Argument

The House of Nehru-Gandhi

India ought to consider becoming a constitutional monarchy. After all, it already has a royal family.

India will elect its 13th president on July 22, when votes cast earlier this week by about 5,000 national and state legislators are tallied. The almost certain 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 likely 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's 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.

In many of the other parliamentary democracies cleaved from the 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's a closer option at hand: the nearly 100-year-old Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, led currently 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've 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 programs 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 onward, 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 organizational 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 body guards 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 favored younger son, Sanjay, died in a plane 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 Gandhi, 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-center 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. On Thursday, in response to a clamor 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 number two 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 1500-year-old imperial house of Japan -- but the House of Nehru-Gandhi has already been around longer than Iran's Pahlavis managed (54 years). 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. Earlier this 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 candor earlier this 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's 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's only because she chairs the National Advisory Council, a powerful kitchen cabinet of activists and do-gooders that has driven programs like a spendthrift multi-billion-dollar rural government job guarantee and a proposal to offer subsidized food grains 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 channeled in a less destructive manner. No Briton has to worry that an unelected cabal around the Queen will suddenly rejigger the National Health Service or decide that everyone deserves a lifetime supply of free fish and chips.

There's 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, that's preferable to the current system of rotating quotas that resemble a cross between U.S. affirmative action and the EU presidency. (Mukherjee, a Bengali Brahmin, will follow Patil, a Maratha woman, who followed A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, a Tamil Muslim, etc.)

What's more, over the decades, Indian taxpayers have already footed the bill for billions of dollars worth of airports, universities, roads, and government programs 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's 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 Kennedyesque history of personal tragedy without flinching, and without displaying signs of bitterness toward 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 like 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 their heads. 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's in the wilds of Orissa pledging to be a soldier in Delhi for tribals, the next he's 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 U.S. 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 unfavorably 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 revitalize 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 percent In his defense, the party has been gutted in these states over the past two decades by the rise of regional and caste-based parties, and it's virtually impossible to rebuild an organization overnight. But even so, politics is a cutthroat business and it's 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 about as likely to embrace constitutional monarchy as Saudi Arabia is to become a hippie commune. 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.

PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Flying Under the Influence

I've had it up to my synthetic aperture radar with the lawsuits and the criticism. This is why I drink and drone.

Every morning, the hangar doors roll open and the sunlight flares my electro-optical sensors. I drag myself onto the flight line, load up my pylons with Hellfire and Griffin missiles, and try to get some coffee into my tank before takeoff. If all goes well, I lumber into the air, loiter over some godforsaken warzone du jour, and occasionally lob weaponry at those I'm told are the enemies of the free world. By broad consensus, I'm pretty good at my job -- and when I'm not soaring above the mountains of Afghanistan or Yemen, I even find time for hobbies, like posting on Twitter. But after I return to base, I self-medicate with extreme prejudice. Because I'm a Predator drone, and you people make me drink.

Allow me to explain.

In the last decade, my robotic flying cohorts and I have gone from Air Force afterthought to indispensable weapon in the global struggle against violent contingencies, or whatever the hell we're calling it now. We come in sizes large and small: Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk is the size of a modest jetliner and AeroVironment's NAV is hardly bigger than a golf ball. And we don't just do war, either. Among other civilian missions, we've sampled radiation at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and helped firefighters monitor wildfires in Alaska and California. We even fly weather-research missions into hurricanes.

Yet somehow, us drones -- yes, we prefer the term "drone" over the alphabet soup of UAV, RPA, or UAS -- have been pressed into unwilling service as the bugaboo for a host of disparate interest groups. Libertarians like Ron Paul probably couldn't agree with Code Pink's Medea Benjamin on the time of day, but they can at least agree that they don't like me. And that hurts my robotic feelings, because I simply don't deserve it.

Many of the key misconceptions about me have already been effectively dissected by the talented national-security bloggers I like to read in-air, not to mention some excellent myth-busting here at FP. So I'll be brief, and touch on only the most binge-inducing notions polluting the public discourse.

