Can Rahul Gandhi revive India's political system?


Rahul Gandhi waves as he arrives at Sonamarg, India on Oct. 4,2012.


Rouf Bhat

NEW DELHI, India — Rahul Gandhi brought tears to the eyes of his mother and cheers to the lips of his party members with a rousing speech on Sunday that effectively kicked off his campaign for prime minister in 2014.

But Rahul’s late-blooming charisma may not be enough to resuscitate the moribund Indian Congress Party, or the fading Gandhi dynasty. The Gandhis are not related to the famous independence leader, Mohandas K. “Mahatma” Gandhi. But they are considered India’s version of the Kennedys.

Rahul's emergence as a national political leader comes in the midst of an economic slowdown, and as the peace process with Pakistan crumbles. A Maoist rebellion is simmering in the hinterland. The Congress Party itself is besieged by accusations of widespread corruption. And many voters perceive the Congress as the fiefdom of aged party faithful handpicked from within the machine, rather than dynamic leaders who have arisen by dint of hard work in their constituencies.

“From corruption to social unrest to diminishing electoral returns in the States, not to mention the dire state of the economy, the Congress is up against impossible odds,” India's Hindu newspaper wrote in its staff editorial on the young Gandhi's prospects.

“This is a daunting challenge,” wrote the Times of India, referring to Rahul's efforts to shore up the Congress Party's flagging popularity. “Whether he is up to it or not will not only make or break him as a politician, it will also decide whether the dynastic principle has any future in the Congress party.”

Rahul's coming out party has been “one of the longest political gestations in history,” quipped sociologist Shiv Viswanathan.

Rahul, 42, is the son of Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi. His father, Rajiv Gandhi, was prime minister from 1984 until his assassination in 1991. His grandmother, Indira Gandhi, served four terms as prime minister before her assassination in 1984. And his great grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was India's first prime minister.

With Sunday's speech “he moved from Hamlet to boy scout,” Viswanathan said. “But that in itself is a great leap forward.”

Rahul's real value as a party leader may not lie in his ability to bring real change to India or the party, or in his ability to inspire voters, so much as in his power to hold the party faithful together and mobilize his own grassroots workers.

Like US President Barack Obama in 2012, Rahul will face as many voters who despise him and his party as he does voters who believe in the Gandhis or the Congress. The difference at the polls may lie in how hard the party machine works on his behalf. And for that purpose, in this country's version of democracy, there could perhaps be no better person for the job than a so-called “crown prince.”

“Now everything is focused on 2014, and the Congress is looking for someone to lead them. Instead of a crisis of leadership, you had the ritual of anointment,” Viswanathan said.

Taking up the mantle of vice president of the party following a three-day strategy session in Jaipur over the weekend, Rahul seemed to hit all the correct notes.

Shedding his usual reticence, he spoke of the heavy costs that his family has paid for power — confessing, for example, the deep confusion he felt when the childhood guards who'd taught him to play badminton assassinated his grandmother, Indira Gandhi, in 1984.

"They were my friends. Then one day, they killed my grandmother and took away the balance in my life," he said.

While calling for sweeping changes in the way the Congress has always run, he muted his criticisms of the party with humor. "Nobody knows if there are any rules and regulations in the 127-year-old party,” he said, evoking chuckles, even as he called for the Congress to set aside the old guard to make room for young and dynamic workers who have proven themselves at the grassroots level.

But observers suggest that emoting American style may not be enough to revive the party, and argue that Rahul's call for reinventing the machine is the same old promise he has been making since 2004.

“In its rhetorical flourishes, it is a powerful speech. But the moment you examine it, you go back to the old system of doubt,” Viswanathan said.

“There was a divergence between text and context. It was a rousing speech, but the context is the Congress is less and less democratic.”

Indeed, while the old guard lingers on, many among the party's young generation of leaders have familiar names — as the sons and daughters of previous ministers.

“I certainly think it's a real desire,” said cultural commentator Santosh Desai. “In terms of his faith and understanding of what is wrong and what needs to be fixed, I think it's difficult to argue with that. But the question is they've had almost two full terms in power [to make these changes].”

Neither Rahul's work to revitalize the youth wing of the party, nor his efforts to promote internal democracy have generated much in the way of results — apart from the elevation of several other young leaders who are the sons and daughters of old stalwarts.

“To ignore the existing setup and build a new one … is a very difficult thing to pull off,” Desai said. “He's already had enough time to see if that was working, and there's very little evidence that it's taking root.”