05/27/2014 02:25 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2014

Fiftieth Anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru's Death Today

The distance from Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh to Chennai in Tamil Nadu is 861 miles, or 1,385.65 kilometres. They are both large cities in large states, and probably the only conspicuous indication that they have something in common -- other than, of course, unrelenting rivers of traffic, mounds of garbage most everywhere, and impossibly crowded streets -- is a plethora of posters and hoardings depicting Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul. While the Congress doyens are understandably hailed in Allahabad because of the Nehru connection to the city, neither is especially popular in Chennai, where the former actress Jayalalithaa Jayaram is chief minister and heads the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kzahagam (AIADMK), a regional party often at odds with the Indian National Congress of Sonia and Rahul.

If you visit the small, ill-lit home of celebrated astrologer, palmist and numerologist D. Nagarajan, however, you are likely to get a contrarian point of view -- which is to say, Nagarajan is enamored of the Nehrus and the Gandhis. If you are willing to endure endless cups of strong filtered coffee, he will go through their history in a richly detailed manner, frequently illustrating their horoscopes and numerological charts on assorted pieces of paper. He will show you faded pictures of stalwarts such as Motilal Nehru, his son Jawaharlal, and of Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi. The pictures offer a startling contrast to those of a colorful variety of Hindu gods and goddesses that adorn the flaking walls of Nagarajan's apartment.

It was at Nagarajan's home that I first heard the phrase, in translated Tamil, "India's everlasting family."

"The Nehrus and the Gandhis are much more than a political dynasty," the astrologer told me. "There are numerous political dynasties in India. But the Nehrus and the Gandhis are truly India's everlasting family. They belong to the people, and the people know how much this family has sacrificed for the country. That is why the Nehrus and the Gandhis will always lead India."

The astrologer is a plump, balding man in his seventies, and he's known throughout India's South for his political predictions, many of them eerily accurate. Politicians consult him about their prospects, and so do important socialites, movie stars and the occasional physician. Nagarajan doesn't advertise anywhere: his clients come to him by referral. I had gone to see him not about politics but on a personal matter, and after we'd finished discussing it Nagarajan produced two sheets of paper. One was a copy of a letter he'd written to Rahul Gandhi. It had been neatly typed in English -- obviously the astrologer had someone do that for him -- and Nagarajan informed Rahul that his calculations showed that he would become India's prime minister. The second sheet was crisp white, an original letter from one of Rahul's aides. The sender -- whom I knew -- said that Rahul appreciated Nagarajan's note, and regretted that he couldn't respond personally. He added that Rahul would look him up when he next came to Chennai. As far as I know, the young Gandhi has yet to meet with the astrologer.

"Mark my words -- Rahul Gandhi will become prime minister of India," Nagarajan said to me. Perhaps my face betrayed skepticism at hearing this, and the astrologer quickly added: "It's written in his stars. It's destiny, it's his destiny. One member of each generation of the family since Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru is destined to become prime minister. Maybe not in 2014, but then Rahul is still young."

What about Rahul's sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra?

Nagarajan shook his head.

"She's a lot like her grandmother Indira Gandhi, she possesses the charisma and even features, " he said, presently. "But there are too many personal issues such as her husband Robert's business deals, and questions about her own health. She has young children to raise. I don't know that, beyond campaigning for her brother and mother, Priyanka would want to enter the fray of politics. It's a very difficult field, it's very ugly, and the scrutiny is constant these days. As a young mother, does she really want that kind of life?"

I liked Nagarajan from the very beginning. I was never much of a believer in astrologer and the occult; but the avuncular Nagarajan told me things about myself that he couldn't have possibly known through conventional means. Now I look him up each time I visit Chennai, and also stay in touch by telephone. By the time I met Nagarajan on this latest trip to Chennai, I had decided to embark on this book and sought his blessings. I told the astrologer that I was planning a book about the Nehrus and Gandhis, a sort of summing up of my earlier body of work on them over three decades. He seemed pleased. He told me that he had once met Indira Gandhi, who was known for consulting astrologers and swamis, and had warned her that her life was in mortal danger. This was in late 1983, some months before the Indian Army's Operation Blue Star, a five-day assault that began on 3 June 1984 on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, where Khalistan separatists led by the charismatic Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale had holed up. Army Chief Arun Shridhar Vaidya, and Lieut. General Kuldip Singh Brar led the successful operation. General Vaidya was gunned down on 10 August 1986 in Pune; General Brar has been subjected to nearly ten assassination attempts, the most recent in London on 30 September 2012 when three Sikhs slashed his throat. Indira Gandhi was assassinated on 31 October 1984.

