, after his death, she became a powerful leader within the Congress party. In the office of Prime Minister, Nehru succeeded Lal Bahadur Shastri, who made Indira Gandhi Minister of Information. Shastri died in January 1966, shortly after signing a peace treaty in Tashkent with neighboring Pakistan, which had previously embroiled India in a war over the Kashmir region.

Indira Gandhi's appointment as Shastri's successor was not without opposition. An influential group within the Congress party had pushed through a vote among the party's elected officials, but Indira Gandhi won 355 to 169 votes against her rival Morarji Desai. There were several reasons for this. As Nehru's daughter, she was seen as a politician for the whole country. Nor was she known as a dogged follower of a particular religion, which also benefited her in multi-religious and multi-cultural India. In addition, she had extensive international contacts and was at the same time familiar with the problems of ordinary people.

A war against Pakistan that led to the establishment of the state of Bangladesh in 1971 strengthened Indira Gandhi's popularity and power in the country. In the same year she won the elections with a clear majority. During the election campaign, she had advertised herself with the now famous Garibi Hatoa (Eliminate Poverty) slogan. The Indira era was also marked by a radicalization of the political program and leadership style. In doing so, she shows extraordinary political acumen and a flair for realpolitik. It played Congress politicians off against each other and dealt the conservatives a bitter blow when, among other things, it nationalized banks and stopped state payments to the country's 565 former royal families (privy purse).

Sanjay Gandhi: Reckless, impulsive and disregarding all rules

When Indira Gandhi and India found themselves in seemingly calm waters, their younger son Sanjay appeared and claimed more and more influence. In doing so, he became an authority operating outside the constitutional framework, which continued to restrict intra-party democracy and the right to dissent and contradict. At the end of the 1970s, the process of de-institutionalizing the Congress party was almost complete and the focus on a leadership figure was cemented.

Contemporary witnesses describe Sanjay as daring, impulsive and disregarding all rules. He was a danger to himself and others. Although he never held public office, it was mainly his influence that prompted Indira Gandhi to declare a state of emergency on June 26, 1975. According to her, this was necessary in order to counter the "danger of lawlessness and anarchy" in India. Over the next 21 months, thousands were jailed and parliaments and courts were unable to function.

In early 1977, Indira Gandhi reinstated the constitutional rights and ordered new elections. In the process, she felt the anger of the Indians who punished the Congress party and voted out of government for the first time since independence. But the coalition led by their rival Morarji Desai and the Janata Party did not stay in power for long. In 1980 Indira Gandhi was again Prime Minister. Sanjay had also won a seat in parliament for the first time and was moderate. But on June 23, 1980 he died in the crash of a sports machine that he had flown himself. Indira was devastated

Rajiv Gandhi: With hesitation into politics

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (right), Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi (left) and Rahul Gandhi (center), son of Sonia and Rajiv Ghandi, pay tribute to former Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi. (& copy AP)
When Sanjay had an accident, the older brother Rajiv was on vacation with his Italian-born wife Sonia and their children Rahul and Priyanka. At first he was reluctant to answer the call to Delhi because he didn't really want to get into politics. But then he bowed to the pressure - even though his wife had threatened to leave him in this case. "I begged him not to let that do to him," Sonia Gandhi recalled once. "I was afraid that he would be killed. He held my hand, hugged me and tried to calm me down. He had no choice, he said, he would be killed either way." However, she also admitted that she understood Indira Gandhi's wish to have her son Rajiv at her side as a political advisor.

The life of the Nehru Gandhi family gradually returned to normal - until October 31, 1984. Two of Indira Gandhi's bodyguards opened fire on the Prime Minister in the garden of their residence and killed her. The men, both members of the religious minority of the Sikhs, were angry at Indira Gandhi's decision to let the army storm the Golden Temple of Amritsar - the main sanctuary of the Sikhs - where armed separatists had holed up. The assassination of Indira made Rajiv prime minister. While he was still putting his cabinet together, severe anti-Sikh pogroms shook the country, killing more than 3,000.

Rajiv, born in 1944, was a man in a hurry. He initiated the economic restructuring of India, promoted private entrepreneurship and technology programs. He lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 years. His views on nuclear disarmament and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, as well as the policy of détente with neighbors China and Pakistan, also found many admirers abroad.

