India elected its 13th president on July 22, when votes cast by about 5,000 national and state legislators were tallied. The winner is former Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, a career politician and the official candidate of the ruling Congress Party. Though the largely ceremonial office carries little clout — the prime minister wields executive power — India’s president is nonetheless the country’s official head of state. Not surprisingly, the national media has giddily covered every twist and turn in Mukherjee’s ascent to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the palatial 340-room estate completed in 1929 for the viceroy of British India.
But nobody has paused to ask why India needs an elected president in the first place. Perhaps it is time the world’s largest democracy considered a constitutional monarch instead. Before dismissing the suggestion as ludicrous, consider its logic. A hereditary monarch provides the comfort of continuity against a backdrop of rapid economic and social change. The best ones also take over the brunt of ceremonial duties at both home and abroad, allowing the executive to focus on governance. And since they don’t have to worry overly about faddish public opinion, monarchs are often better able to stand up for core national values, such as pluralism and fair play, than a career politician conditioned by reflexive attention to short-term goals.
Rahul Gandhi comes across as a Prince Charles-like figure, essentially
well-meaning but out of sync with the world.
In many of the other parliamentary democracies cleaved from the British Empire, Queen Elizabeth II still acts as head of state. This is probably a nonstarter for India, which is proud of its independence struggle and wary of foreign influence. Luckily, there is a closer option at hand: the nearly 100-year-old Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, led at present by Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi. Who needs to import a royal family when you have a perfectly serviceable one of your own? Indeed, in India, the transition to monarchy would be virtually seamless.
Many Indians, from captains of industry to normally hard-bitten journalists to star-struck society hostesses, already treat the Nehru-Gandhis like royalty. A cabal of courtiers and party officials zealously guards their privacy and shapes their public image. The family itself acts like royalty, gently floating above the rough and tumble of national discourse. They have lived in taxpayer-funded housing for more than 60 years. With their famous last name, pan-Indian appeal, and vast experience in the public eye, the Nehru-Gandhis seem better suited to a life of ribbon-cutting and ceremonial globetrotting than many of the presidential palace’s previous occupants.
In power, the family expresses its patrician noblesse oblige by backing costly and inefficient welfare programmes India can’t afford; as purely ceremonial leaders they could continue to make the right noises but do little actual harm. Add to this the uncertain electoral appeal of the dynasty’s bumbling heir apparent, 42-year-old Rahul Gandhi, and you begin to see why it may be time for India’s de facto royal family to borrow a trick from Europe and leave the grubby business of politics to lesser mortals. In short, the idea of Her Royal Highness Sonia and Crown Prince Rahul makes as much sense for the family as for India.
For the most part, observers date the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s beginnings to India’s independence in 1947, when Rahul’s great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) became the first prime minister. But just as John F. Kennedy’s political career received a powerful boost from Joseph P. Kennedy’s wealth, the young Jawaharlal owed his start to his father, Motilal Nehru (1861-1931), a prominent lawyer in the northern city of Allahabad. Motilal’s deep pockets and political connections ensured that his Harrow- and Cambridge-educated son could devote himself to India’s independence struggle instead of earning a living as a lawyer.
In 1919, Motilal served as Congress Party president for a year, marking the family’s first milestone in national politics. But things would likely have turned out differently had independence movement leader Mohandas K. Gandhi not taken a shine to the articulate and energetic Jawaharlal. From the 1920s onwards, Gandhi transformed Congress from a party of petition-posting lawyers to a mass movement. At independence in 1947, the Mahatma backed Nehru to become prime minister over Sardar Patel, a leader better known for organisational skills than charisma. Nehru ruled until his death in 1964.
