One of the forgotten heroes of Indian democracy is Kumaraswamy Kamaraj. This withdrawn, monosyllabic, self-educated man from a backward caste background was instrumental in building a base for the Congress in south India. Later, as president of the national party, he helped mediate between different factions of the Congress. But perhaps his greatest service to his party and nation was to successfully oversee two major transitions. First, when Jawaharlal Nehru died in May 1964, he consulted the party's MPs before arriving at the conclusion that Lal Bahadur Shastri would be the best choice as prime minister. Eighteen months later, Shastri died suddenly of a heart attack. Now Kamaraj again moved swiftly to contain the damage, by helping choose Indira Gandhi as Shastri's replacement.

Growing up as an only child, with a sick mother and a father frequently abroad or in jail, Indira Gandhi did not allow herself to easily trust anybody. Least of all, the Congress Old Guard. Thus, the very men who had helped make her prime minister were the men she broke away from, soon after assuming the top job in Indian politics. In 1969, Indira Gandhi divided the Congress. The faction that stayed with her was soon recognized as the real Congress, especially after it won an authoritative victory in the general elections of 1971, riding to power on the backs of the slogan of "Garibi Hatao".

To retain control over party and government, Indira Gandhi adopted four different strategies. First, she built a core of loyal advisers outside the Congress. She increasingly took her counsel not from her fellow cabinet ministers but from civil servants and technocrats in the prime minister's office, which was headed by her fellow Allahabadi, P.N. Haksar. Second, she disbanded the old, decentralized structure of the Congress - where district and state units had substantial autonomy - and placed individuals who were personally loyal to her at the head of Pradesh Congress committees. Third, at Haksar's inspiration, she floated the idea of the 'committed' civil servant and the 'committed' judge, so that key positions in the bureaucracy and the judiciary were also now occupied by individuals known to be loyal and subservient to the prime minister. Fourth, at election time she appealed directly to the voters, asking them to place their trust in her as an individual rather than in her party or its programme.

It is only in the last three decades that the Congress has worked instead to degrade rather than deepen democracy.

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The dangers of Indira Gandhi's brand of politics had been anticipated by the chief draughtsman of the Indian Constitution, B.R. Ambedkar. In his final speech to the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar warned his compatriots against an unthinking submission to charismatic authority. He quoted John Stuart Mill, who had cautioned citizens not "to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions". This warning was even more pertinent here than in England, for, as Ambedkar observed, "in India, Bhakti, or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be the road to the salvation of a soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship."

From the time she split the Congress in 1969, Indira Gandhi worked systematically to dismantle the institutions and procedures of constitutional democracy. This she did by privileging loyalty over competence - in her party, in her council of ministers, in the legislative and judicial branches of government. Ministers, Congressmen, bureaucrats, judges, and in time even ordinary citizens - all were encouraged to lay their liberties at the feet of this Great Woman, the submission conveyed in the slogan, "Indira is India, India is Indira".

It is important to note that this undermining of democratic institutions was well under way before the imposition of the Emergency in 1975. By suppressing freedom of expression and jailing Opposition politicians, the Emergency completed a process begun in the late 1960s. Shortly after its imposition, Indira Gandhi introduced a further departure from democratic functioning by naming her second son, Sanjay, her heir apparent. The locus of decision-making now shifted from the prime minister's office to the prime minister's house.

When Sanjay died in an air crash in 1980, Indira Gandhi immediately drafted her other son into the Congress. When she was herself killed in October 1984, this son, Rajiv, was sworn in as prime minister. One of his first acts was to bring his old schoolfriends into politics. Like his mother, he could not bring himself to trust his own partymen. While promoting his friends, he behaved arrogantly towards senior leaders of the Congress, and towards senior bureaucrats. At least one chief minister and one foreign secretary were sacked at impromptu press conferences. Meanwhile, his friends from outside politics gave him the most disastrous advice, persuading him to open the locks in Ayodhya and to upturn the Supreme Court's judgement in the Shah Bano case.

Picture source: Congress party web site.

Jawaharlal Nehru did not hope or desire that his daughter should succeed him as prime minister - a fact that is not as widely known as it should be. On the other hand, Indira Gandhi worked to make first Sanjay and then Rajiv her political successor. Sonia Gandhi has followed her mother-in-law scrupulously in this respect, for she has likewise ensured that her own son would head the party, and, perhaps in time, the government. The example set by India's greatest political party has been followed by many lesser ones. Had Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi not acted in this fashion, perhaps Bal Thackeray, Parkash Singh Badal, M. Karunanidhi and Mulayam Singh Yadav would not so brazenly have treated their own political parties as family firms.

The novelist, Gore Vidal, once remarked of his adopted homeland, Italy, that it combined the worst features of socialism with the worst features of capitalism. The Republic of India goes one step further - it adds, to the worst features of socialism and of capitalism, the worst features of feudalism. When family and kin are so influential in other spheres of social life, perhaps it was merely a matter of time before they made their presence felt in party politics. It may be that the Congress of Gandhi and Nehru was an aberration. Even if Indira Gandhi had not accidentally become prime minister, for how long would the Congress have continued as a political party with a robust organization, its top jobs open to all, regardless of birth or status? Would it not have succumbed sooner or later to the culture of nepotism and favouritism that is so ubiquitous in India?

I think that we must resist this cynical conclusion. For much of its history, the Congress was a democratic, decentralized party, with strong state units and a cadre of dedicated and patriotic workers. Its best leaders were, in terms of intelligence and integrity, a match for politicians anywhere. Before Independence, the Congress promoted a distinctive form of nationalism, that was inclusive and non-adversarial. After Independence, it united a nation from its fragments and nurtured the institutions and processes of democracy. It is only in the last three decades that the Congress has worked instead to degrade rather than deepen democracy.

A Spanish journalist recently asked me what I thought the "greatest enemy of the Congress" was. I answered, immediately and instinctively, "Itself". The decline and degradation of the Congress do not bode well for the future of Indian democracy. For the rival parties are steeped in one or other variety of parochialism, based on caste, region or religion. The Congress remains, at least in theory, the only national party. Were it to rid itself of control by a single family, it may once more begin to contribute constructively to the redemption of the idea of India.