Indian elections show Gandhi dynasty has lost touch, critics say

Miserable election showing suggests Gandhi clan has lost touch with new, more prosperous India

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 1:23am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 3:37am

On Friday, as opposition leader Narendra Modi swept to victory and fireworks exploded throughout the capital, the mood at the governing Congress party headquarters was grim.

Late in the afternoon, the mother and son who lead India's oldest political dynasty finally emerged to speak to supporters and journalists.

"There's a lot for us to think about," said Rahul Gandhi, the party's heir apparent and chief campaigner. "As vice-president of the party, I hold myself responsible for what has happened."

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But then, as he stepped aside to let his mother speak, he smiled - some observers thought with relief.

Gandhi, whose lineage includes three prime ministers, had been groomed for India's top job for a decade. But his evident ambivalence about the prospect was among the drivers of the Congress party's worst drubbing in its history, analysts said.

The party won just 44 seats in the 543-seat lower house of parliament, while Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party took 282.

Even before the Gandhis left without taking questions, the post-mortem had begun: Congress was out of touch with voters, analysts said. Its leaders were corrupt and inefficient.

"India has changed," said Sachin Pilot, 36, one of the younger Congress leaders who was defeated on Friday in the state of Rajasthan. "The party has failed to connect with the new India of aspirations. We haven't been able to tap into the imagination of the new India, the youth and the middle classes, the upwardly mobile people."

The party has failed to connect with the new India of aspirations
Sachin Pilot, Congress Party

Congress has governed the country for most of the years since India's fight for independence from Britain in 1947. Many of its policies today have roots in the vision shaped by the country's first prime minister - Jawaharlal Nehru, Rahul Gandhi's great-grandfather - of uplifting the masses.

Yet despite that history of political success and its recent 10-year rule, the party seemed woefully unprepared as it headed into the recent elections.

Both Rahul and his mother, Sonia, the Congress president, campaigned in their usual way, appearing at large rallies where they emphasised signature programmes such as distribution of wheat to the poor and rural employment.

Modi, meanwhile, was spreading his message of economic opportunity via a sophisticated 24-hour campaign operation, with millions of volunteers, including many from the Hindu nationalist movement, and teams of tech gurus who managed his wide-ranging social-media efforts.

Rahul Gandhi, in particular, seemed unable to connect with voters, spending much of his time on his smartphone or going over spreadsheets with his advisers, many of whom had been educated overseas, party critics said.

The stunning defeat has led to a call for the first family's ouster and questions about whether the country's long love affair with dynastic politics is finally over.

Pundit Surjit Bhalla, in a piece titled "The Gandhis should resign" in Saturday's Indian Express newspaper, said the party and dynasty were finished.

"When will the leaders realise that feudalism is over, that monarchy is over?" Bhalla wrote.

Yet many of the party's leaders fear that without the first family's charisma, the party will fall apart. It splintered briefly in the 1990s before Sonia Gandhi finally agreed to step in as president.

Pilot counters that the reality is "not so simplistic".

"Some hard decisions have to be taken" when party leaders gather today to assess the damage," Pilot said.

"We have to fix our shop on many fronts. Mrs Sonia Gandhi led us to two successive victories and nobody at that time said the family was irrelevant. We all share the credit, and we have to share the blame, too."