But domestically, Rajiv Gandhi was entangled in a web of corruption allegations. Government members and officials were accused of accepting bribes in the millions from the Swedish defense company Bofors for the award of a 15 billion dollar major contract. An Italian businessman and friend of the Gandhi is said to have initiated the business. Rajiv has always denied this, but the Bofors scandal cost him re-election in 1989.

In May 1991, while preparing to return to the Prime Minister's office, he was torn to his death by a female suicide bomber at an election rally in southern India. The woman acted on behalf of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam from Sri Lanka, who took revenge for Rajiv Gandhi intervening in the civil war there at the end of the 1980s and sending Indian troops to the island nation.

Sonia Gandhi: Sense of Duty and Personal Sacrifice

In the hour of mourning, the Congress Party turned to Sonia Gandhi. But the widow refused to take on leadership roles. In the following six years - from 1991 to 1997 - Sonia stayed away from political activities. It was only in 1998 that she was persuaded to take the lead of the politically massively weakened party.

Sonia Gandhi's life was extraordinary. Born in the small Italian town of Orbassano, her interest in languages ​​brought her to Cambridge. There she met Rajiv Gandhi in 1965 at the age of just 18, a 21-year-old student at the time. "As far as I remember, it was love at first sight," she later wrote. When the two first met in the Greek restaurant The Varsity, Sonia only knew of India that this country "existed somewhere in the world with snakes, elephants and jungles". She also had no idea of ​​the origin of her future husband - not least because Rajiv hardly told anyone that he was Nehru's grandson and Indira Gandhi's son.

Critics accuse Sonia of cultivating a dynastic culture within the Congress Party. She herself describes her entry into politics with a sense of responsibility. "I have photographs of my husband and mother-in-law in my office," she said in an interview. "Every time I walked past these pictures, I felt that I was not doing my duty to this family and the country seriously. I knew that it was cowardly to just sit and watch things get worse for the party , for whom my mother-in-law and the whole family lived and died. That was the moment when my decision was made. "

In May 2004 India elected the Congress Party led by Sonia Gandhi to head a coalition government. All eyes rested on her, but she renounced the office of head of government and made the economist Manmohan Singh Prime Minister. It was a political masterpiece, because renunciation is an important aspect of Indian culture: those who renounce power and influence are revered. Their sense of duty and personal sacrifice strengthened the Nehru Gandhi dynasty in ways that Rajiv and Indira Gandhi never succeeded in doing. In the 2009 election campaign, Sonia underlined her traction once again when she led her party to an even clearer victory. Today she is the longest-serving chairwoman in the history of the party, which was founded in 1885.

In 2011, Sonia Gandhi's state of health unsettled her followers. However, due to her reserved nature, the politician did not give any details. A stay in a New York specialty clinic fueled speculation about a possible cancer. After an operation and numerous medical tests, Sonia is now back in reasonably good health. Nevertheless, this episode was a major reason for the sudden political rise of her son Rahul.

Rahul Gandhi: Lack of experience and charisma

Rahul Gandhi took over day-to-day political affairs from his mother and became vice president of the party in 2013. In Christopher Kremmer's book Inhaling the Mahatma, he tells how he made the decision to step into the footsteps of his ancestors back in May 1991 shortly after his father was murdered. Nevertheless, since his first election to parliament in 2004, he has avoided assuming a ministerial office. Instead, he focused on revitalizing the Congress party's youth organization. Before entering politics, Rajiv Gandhi had worked as an economic advisor in London.

In the meantime, the congress party has lost some of the popular support, because during its term in office from 2004 to 2014 it was confronted with massive allegations of corruption, right up to the highest government offices. At the same time, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regained stature and popularity. The eloquence of the BJP top man Narendra Modi as well as his administrative skills and experience also play an important role.

Rahul Gandhi, born in 1970, lacks experience and charisma. Even under his leadership, the party has lost more and more ground to the political competition from the BJP, the newly founded Aam Admi Party (meaning: party of the common people, AAP) and strong regional parties. Some congressional politicians therefore place their hopes in Rahul's younger sister Priyanka Gandhi, who they attest to a far greater charisma and attraction. Although Priyanka is involved in the election campaign for her mother and brother, she also wears her grandmother Indira's saris to attract attention. But she denies rumors of wanting to get into politics herself. Therefore Rahul has to deliver - and give the lie to Ibn Khaldun's prophecy.