Rasheed Kidwai is a veteran journalist who has witnessed the highs and lows of the Congress. He has been a witness to the venerable history of the Congress party from the inscrutable Indira Gandhi to the earthy Sitaram Kesari and now the prince in waiting Rahul Gandhi.
In 24 Akbar Road, the author takes us through the power corridors of the Congress. Its leaders, their lives, gossip and history. When someone recommended me this book then I was immediately on the back foot as I was not interested in the encomiums showered by some sycophant, my fears were allayed by the author. He puts forward an almost unbiased and honest account of Congress leaders, although he refrains from criticizing the Congress or its leaders too harshly.
The book begins with perhaps the most colossal leader of the Congress, Indira Gandhi, the woman who defeated Richard Nixon, genocidal Yahya Khan, Bhindrewala and even managed to check mate Henry Kissinger. Daughter of one of the most important founding fathers of our nation, Indira Gandhi was an automatic choice for the throne of the Congress after Nehru died. She would later have to fight rebellion in her own party and form the Congress(I) which was headquartered from the now legendary 24, Akbar Road. Indira Gandhi also had the dubious distinction of imposing emergency in the country and suspending democracy for a whole of 2 years. Indira Gandhi was both a force of good and evil. Her human rights record and imposition of the emergency would continue to remain a blot on the history of Independent India.
Sanjay Gandhi, the politician son of the Indira Gandhi was the de facto leader of the Congress in the late 70's. He was an autocratic leader and his policies during the emergency made Congress very unpopular. Congress has erased all records of Sanjay from its history even his wife Maneka left her mother in law's house after the death of Sanjay in a plane crash. Maneka later went on to join BJP and her son is also a member of parliament from BJP. Sanjay was portrayed as a villain by the media and even by some Congressman but surprisingly he remains very popular. If you talk with anyone who was around those times they are highly appreciative of Sanjay, I guess people in India are enamored by strong leaders who can take tough decisions.
Congress has always been the political platform of one family i.e. the Nehru Gandhi family. One after another leader has come from the same family. After the deaths of Indira and Sanjay. Indira's second air pilot son Rajiv took over the mantle of Congress. Rajiv a reluctant politician had married Sonia, who was an Italian and had been assimilated in the Nehru Gandhi family. Rajiv was a reformer much like his son, Rahul Gandhi, he wanted to shake things up but was opposed by the old guard. Rajiv won a massive mandate in elections but could not capitalize on that as his name was embroiled in the Bofors scam. There is also mention of the friendship of the Gandhis and the Bachchans. This part of the book is most intriguing and its almost like reading a bollywood gossip magazine. The author does not hold back the gossip and grape vine. Rajiv Gandhi was later assassinated by Tamil terrorists.
With the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress ship was left without a captain, and then a dozen vice captains started jostling for the top job. Finally. PV Narasimha Rao(now forgotten) was elevated to PM he appointed Manmohan Singh as his finance minister and we are still reaping the rewards of the work done by this duo. Funny how the one Prime Minister who expedited economic reforms came neither from BJP nor the Gandhi family. During Congress's defeat and emergence of the BJP in the mid and late 90's, Sitaram Kesari took over power in the Congress. This was the same time when Gandhi monarchy Sycophants started coaxing Sonia Gandhi to come to Congress and take over the reigns of the party. A war broke out between Sonia loyalists and Kesari, which Sitaram Keasri lost. Kesari was later humiliated by Congress workers, who tried to pull his dhoti and heckled him when he visited the Congress office.
Sonia Gandhi initially saw opposition from nationalists and other wily politicians who did not want to see an Italian as the head of the grand old party of India. Sharad Pawar, the Maratha strongman was one of those who was thrown out and his life long dream of becoming PM remained only a dream. When Congress won the 2003 elections, Sonia pulled off a master stroke and declined the chair of PM, thus elevating herself even beyond the PM. Sonia bequeathed the PMship to Manmohan Singh, the Sonia loyalist and docile brilliant economist. Contrary to the popular perception Manmohan Singh is held in awe by Sonia and Rahul and he acts as their adviser and friend, not a puppet. Sonia and Manmohan ruled India for another 10 years.
Final chapter in the book is dedicated to Rahul Gandhi, the PM in waiting. Contrary to popular belief Rahul is a full time politician and is disruptive in nature. Sonia loyalists and old congress guard has resisted any change, also a spat of failures has put Rahul in a poor light.
Now, the Congress has a fresh set of opposition and challenges. AAP, led by the dharna activist Arvind Kejriwal, rebellion in the Congress and the right wing nationalist Narendra Modi. It will be fascinating to see how the grand old party handles these challenges.
After reading the book you cannot help but appreciate and admire the Congress, even though the book stays away from criticizing the congress on its many vices, I still felt the book is not biased. This is a great introduction to the modern Congress party. I would like to wrap up this review by an analogy that the author brought up in the book between dynasties.
It is said that the conqueror Timur the lame, spoke to Ibn Khuldun, sociologist and Historian about the fate of dynasties. Ibn said dynasty seldom lasted beyond 4 generations. First generation inclined towards conquest, second towards administration, third freed from conquest or administration spend its time on pleasure and cultural pursuits and by the fourth generation, a dynasty had usually spent its wealth and human energy. Hence the downfall of each dynasty was embedded in the very process of its rise.
3.5 stars out of 5