Rahul Gandhi’s friends seem to have no more confidence in him than his enemies do. Although he is the unquestioned heir apparent of India’s storied Congress Party, and will lead its election campaign this spring, the party last week refrained from anointing him or anyone else as its official candidate for prime minister.
Most observers believe Congress grandees are trying to spare the 43-year-old Gandhi the embarrassment of a head-to-head contest -- and almost certain loss -- against popular Hindu hardliner Narendra Modi. If current trends hold, though, humiliation could be the least of young Gandhi’s worries.
Up to this point in his unremarkable political career, Gandhi has preferred to avoid the limelight. Partly that’s because he’s a famously terrible campaigner: At a rally before recent state elections in Delhi, the local Congress incumbent had to plead with audience members not to walk out as soon as Gandhi took the stage. Gandhi himself says his priority is to reform Congress from within, to make the party more modern and meritocratic -- and less dependent on the appeal of his family name.
That’s a laudable goal. It’s also a long-term one: Gandhi started his reform drive in 2007 and so far has little to show for it. In the meantime, Congress has lost election after election, especially in the massive “Hindi belt” across northern India that once provided the bedrock of its support.
For Congress, this steady bleeding of support is life-threatening. It still trades on its history as the party that led the fight against the British, rallying millions of Indians to the cause. But in recent decades, it has served mostly as a patronage network, dispensing the perquisites of power in order to reward and most importantly, to retain its supporters.
To survive, the party has to be in power. Otherwise there’s little incentive for its followers -- held together by no consistent ideology beyond the Gandhi family name and a vague allegiance to secularism, unlike supporters of Modi’s Hindu-first Bharatiya Janata Party -- to stick around. The more elections Congress loses, the longer it’s shut out of power, the smaller and weaker its organization becomes at the grassroots level.
In Hindi heartland states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, Congress hasn’t held power since 2002. The party now commands so little local support that it finds it difficult to present a credible challenge to the BJP, or to regional powerbrokers.
Nor has Congress been able to replenish its ranks. Any promising young politicians looking to make a career can do equally well or even better outside the party than within it. The victory of the Aam Aadmi, or “Common Man,” party in New Delhi has generated far more enthusiasm among political newcomers, particularly in the fast-growing cities. It plans to run candidates across India, hoping to play kingmaker in the national elections.
In the states, Congress’s ranks are dominated by the sons and daughters of former politicians -- another form of patronage. At the national level, the party has attracted some stars from outside politics such as former Infosys Technologies Ltd. Chief Executive Officer Nandan Nilekani. But these figures bring with them little grassroots support; Nilekani has already run into headwinds in his first campaign for office in Bangalore. And such personalities won’t halt the steady erosion Congress is suffering at the ground level. If Rahul Gandhi is exposed by a Modi landslide, the bottom could fall out of the party’s remaining support.
Gandhi’s instinct is right: Without long-term reforms that rally Congress around something other than the figure of himself or his mother, Sonia Gandhi, the party is doomed. If he can’t somehow translate that mystique into victories now, though, there will be little left for him to reform.
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