According to Ramachandra Guha, whose magisterial “India After Gandhi” is the go-to work on post-independence history, Nehru “had no hope or desire that his daughter would succeed him”. Nonetheless, the first prime minister did not dissuade his only child, Indira Gandhi (1917-1984), from entering politics. She served her first term as Congress president in 1959 while her father was prime minister. Indira — whose legendary imperiousness earned her the moniker “the Empress” — acquired her last name through marriage to Feroze Gandhi, a minor freedom fighter unrelated to the father of the nation. But in a poor land with widespread illiteracy, the coincidence of her famous last name could not have hurt her political prospects.
Indira Gandhi came to power in 1966, two years after her father’s death, as a compromise candidate of a powerful cabal of party bosses. By the time her Sikh bodyguards assassinated her in 1984, in retaliation for ordering troops to flush out militants from Sikhism’s holiest shrine, she had firmly established the dynastic principle in Indian politics. When her favoured younger son, Sanjay, died in an aircraft crash in 1980, his older brother, Rajiv, took his place as heir apparent. Rajiv succeeded his mother and served one term as prime minister (1984-1989). In 1991, a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber assassinated him on the campaign trail as he sought a comeback two years after losing an election.
Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination led to the longest stint of non-family rule in India’s history. For seven years, his Italian-born widow, Sonia, stayed out of active politics before taking over the party in 1998. It took another six years before she led Congress to a shock victory over the right-of-centre National Democratic Alliance in 2004. Likely fearing a backlash over her foreign origin and lack of policy smarts, Sonia handed over the reins of government to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But from her perch as party leader, she nonetheless occupies the same substantive position as Rajiv, Indira, and Nehru before her: the most powerful politician in India. Key Cabinet appointments, and even some senior bureaucrats, trace their authority to Gandhi — not Singh. And now the family’s fifth generation is readying to step up.
Recently, in response to a clamour from within Congress, Sonia’s son, Rahul, a general secretary of the party and head of its youth wing, announced his readiness to take on a “larger role”. Most pundits interpret this to mean either the No 2 spot in the Congress Party or a position in the Cabinet in preparation for ascending to prime minister. To make sense of this, let us imagine the Nehru-Gandhis as monarchs rather than modern politicians. In terms of longevity, it may not match Thailand’s ruling Chakri dynasty (founded in 1782), let alone the more-than-1,500-year-old imperial house of Japan — but the House of Nehru-Gandhi has already been around longer than Iran’s Pahlavis managed (54 years). The year 2019 will mark 100 years since the family patriarch Motilal first became president of the Congress Party for a one-year term.
India already treats the family like royalty. Take, for example, the delicate matter of Sonia Gandhi’s health. Last month, the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Riedel wondered why India’s normally rambunctious press showed so little interest in what ailment has led her to leave India for treatment abroad at least twice in the past year. Why aren’t more journalists asking if the most powerful person in the country is seriously ill and if so, in which country she is being treated? The answer: an invisible code similar to Thailand’s more formal lèse-majesté laws governs coverage of India’s first family. Quite simply, the subject is taboo. Or how about the fact that even though he has been a member of parliament for eight years, nobody is quite sure what Rahul Gandhi stands for.
Does India’s heir apparent believe the country has reformed its economy too fast or too slow? How closely should New Delhi hew to his great grandfather’s foreign policy of non-alignment? Is the Maoist insurgency active in large swathes of central and eastern India an existential threat to the nation or an exaggerated one? Since ideology in a family-based party is whatever the family thinks, this matters. In an unusual burst of candour last month, senior Congress Party leader and Law Minister Salman Khurshid declared that “we need an ideology to be given by our next-generation leader Rahul Gandhi to move forward”. Indeed, it is hard to think of any major politicians in the democratic world who share their views as sparingly with the press or in parliament. But if they were titular rulers, such reticence would be par for the course.
To be sure, we do know that Sonia Gandhi shares her late mother-in-law’s populist streak. But that is only because she chairs the National Advisory Council, a powerful kitchen cabinet of activists and do-gooders that has driven programmes like a spendthrift multibillion-dollar rural government job guarantee and a proposal to offer subsidised foodgrains to most of the population. Leading economists such as Columbia University’s Arvind Panagariya blame these redistributionist policies for contributing to India’s poor fiscal health — and the economic slowdown over the past year suggests that the country would indeed be better off if the family’s noble sentiments are channelled in a less destructive manner. No Briton has to worry that an unelected cabal around the queen will suddenly rejig the National Health Service or decide that everyone deserves a lifetime supply of free fish and chips.