I am the harbinger of risk-free warfare. The fact that I'm good at my job is somehow supposed to be a knock on me. Leading political thinkers such as Michael Ignatieff have argued

that since I lack an on-board human pilot (I prefer "co-pilot"), I eliminate a key reason for the political aversion to airstrikes -- the pilot's potential death or capture. I can also hang out for long periods over a target, cost less to manufacture than a manned fighter, carry a variety of weapons, and transmit high-quality surveillance data in real time. So, I am told, I'm the ultimate weapon -- and thus stand guilty of making wars more likely.

Balderdash. While I appreciate the flattery, I'm hardly the magic bullet to global conflict that I'm made out to be. First, Predator and Reaper drones like me are about as fast and stealthy as that crop duster that tried to mow down Cary Grant. So we play it safe, operating over areas where we're unlikely to be shot down. The Taliban, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or Somalia's al-Shabab lack the surface-to-air missiles to hit us. And local militaries in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Yemen, and (most notably) Pakistan have granted either their implicit or explicit permission for us to operate.

And second, I don't work alone. As exemplified in recent reporting by Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady, it often takes people on the ground in dangerous places -- in many cases Americans -- to ensure that I do my job right. Military personnel and intelligence officers often have to infiltrate a target area for on-site surveillance and reconnaissance before I launch a missile. And manned spy planes like my spiky friend, the RC-12 Guardrail, which helped track captured American soldier Bowe Bergdahl, work right alongside me. Drones don't completely eliminate risk to human combatants, although we do relocate it somewhat. So that's a bad thing now? Yeesh.

And to whatever limited degree humans are pulled from the frontlines, as much as I'd like to toot my own horn (wait, do I have a horn?), it's not like this is without precedent. Every advancement in military hardware -- from the blunderbuss to the Maxim gun to the cruise missile -- has been decried for distancing the warrior from the war. Still, no society has ever won a conflict by setting aside useful weapons.

I create more bad guys. So the logic seems to go like this: Drones place more distance between Americans and the bad guys. This makes killing bad guys easier, so we launch strikes more often. This turns the local population against us, creating even more bad guys. Also, my human critics like to claim, using drones instead of manned aircraft apparently makes this much worse. I think this is nonsense, although I thought the president got a bit carried away ordering drone strikes as diversions to cover his smoke breaks.

And hold on a second. You know what creates a breeding ground for international terrorism? Political repression and famine, like in Yemen. Long-simmering sectarian conflict and civil-military turf wars, like in Pakistan. These problems have been there for decades, and the arrival of international terrorists is a symptom of a failed, or failing, state. It ain't my fault.

Could the U.S. military and intelligence apparatus make things worse? Sure, and it wouldn't be the first time. But despite the media hype, what really irks your local Yemeni farmer has a lot more to do with whether civilians are being killed in airstrikes, not whether the aircraft that dropped the JDAM happens to have a pilot on board. And if it did, you wouldn't even need me -- manned aircraft and a whole host of other assets can easily do the same task. At the end of the day, it's not how you're running a targeted killing program that has consequences, it's that you're doing it. And that's a decision being made by flesh and blood human beings, way above my pay grade.

America's enemies will eventually use drones against us. This argument makes me want to hug a mountainside. As I mentioned earlier, almost all drones operate in permissive airspace -- let's politely overlook the tribulations of my stealthy but perhaps overconfident cousin, the RQ-170. It is almost impossible for a Predator to defend itself against a fighter jet; one of my buddies tried it against the Iraqi Air Force once, and let's just say it didn't go well.

The United States -- the most powerful nation on the face of the planet, God bless it -- is more than capable of defending its airspace. If you're afraid of a Russian, Chinese, or even al Qaeda-operated drone cruising over Main Street, you assume all U.S. air defenses have been destroyed or rendered inoperable. The Air Force's interceptors, the Navy's missile cruisers, and the Army's air-defense artillery batteries -- all gone. Sure, it's a scary thought, but if all that happens, you have bigger problems. Like finding a mountain hideout and practicing your best yell of "Wolverines!"

I could go on. I'd complain about the conflation of drone airstrikes abroad and domestic surveillance, but I kinda already did. Or I could rant about the trope that I turn killing into a "video game," which ignores the significant incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder among my human co-pilots. But I'll simply say this: Blaming a new weapon for the consequences of a society's willingness to use deadly force against its enemies obscures the real issues of America's adventures abroad. And it's terrible for my self-esteem. But you humans show no signs of letting up, and so ... I drink.

E. Lewis/U.S.Air Force via GettyImages