A dynasty no more. Photographer: Arun Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
A dynasty no more. Photographer: Arun Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Last week's election in India was important not just because it installed the charismatic and controversial Narendra Modi as the country's leader, but also because the long-ruling Congress party's defeat was so crushing. This worst-ever drubbing tells Congress that it needs to remake itself. Is it listening?

Apparently not. On Monday, Congress's high command refused the resignations of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, who led the party's campaign, and pledged faith in their leadership. This was a grave mistake.

Granted, the party's leaders also said the usual stuff about reflecting on their errors, listening to voters and moving forward. The depth of the party's humiliation -- it didn’t even win the 10 percent of seats required to lead a formal opposition -- demands more than such platitudes. Voters didn't just reject the failures of the past decade of Congress rule or the party's promises to expand already unaffordable welfare programs. They also repudiated the party itself.

India's Aspirations

They were right to, because Congress has lately stood for little but a sycophantic regard for the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has dominated the country since independence. The problem is not, as some Congress-wallahs would have it, that the party hitched its wagon to the wrong Gandhi: 43-year-old Rahul, the diffident son, grandson and great-grandson of former prime ministers. Alternative Gandhis -- Rahul's Italian-born mother, Sonia; his feisty sister Priyanka; or some combination of all three -- aren't the answer.

The problem is the dynasty itself. As long as a Gandhi heads Congress, the party will seem little more than a feudal and nepotistic court, run by hangers-on and bankrupt of ideas. Modi’s humble roots as a tea seller, by contrast, added greatly to his appeal among voters. As long as the Gandhis control the party, the fresh leadership it so badly needs can't emerge.

If they had the party’s interests at heart, both Sonia and Rahul would now make clear that their stewardship will be strictly temporary. They should use the next few years to find new leaders, give them a platform at the national level, and then step aside.

An equally urgent search for talent must also begin in the states, where Congress, unlike Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, has always favored relatively weak leaders. Only by seeking out effective, strong-willed, locally respected candidates will the party revive enthusiasm for its brand over the next few years. And only by giving those state leaders the freedom to experiment with policies and deliver tangible results -- as Modi did in Gujarat -- will the party develop a bench of potential prime ministers.

Congress needs a new message as well as new faces. Its mostly rhetorical allegiance to Nehruvian socialism wore thin long ago. Urban and rural voters alike agreed with the BJP that economic growth will do more to improve their lives than ever more public spending.

This still leaves plenty of room for a modern center-left alternative. Despite the errors and policy paralysis of the last few years, poverty declined faster under Congress than under the previous BJP government. Serious questions remain about how far Modi favored big business houses in Gujarat, as well as how equitably the benefits of growth and industrialization were spread among the state’s population. The BJP’s Hindu majoritarian instincts, suppressed during the campaign, have not disappeared.

An inclusive but market-friendly party that focuses on advancing opportunity and eliminating cronyism would have wide appeal across the country. As convincing as Modi’s victory was in terms of seats in the lower house of Parliament, 6 out of 10 Indians voted for parties opposed to his coalition. Congress still has more representatives than the BJP in the upper house and more legislators in state assemblies.

Congress can recover from this shattering blow, but tinkering under the existing management won't do. It needs wholesale reform of its leadership and governing philosophy, and the sooner the better.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.