In the early 20th century, when British Viceroy Lord Minto, an admirer of Sir Rajen Mookerjee (the contractor for the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata) for his entrepreneurial sharpness, invited him to the Bengal Club for lunch, a shock awaited him. It was an all-white club, so no admittance for Mookerjee.
The Indian knight's national pride was also grievously hurt; he, and the city's native notables, set up the Calcutta Club by 1907 with no colour bar but chose a Maharaja, Sir Nripendra Narayan of Cooch Behar, as its founding president.
From then till Independence, and even later, it remained a den of the traditional local luminaries and their scions, some of whom had slid into the middle class, or hadn't read beyond schools. It took years for the club to shed its colonial elitism and allow the breeze of meritocracy to enter its portals.
But no such relief is in sight for the 130-year-old Congress party. It remains a "club" of colonial "maharajas" to this day, with its leadership held in the iron fist of the Nehru-Gandhi family since the olden days.
In 1929, in what any objective historian would call a nepotistic subterfuge, Mahatma Gandhi, the party's paterfamilias, made Jawaharlal, the ambitious and untested son of his friend Motilal Nehru, the president of the party.
Since then, the family has never allowed any intruder to poach in its fief. And now, Sonia Gandhi, the family's Italian-Albanian regent, is preparing to put her son Rahul in the president's seat, despite the man having no interest in anything other than partying, or playing hookey, often claiming that he's off to some Buddhist meditation called vipassana.
The idée fixe that there must be a Gandhi at the top of the Congress makes it a little different from the club Sir Rajen founded, though not much. Its local chiefs, who constitute the "Team Rahul", are all descendants of tested Gandhi loyalists. Ajay Maken, who is Rahul's choice as Delhi's PCC chief, is a nephew of Lalit Maken, a Congress leader of the Eighties who'd allegedly participated in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 following Rahul's grandmother Indira Gandhi's assassination; Lalit and his wife were subsequently gunned down by a Sikh group seeking revenge.
Ajay Maken is a political washout. Under his charge, the Congress failed to win a single seat in the recent Assembly election, while Maken himself came third in the Sadar Bazar constituency. But Rahul was happy with his family credentials.
The old link is also strong with Bharatsinh Solanki, Rahul's choice as Gujarat PCC chief. His father, Madhavsinh Solanki, was former Gujarat chief minister who became external affairs minister in the Nineties. At that time, the family's popularity graph had sunk low in the wake of persistent public riling about its role in the Bofors howitzer scam. An official team was trying to persuade the Swiss authorities to hand over the details of its proceeds passing through their banks. But Solanki, who had gone to the World Economic Conference at Davos as India's representative, was found pleading with a Swiss minister to go slow on his government's cooperation with its Indian counterpart. Solanki, it was suspected, was carrying Sonia Gandhi's brief.
Rahul's selections are therefore all interlinked tales, like a Lutyens'-Delhi version of Cliffton Chronicles. And, rather than being a selection, it is perpetuation of established hierarchies, some traditional and some recent.
In this feudal world, if a tragic air crash had cost Madhavrao Scindia his life, his son Jyotiraditya will naturally fill the vacuum, after a decade. And if Rajesh Pilot was a rebellious Congress leader, who also died in a road accident, it was inevitable that his son, Sachin, would emerge some day as a face of the party.
Even Deepender Hooda, third generation Congressman, is flaunted as one of the party's proud newbies. In the drive to air the "dynasty's" newest episode, all that matters is the cast belonging to the party's traditional elite. So Ashok Chavan, once removed from Maharashtra chief minister's post for his alleged involvement in Adarsh housing scam, is back again, if not like the proverbial bad penny, as PCC chief of Maharashtra. Isn't he the son of former Congress leader SB Chavan, after all?
Also connected to the past are the party's "candidate members" who are Rahul's personal pickings. Like the son-in-law of the former petroleum minister, or the son of a former diplomat whom Rajiv Gandhi elevated as foreign secretary and who is referred to in awe in the Rahul brigade as "K", like the unnamed Mr K in Kafka's novel.
All this should explain how the Congress, which was an "open access" party despite Gandhi putting the Nehru lid on its top, became entirely "closed access" from Rajiv Gandhi onwards. The family clung to the party as if it was a treasure trove; if not a trove, why would Sonia bend over backwards to make Rahul the president? Having closed access to others for the fear that a smart intruder may challenge the hereditary order, it has turned the Congress into a cabal of jo hukam subedars, some old and some young, some saluting Sonia and some Rahul.
It is this pervading lack of ideas that has brought the first nationalist party of Asia down to only 44 seats in the Lok Sabha; in other words, so close to getting splintered away. If politics were business, it could be argued that there should be a "managerial revolution" in the Congress, much like James Burnham suggested. That could separate management from control, with the presiding family being content with control but leaving management to elected and competent politicians.
But the problem with proxy control, like what Sonia did with the UPA government, is that it may backfire. That's probably the case with Manmohan Singh, the man who knew too much. If he sings in court on the coal scandal, that may be the dynasty's dirge.
In retrospect, I think Sir Rajen was a lucky man. He had no grandson.