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Ram Jethmalani is a senior politician and eminent lawyer.

Cementing of dynastic democracy

Rajiv Gandhi’s sole public reference to the anti-Sikh riots can only be interpreted as remorseless, if not inhuman.

Rajiv Gandhi addressing an election campaign meeting in Bihar in 1991. REUTERS

ndira Gandhi was assassinated on 31 October 1984, at 9.20 a.m. and breathed her last at 10.50 a.m. Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as Prime Minister later that same night. The omens were foul. Delhi had broken out into mob violence and a frenzy of communal riots, murdering, burning, and butchering innocent members of the Sikh community indiscriminately, all orchestrated and with the active participation of Congress Party stalwarts.

That evening I met Home Minister Narasimha Rao, urging him to take immediate steps to protect Sikhs from further attacks. I received no satisfactory reply from the Home Minister, who almost confessed that the situation was not being controlled by him. I thought I must speak to the President or the new Prime Minister, but both were unavailable. I then collected about 50 practicing lawyers from the Supreme Court who included the late Mr Tarkunde, and Mr Kapil Sibal, and we went into the areas where Sikhs were hiding in sheer terror, with not a single policeman on duty. My daughter Rani rescued a few injured Sikhs who were hiding in dark corners of some miserable houses and took them to AIIMS. The doctors refused any medical help, and admission was out of the question. Fortunately, my good friend Dr Jain took charge of them in his private, but not very well equipped, clinic, while we went around the disturbed localities. We divided ourselves into groups of three and four to help the victims as much as we could. Mr Tarkunde and I were attacked by a mob. We merely sat down on a large stone and told the attackers that we were ready to be killed. But someone in the crowd recognised us and put some sense into our determined assassins and our lives were spared. It is a shame for India that an entire community was made the victim of genocide, while the guardians of law and public order remained wholly paralysed, by, undoubtedly, secret instructions of the new dispensation.

On 2 November, curfew was announced throughout Delhi, but not enforced. The Army was deployed, but was ineffective because the police did not co-operate, and it could not resort to force without the consent of senior police officers and executive magistrates. The mobs continued to rampage.

It is a deplorable failing of Rajiv Gandhi, that having taken over the mantle of Prime Minister through dynastic compulsions of the Congress party, even if on the night of his mother's death, he forgot that he had also taken over attendant public responsibilities. His sole public reference to the anti-Sikh riots can only be interpreted as remorseless, if not inhuman: "When a giant tree falls, the mother earth below shakes." During his tenure as Prime Minister, he exercised neither his moral authority nor his political power to redress the deep injuries of 1984. As on date, no Congress leaders who perpetrated and led the anti Sikh riots have been punished, and some continue to enjoy important positions in government today. As I have repeatedly stated, it is only the greatness of the Sikh community that they have forgiven the Congress.

The formal institution of the dynastic democracy model had begun, the first in India, with Rajiv Gandhi bearing its imprimatur. This Nehru-Gandhi dynastic entitlement gradually started getting replicated across the country and spread to other political families of India. Today, it has become a political tradition in our democracy, deriving legitimacy from its originators. Indira Gandhi had made it publicly known that her closest political confidant was her son Sanjay. After Sanjay's death in 1980, she persuaded her unwilling son Rajiv to join politics and fill the void created by Sanjay. He was elected MP from Amethi, Sanjay Gandhi's constituency, in February 1981, and became his mother's close political advisor. He then became president of the Youth Congress, and it was widely perceived that Indira Gandhi was grooming Rajiv for the Prime Minister's job.

What is it in the Nehru-Gandhi family that compels them to anoint only immediate family members as alter egos or heirs apparent? Obviously, their secrets regarding their political and financial misdeeds are such that there is no substitute for immediate family when it comes to trust and protection. The keys to the treasury must always be held by them, the keys to secret cupboards containing their corruption files must never be lost, be it the Bofors case, foreign bank accounts, smuggling of antiquities, to name a few. Hence, the need for an inner circle of family confidants, a second circle of trusted coteries, and an outer circle of sycophants and hangers on, who are given blandishments and retainers to keep the inner circle protected and take the blame, or do a cover up job whenever the need arises. When not in power, these coteries and sycophants must engineer and activate cover up networks, to hush up or obfuscate any exposures. Dynasty converts all the resources and tools of democracy towards achieving these ends, and perpetuate its continuance, while fooling the nation through homilies on transparency and zero tolerance to corruption.

Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister was singularly lacklustre and mediocre. In one of his debut speeches made during the Congress Plenary Session in Mumbai, he publicly acknowledged the systems of corruption in governance institutionalised by his mother and brother. "If Central government releases one rupee for the poor," he said, "only 10 paisa reaches them."

His 64th Amendment Bill for giving Constitutional status to Panchayati Raj was defeated in the Rajya Sabha in 1989, and was carried through only when Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister in 1993. Though Rajiv's heirs claim much political credit for it and the purported decentralisation, evidence from the field suggests that it has certainly decentralised corruption that now runs through new pipelines from New Delhi to state capitals to the villages of India, and created a new breed of village despots and exploiters of the aam admi. And it is highly likely that the amount of 10 paisa reaching the aam aadmi has reduced further.

Rajiv Gandhi's pretensions to his dream for India and modernity were completely exposed in his stand on the Shah Bano case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that Shah Bano be given alimony by her divorced husband. Muslim fundamentalists agitated that it was an encroachment in their Personal Law. Under their pressure, in 1986, the Congress, which had an absolute majority in Parliament at the time, passed an Act that nullified the Supreme Court's judgement in the Shah Bano case. This can only be seen as retrogressive obscurantism for short-term minority populism, that betrayed the welfare and protection of Muslim women in India. His colleague Arif Mohammad Khan had made a wonderful speech befitting a rational intellectual, that he was in favour of the Supreme Court position. Rajiv Gandhi pretended to applaud, but soon succumbed to fundamentalist elements and pushed through the infamous legislation nullifying the Supreme Court judgement.

To be continued

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