The last Gandhi
A single family has dominated Indian politics since independence. One man’s incompetence is about to bring it all to an end.

Reuters

Congress party vice-president Rahul Gandhi speaks to the media as his mother and chief of Congress Sonia Gandhi (L) stands next to him during a news conference in New Delhi May 16, 2014.

Article Highlights

  • You can count the number of formal interviews Rahul Gandhi's granted over the past decade on the fingers of one hand.

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  • To be sure, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has bounced back from setbacks before.

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  • Gandhi can't even seem to decide whether he prefers to be bearded or clean-shaven.

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August 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed India on its 68th Independence Day from the ramparts of Delhi's Mughal-era Red Fort. As is customary, those arrayed before him in a special VIP enclosure included the country's top politicians, among them former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, opposition Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi, and ministers from Modi's own ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), elected in May with the largest parliamentary majority in 30 years. Conspicuously absent was the man Congress had positioned as Modi's principal challenger: Sonia Gandhi's son and Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi.

Gandhi's odd absence from an important national ceremony highlights a deeper problem for Congress -- the growing consensus that in its darkest hour the party's future lies in the hands of its least compelling leader. These fears (or hopes) also raise a larger question: Is the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty on its last legs? In the nearly seven decades since Jawaharlal Nehru became independent India's first prime minister in 1947, this question has been asked before. But never, arguably, has it been asked so seriously. In Rahul Gandhi, Nehru's 44-year-old great-grandson and the dynastic Congress Party's heir apparent, the storied family may have hit a brick wall of incompetence that even the most famous last name in South Asian politics cannot overcome.

Widely seen as deficient in purpose, oratory, and vote-catching ability, the Gandhi scion risks becoming an object of derision. Historian Ramachandra Guha says Rahul Gandhi "is the first member of his family not to command the respect even of his party men." Columnist Aakar Patel likens him to the feckless later rulers of the Mughal dynasty (1526-1857), who were "happy to sell the elephants, and to see the family silver go." Television anchor Barkha Dutt calls Gandhi "the leader who won't lead."

To complicate matters for the Nehru-Gandhis, 63-year-old Modi appears to be their most dangerous foe to date, a gifted politician who makes no secret of his desire to wipe Congress off the political map. With the family down and out, even some former courtiers have begun to turn on them in books and media interviews. And as a consensus forms on Rahul Gandhi's inability to face down Modi, some Congress leaders are calling publicly for his younger sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, a 42-year-old housewife who has never run in an election, to rescue the party. Outside the fantasies of the party faithful, her prospects may not be brighter than her brother's.

Should Congress lose important state elections in northern and western India later this year, mutterings within the party about Gandhi's lackluster leadership will grow louder. Indeed, he may already have crossed a Dan Quaylesque point of no return as a viable candidate for higher office -- someone who inspires more mirth than awe.

Without a family member at the helm, Congress could disintegrate into warring factions, leaving the country with no viable left-of-center national alternative to the right-of-center BJP and what its critics see as a Hindu majoritarian agenda hostile to India's sizable Muslim minority. For the dynasty's detractors, however, their diminution is entirely welcome. Without them, India's politics will become less feudal and more democratic, and Congress will be forced to reinvent itself as a modern party where ideas matter more than bloodline.

* * *

Rahul Gandhi certainly has the lineage to succeed. He is the son, grandson, and great-grandson of prime ministers: Rajiv Gandhi (1984-1989), Indira Gandhi (1966-1977 and 1980-1984) and Jawaharlal Nehru (1947-1964). Although the family is not related to the independence leader Mohandas K. "Mahatma" Gandhi, Nehru was arguably his closest disciple. (Nehru's daughter Indira fortuitously acquired her last name -- it is not an uncommon one -- after marrying Feroze Gandhi, a Zoroastrian journalist and politician.)

In the Congress Party, Rahul Gandhi's pedigree stretches back even further than it does in government. His mother, father, grandmother, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather have all headed the 129-year-old party that spearheaded India's fight for independence from the British. Motilal Nehru, the family patriarch -- a kind of Indian Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. -- was a wealthy lawyer who first became Congress president in 1919. Sonia Gandhi, Rahul's mother, has served as party president continuously since 1998, longer than anyone else in its history. Indeed, apart from a brief interregnum after Tamil militants assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, the party has been a family fiefdom ever since Indira took power in the 1960s. Accepting this lineage as gospel is virtually the first rule of belonging to the party.

Until a few years ago, it appeared all but certain that the younger Gandhi would follow the same gilded path to power as his father, as the anointed heir of India's natural ruling party. Educated at Harvard; Rollins College, a small liberal arts school in Florida; and at Cambridge University, Gandhi spent the better part of his 20s in the West, including a stint as a management consultant under an assumed name at business guru Michael Porter's Monitor Group in London.

Gandhi returned to India for good in 2002, about five years after his mother entered politics. In 2004, a Congress-led coalition headed by Sonia Gandhi won a surprise victory against the BJP and its partners in national elections. At the same time, voters in Amethi, a family stronghold in the populous Hindi heartland state of Uttar Pradesh, sent Rahul to Parliament. Under attack from the opposition over her foreign origins, the Italian-born Sonia declined the prime ministership and instead appointed Manmohan Singh, a technocrat and former finance minister with no political base of his own, to the job. But nobody in India, least of all Singh's own cabinet ministers, was under any illusion about where the real power lay.