Not long after my meeting with Nagarajan in Chennai, I had lunch in New Delhi with an old friend, Mohan Guruswamy. Mohan is a well-known gadfly and author, and a former Secretary in the Indian Government's Ministry of Finance.

I asked Mohan to sum up for me why, beyond their obvious political clout, the Nehrus and the Gandhis mattered. There seemed to be general agreement that bad governance, deep corruption, and general mismanagement of the $1.8 trillion Indian economy had characterized the UPA's decade in office.

"The Nehrus and the Gandhis matter in the modern era because of the dynasty's durability and the nexus to the masses in India," Mohan Guruswamy said. "It is impossible to overstate the affection that dynasty members have received from a vastly poor country."

How did the Nehrus and Gandhis gain and retain that affection and loyalty, even though the family scarcely sprang from the poverty of India? What explains their charisma? How did they come to be respected by other world leaders, in democracies and dictatorships alike?

Moreover, there's the current leader of the Congress Party, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, widely perceived as the most powerful woman in international politics, informally known as the "empress" of a demographically diverse nation of 1.2 billion people. What explains her rise to power, and her grasp of the intricacies of wielding in a country of huge ethnic and social diversity?

Whether you are a student of politics or of drama, the family's story is riveting. The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has enjoyed enormous popularity and power, suffered enormous tragedy and reversals of fortune; yet, except for a brief period -- during the time of Indira Gandhi, and again after her death -- has ruled by popular mandate, unlike other dynasties and autocracies in Asia and elsewhere. It is a dynasty that has ruled through statesmanship, guile and political savvy; it
suffered enormous tragedy (Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were assassinated), and reversals of fortune (such as losing an occasional election, including the 2014 one).

To me, here's another important point: The conspicuous presence of dynasty members in each of India's decades since 1900 has coincided with political turbulence. Dynasty members successfully helped ride out that turbulence in pre-Independence India and post-Independence. The Nehrus and Gandhis constitute the longest political dynasty of the modern world. Its origins can be traced back 200 years to Kashmir, where the Nehrus belonged to the Kashmiri Brahman pandit class - although there's a lingering question whether one of the family's ancestors was a Muslim. The dynasty has been in power for nearly a century starting with its founder, British-trained lawyer Motilal Nehru, who was twice President of the Indian National Congress.

The dynasty did not spring from business wealth -- like the Kennedys and the Bushes of the United States -- but derived its legitimacy from the will and acclaim of India's masses. Those teeming masses have always turned to the Nehrus and Gandhis for solutions to political and economic problems, for showing them a way out of grinding poverty. For more than a century, the dynasty has earned and retained the affection and loyalty of those masses -- not by rhetoric alone but by direct association with India's masses, and by empathetically listening to them. Yet, except for a brief period -- during the time of Indira Gandhi, and again after her death -- has ruled by popular mandate, unlike other dynasties and autocracies in South Asia and the East. In this sense, the Nehrus/Gandhis are closer to the great ruling dynasties of the West such as the Kennedys and the Bushes. But to compare them only to either the ruling political families of the East or the West would be to do this extraordinarily complex, magnetic dynasty a disservice.

Even when the dynasty's promises of poverty alleviation fell short of expectation, it could be justifiably said that it wasn't because the Nehrus and Gandhis made false pledges. Say this for them: They always tried their best in their own special way, and they held fissiparous India together.

So what's the mystique all about? Why does it endure, even in this age of growing skepticism of politicians? Does the answer lie in the romance of Indian history, in Indians' faith in the power of leadership? Is the mystique explained by the fact that all through recorded Indian history, the polity has always been organized around a central dominant figure or dynasty -- medieval kings, the Moghul emperors, the maharajahs, the British colonial rulers, Nehru, Indira, Rajiv?

