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.