At the time, Singh was seen as a seat warmer for Rahul, who many people believed would duly ascend to the prime ministership once he had found his feet in politics. In the 2012 book Decoding Rahul Gandhi, journalist Aarthi Ramachandran describes Rahul's first few years as an MP as a period of gaining experience and exposure through the likes of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders' summit in Switzerland, the Bucerius Summer School in Germany, and a special dinner organized for him by Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. In the meantime, Gandhi began reorganizing the party's youth wing and student union. He disarmingly referred to himself as "a symptom of the problem," a party culture overly dependent on family connections for advancement. Armed with management insights, including an alleged belief in the so-called Toyota way -- consensus-building followed by rapid execution -- Gandhi set out to ensure that the next generation of Congress leaders would rise through internal elections rather than by currying favor with party bosses in New Delhi.

At first, everything appeared to go according to script. In 2009, Congress retained power, thrashing a rudderless BJP led by the octogenarian L. K. Advani. By winning 206 seats in the 543-member lower house of Parliament -- the most any single party had managed since 1991 -- Congress revived hopes among the party rank and file of returning to its dominant position during the first four decades of independence, when it didn't need coalition partners to form a government.

In crucial Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, which alone sends nearly one in seven MPs to Parliament, Congress more than doubled its seats, winning 21 and reversing a decline begun two decades earlier. The media gave much of the credit to Gandhi. One typically gushy profile announced that he had "emerged as a savvy politician, a grassroots activist with a finger on the pulse of the real India." Between a popular family and a populist program of loan waivers and job guarantees for the rural poor, Congress appeared increasingly difficult to beat on the national stage.

By the following year, however, things started to go wrong. A series of graft scandals spanning telecom, real estate, and the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi spurred a grassroots anti-corruption campaign led by the activist Anna Hazare and the media-savvy Arvind Kejriwal. Meanwhile, Congress's focus on handouts at the expense of growth began to hurt the economy, which slowed sharply from the near double-digit growth rates many Indians had begun to take for granted. (The global financial crisis didn't help either.) Though Singh took much of the blame for this, some of it naturally attached itself to his political bosses, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.

* * *

Today's most common criticism of Rahul -- that he's a dilettante unsuited for public life -- can be traced to his flat-footed response to his party's declining popularity. During the height of the 2011 anti-corruption movement, when thousands of angry protestors thronged India's major cities, Gandhi went AWOL, only breaking his silence 11 days into a televised 13-day fast by Hazare. Similarly, after the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old medical student on a Delhi bus in December 2012 sparked another round of protests, Gandhi was again missing in action. His response, an anodyne condolence message, came nearly two weeks after the incident, by which time the young woman had already died from her injuries.

Meanwhile, Gandhi's bid to revive Congress in the Hindi heartland, where the party had lost ground to the BJP and caste-based outfits in the 1990s, foundered. In 2010, he ignored conventional wisdom on the need for political alliances and boldly led his party's go-it-alone campaign in Bihar, India's third-most populous state. Congress came in an embarrassing fourth, winning only four of the 243 seats it contested. Less than 18 months later, Gandhi once again rolled up his sleeves and barnstormed across Uttar Pradesh, promising voters an alternative to the state's two dominant caste-based parties and the BJP. Once more, Congress came in fourth, a particularly harsh blow in a state widely seen as the centerpiece of Gandhi's grand strategic plan for his party.

In a normal party, such a performance would have earned Gandhi at least a reprimand, if not a sacking. In Congress, it got him a promotion. In January 2013, the party appointed Gandhi vice president, formally giving him the second-in-command position that he already held in all but name, as well as leadership of its parliamentary campaign. For the first time in five elections, Sonia Gandhi, rumored to be suffering from cancer, ceded the spotlight to her son.

Once again, he failed to click with voters. In May of this year, Congress scraped together just 44 seats in Parliament, about a fifth of its tally five years ago, and less than half the party's previous low of 114 seats. In 20 of India's 36 states and federally administered union territories, Congress did not manage to win a single seat. Meanwhile, the BJP, securing 282 seats of its own, won the first single-party majority in Parliament since Rajiv Gandhi swept the polls in 1984, following his mother's assassination by her Sikh bodyguards. Together with its allies, the BJP now controls nearly two-thirds of the powerful lower house of Parliament.

Perhaps the best way to highlight Gandhi's predicament is to contrast him with his nemesis, Narendra Modi. The difference in their family backgrounds could scarcely be starker: Modi comes from a so-called "backward caste" of oil pressers and began his career selling tea on a railway platform in his native Gujarat. He is his generation's most gifted political communicator. During the course of this year's campaign, he addressed more than 400 rallies and blanketed the airwaves with interviews. Many thousands thronged to hear him, even in states such as West Bengal and Tamil Nadu where the BJP has traditionally lacked a serious presence. Modi's 5.7 million followers on Twitter and 20 million on Facebook give him by far the loudest megaphone in Indian politics.