The Nehru and the Gandhis have always captured the zeitgeist of the political moment, and, for the most part, they have served India well. Despite all their tragedies and triumphs, the one great theme that marks the dynasty's ethos is their commitment to secularism. Let it be said that whatever the political ambitions of dynasty members, their overriding commitment has been to the Indian polity. They have paid a huge price by adhering to this commitment. But they could not have done any less.

I am among the very few authors who has met all members of the post-war Nehru-Gandhi dynasty: Jawaharlal (when I was a very young boy growing up in Bombay); Indira (whom I interviewed briefly in New York); Rajiv (whom I interviewed at length for a PBS documentary); Sanjay (whom I met briefly in Delhi during the Emergency); and, of course, Sonia Gandhi and her two children, Rahul and Priyanka.

The Nehrus are originally from Muslim-dominated Kashmir; they settled in Delhi in the beginning of 18th century, where Motilal Nehru's grandfather, Lakshmi Narayan, became the first lawyer of the East India Company at the shadow court of Emperor of Delhi. The name "Nehru" is derived from the Hindi word "nehar," meaning canal, when the Mughal Emperor Farrukhsiar had allotted the land adjacent to a canal or "nehr" (a Persian word) to a Nehru ancestor, Raj Kaul, who originated from Kashmir. Lakshmi Narayan's son Gangadhar, was a police officer in Delhi in 1857, and during the Great Indian Mutiny, when the British troops began shelling their way into the city, he fled to Agra along with his wife Jeorani and four children.

There is considerable controversy about Gangadhar's faith. Some scholars argue that he was, in fact, a Sunni Muslim who served as a lawyer in the court of the last Moghul emperor, Badshah Khan. Some of these scholars say that his name was actually Ghiyasuddin, and that he changed it to Gangadhar when it became clear that the British sought to eliminate as many members of the Mughal court as possible. The irony is that if indeed "Gangadhar" were Muslim-born (even if illegitimately), then Jawaharlal Nehru had Muslim blood in his veins -- which, some scholars say, might explain his lifelong admiration of Islam. Gangadhar's eldest son, Bansi Dhar Nehru, worked in the judicial department of the British Government and, being appointed successively to various places, was partly cut off from the rest of the family. The second son, Nand Lal Nehru, entered the service of an Indian State and was Diwan of Khetri State in Rajputana for 10 years. Later he studied law and settled down as a practicing lawyer in Agra.

Although Jawaharlal was criticized for emphasizing large-scale state projects, he was in effect laying the foundations for today's rapidly modernizing India. He was an agnostic, and he believed that India's salvation lay in emphasizing science and technology. Even though Washington saw him as a virtual puppet of Moscow, Nehru brought India center stage in world affairs through its persistent criticism of the Cold War, and its alliances with the growing number of former European colonies known as the Third World. Nehru himself despised that term. "It's as if there were a race and we came in third," he often said. Now, 50 years after his death, that derogatory term is rarely used -- at least as far as India is concerned. It could be argued that besides his enduring love for India's culture and history, Jawaharlal Nehru's greatest gift to India was his vision for its people -- a future where they would live in a technologically advanced nation, one that would never again have to live on handouts from America or Russia or Europe. It is a vision that has come true.

Sonia Gandhi was a reluctant entrant into Indian politics, but she quickly became "empress" of India. There's general agreement that Sonia Gandhi has been at least as shrewd as her late mother-in-law. Sonia has always had to deal with the charge that a foreign-born woman like her can never be a "true" leader of 1.3 billion Indians. How has she won acceptance from India's masses? Sonia Gandhi was diagnosed with cancer of the colon in mid 2011, and underwent successful surgery in the United States. How has she changed? How does she view the future of The Family?

Many questions indeed, and I'm not so sure that there are definite answers to all of them. But India has lived with the Nehrus and Gandhis for 200 years, and the family is likely to star in the polity for the foreseeable future. So, at the very least, an attempt at figuring out answers to these questions may help us understand how India became what it has become. As India marks on 27 May the 50th anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru's death, questions about The Family -- and its future -- are more relevant than ever.