There is more to the idea of a Nehru-Gandhi monarchy than conforming to social reality in India or warding off batty policy ideas. Quite simply, for all its drawbacks, the family would do a better job than most recent Indian presidents. Thanks to generations of marriage outside their small Kashmiri Brahmin community and a long stint in the public eye, the Nehru-Gandhis are pan-Indian figures, not closely identified with any particular region or caste. In a country as dizzyingly diverse as India, this is preferable to the present system of rotating quotas that resemble a cross between United States’ affirmative action and the European Union’s presidency. (Mukherjee, a Bengali Brahmin, will follow Pratibha Patil, a Maratha woman, who followed A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, a Tamil Muslim, etc.)
What is more, over the decades, Indian taxpayers have already footed the bill for billions of dollars worth of airports, universities, roads, and government programmes named after members of the dynasty. As power devolves to the states, regional identities rise to the fore, and integration into the global economy causes social dislocation, a pan-Indian monarch with instant name recognition may have a calming presence. Thanks to a quirk of history, and their own clever exertions over the decades, no other family in India is nearly as qualified to perform this role as the Nehru-Gandhis.
Then there is the matter of international diplomacy. Even their most ardent foes will concede that the Nehru-Gandhis carry themselves with grace and quiet dignity. They have suffered a Kennedy-esque history of personal tragedy without flinching, and without displaying signs of bitterness towards their adversaries. They also happen to carry the most famous last name in South Asia. These are attributes that a fast developing but still poor country such as India could use. A Queen Sonia or Prince Rahul could open doors for Indian business and buff India’s image abroad. Why, you might ask, would the Nehru-Gandhis be interested in such a course of action? Why settle for pomp when you can have power?
For one, judging by the Congress-led government’s performance over the past eight years, the family may be in over its head. Sonia Gandhi’s attempt to devolve day-to-day administration to Singh hasn’t worked, and his government has become a byword for drift and indecision. Meanwhile, Rahul comes across as a Prince Charles-like figure, essentially well-meaning but out of sync with the world. His policy-related comments and actions tend to be episodic and weirdly self-absorbed. One day he is in the wilds of Orissa pledging to be a soldier in Delhi for tribals, the next he is in Mumbai staring down a local chauvinistic party by riding a public train. Justice for the victims of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks may be a central plank of Indian foreign policy, but in 2009, according to a leaked Wikileaks cable, Rahul told US ambassador Timothy Roemer that he worried more about attacks by Hindus. And last year, he alleged that there were mass graves of farmers in Uttar Pradesh state outside Delhi. None turned up. Some pundits compare him unfavourably with his younger sister, Priyanka Vadra, who is supposed to have inherited her grandmother’s star appeal.
Rahul’s big project over the past few years has been to revitalise the youth wing of his party. But he doesn’t appear to be cutting much ice with voters. In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, two pivotal Hindi-belt states where the young Gandhi helmed Congress’s campaign over the past two years, the party won only 32 out of 646 seats, or 5 per cent. In his defence, the party has been gutted in these states over the past two decades by the rise of regional and caste-based parties, and it is virtually impossible to rebuild an organisation overnight. But even so, politics is a cut-throat business and it is not clear for how long Gandhi’s colleagues will keep faith in him if he can’t improve his vote-catching abilities. A Plan B may be in order.
Of course, realistically speaking, India is unlikely to embrace constitutional monarchy. But even if the Kingdom of India won’t be represented at the United Nations anytime soon, viewing the country’s dysfunctional politics through the prism of medieval monarchy — rather than modern democracy — might at least help make more sense of it all.
Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.