Gandhi, by contrast, remains curiously opaque for a politician. His absence on Twitter is the stuff of newspaper speculation.You can count the number of formal interviews he's granted over the past decade on the fingers of one hand. Earlier this year, in the thick of the election campaign, TV anchor Arnab Goswami questioned Gandhi in what was billed as his first interview after nearly a decade in politics. His performance -- a strange mishmash of management jargon and what seemed like rote answers about his party's "rights-based development model" -- was bad enough to merit panning in the Financial Times. On a more routine basis, Gandhi's weird verbal gaffes alone seem enough to keep the satirical site The UnReal Times in business. He has claimed that "poverty is a state of mind," likened India to a beehive, and said that India's Dalits (a caste formerly known as Untouchables) need the "escape velocity of Jupiter" to change their circumstances.

The combination of Gandhi's curious reticence and frequent unexplained absences from India raise the question of whether he's serious about politics at all, or merely just another miserable son trapped in the family business. Over the years, Gandhi rebuffed multiple public exhortations to join Singh's government and gain administrative experience. During the election campaign, Gandhi refused to explicitly declare that he wanted to be prime minister. Since his defeat, he has declined to take up the responsibility of leading his party in Parliament.

To call Gandhi's parliamentary record undistinguished would be an understatement. According to the think tank PRS Legislative Research, in the last Parliament (2009 to 2014) Gandhi attended 43 percent of the time, participated in just two debates, and asked no questions. During that period, the average MP attended 76 percent of the time, participated in 38 debates, and asked 300 questions. Meanwhile, Gandhi's pet project, the internal restructuring of Congress to make it more meritocratic, has little to show for 10 years of effort. This year, Congress chose 15 parliamentary candidates through a new system of primaries. All of them lost. In fact, the proportion of dynastic MPs in the party has grown to 48 percent, up from 28 percent 10 years ago.

In an earlier era, perhaps Gandhi's lineage alone would have helped him overcome his lack of fluency as a speaker, apparent lack of interest in his job, and slim record of achievement. His father, Rajiv, a former airline pilot with little administrative experience, assumed the prime ministership virtually by right. But Modi's election shows that Indians now expect more than just pedigree. They have begun to demand a modicum of performance. Modi, by way of contrast, helped put Gujarat on the world's economic map during his 13 years as the state's chief minister. Today, Congress culture, where the Nehru-Gandhis float like royalty above the muck of day-to-day politics, to emerge at election time smiling and waving indulgently at the masses, seems increasingly out of sync with reality.

* * *

So what can Congress do? Some party leaders want Gandhi's sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, to come to the rescue. Although she projects more charisma than her brother -- comparisons of Vadra with her grandmother Indira are a cliché in Indian media -- her record in public life is even less weighty. Vadra has never run in an election nor proven that she has any serious appeal outside the small patch of Uttar Pradesh represented in Parliament by Sonia and Rahul. (Vadra has denied reports that she's about to be assigned a formal role in the party.)

At a time when corruption has become a major national issue, Vadra also carries the baggage of her husband, Robert, a Delhi businessman who has reportedly made millions of dollars in dodgy real estate deals in states under Congress rule. Panicked Congress politicians may indeed welcome Vadra as the answer to their problems. But for many others, she symbolizes the depths to which a once great organization has sunk, its future now limited by a shallow gene pool.

To be sure, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has bounced back from setbacks before. Pundits all but wrote off Indira after her crushing defeat to the opposition in 1977. Three years later, she was again prime minister. When Sonia Gandhi entered politics in 1997, six years after her husband's assassination, few people gave an Italian-born neophyte with halting Hindi a chance against the BJP's popular incumbent prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Seven years later, Gandhi effectively ended Vajpayee's storied political career by leading her party to victory.

Even though Congress currently controls less than one-tenth of the lower house of Parliament, India's first-past-the-post system disguises the extent of its support. The party won about one-fifth of the vote nationwide, more than what the BJP managed when it lost the national election five years ago. Nor can one write off the raw brand recognition of the Gandhi name -- the legacy of what was for decades essentially a one-party socialist state. Journalist A. Surya Prakash has documented 450 government programs, projects, and institutions named after a Nehru-Gandhi family member.

And though the Hindu majority may have consolidated more than ever before behind the BJP, Congress remains vastly more popular among Muslims and Christians, who together make up nearly 20 percent of the population. The family's lachrymose tale of ceaseless virtue and self-sacrifice for the nation may have found relatively few takers this time around, but there's no guarantee that it has lost its appeal permanently.

For now, though, the pressure is on Gandhi. At his age, his father had already served four years as prime minister; his grandmother as Congress Party president. Gandhi can't even seem to decide whether he prefers to be bearded or clean-shaven. At arguably the lowest point for India's ruling clan -- Sonia Gandhi ailing, Rahul Gandhi ineffective, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra untested and potentially toxic -- it might be time for Congress to start thinking beyond the family. The end of the Nehru-Gandhis has been predicted many times before. But this time it may be true.

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