Indian Congress party faces uncertain future – and uncomfortable questions about the role of Gandhi dynasty
Rahul Gandhi is poised to lead the party but appears to lack the smarts or charisma to reverse an apparently terminal decline
Once bustling with hundreds of party supporters and supplicants from far-flung towns, the headquarters of Indian National Congress party wears a deserted air these days. Gone are the people seeking favours. Gone are the milling party workers who shouted slogans when they spotted a leader walking into the white colonial-era bungalow in the heart of New Delhi.
Following a string of stinging electoral defeats, the 131-year-old Congress party – which has led India for nearly three-fourths of its modern history – is foundering. Several senior leaders have quit the party, accusing its leadership of failing to connect with the masses.
Two years after its spectacular defeat by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in national elections, Congress is on a downward slide. Its strength in the powerful lower house of Parliament has dropped from 206 seats in 2009 to just 44 seats today, its lowest number ever, and it has power in just six of India’s 29 states, down from 13 only three years ago.
Blame, increasingly, is falling on one person: Rahul Gandhi, the 46-year-old scion of the family that has dominated Congress for a century, and who just a couple of years ago was being touted as a future prime minister.
He’s been in parliament since 2004, but Rahul, whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all prime ministers, still comes across as a reluctant heir lacking the smarts to pull the party out of what seems like a terminal decline.
Now, amid speculation that he will soon take the party’s reins from his mother, Sonia, many supporters say he has failed to inspire confidence, and it’s time for new young leaders to push aside the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and stem the decline.
“The party is facing dozens of mutinies and rebellions in different states and you need strong leadership to stem the tide of defections,” said political analyst Zoya Hasan of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
That leadership was unlikely to be provided by Rahul Gandhi, she said.
“Twelve years is a long time in politics to show the spark that is needed for dealing with very powerful rivals,” Hasan said. “Rahul Gandhi has not shown it.”
Meanwhile, some analysts say Modi’s oft-repeated slogan of a “Congress-free India” and his party’s goal to crush the party, does not bode well for the secular foundations of the country.
The rise of right-wing Hindu nationalist forces across India, strengthened by Modi’s political successes, makes the existence of the traditionally secular, liberal parties such as Congress even more imperative, said Hasan.
“Despite all its limitations, the Congress party represents a liberal tendency which can do with some reinforcement,” she said.
But Congress leadership has shown few signs of attempting to fix what ails it.
“There seems to be no visible, credible plan for recovery. There does not seem to be any meaningful introspection either,” said Sandeep Shastri, a Bangalore-based analyst with the Lokniti Program for Comparative Democracy.
“Every time the Congress has lost, the party says the loss is a collective responsibility. But when the party wins, it’s solely due to the party high command,” Shastri said.
The party often seems incapable of seeing a future outside the Gandhi family.
As grumbling has grown about Rahul Gandhi, and his inability to shed his upper-class pedigree as he tries to reach out to poor voters, there have been increasing calls for his more charismatic sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, to become the party’s face, although neither she nor her family have revealed her plans.
The clamour from the ranks for Vadra to lead Congress in crucial legislative elections in India’s most populous state early next year has grown, although the party has lost most of its base in the state.
Victory in the gargantuan Uttar Pradesh state, with a population of more than 215 million, has traditionally served as an indicator of how political parties are likely to fare in national elections, with the next due in 2019.
Although the Congress is unlikely to win the Uttar Pradesh elections, if it were to improve its share of votes, Rahul Gandhi would have cleared a crucial leadership test if his party were to improve its performance. Congress came last among the four major parties that contested the state’s 2012 elections.
Though other Congress party members unrelated to the Gandhis could rise, the family has a powerful support base, especially among older party leaders.
The party has a long-held culture of deferring to older colleagues, most of whom are loyal to Rahul’s mother, Sonia, the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Better educated and more articulate younger members who show leadership qualities are viewed with suspicion by older, entrenched leaders.
Younger leaders are more plugged into India’s growing economic trajectory, pushing for faster economic reform and pro-market policies. Many older leaders belong to a generation that came of age soon after the country gained independence from Britain and subscribe to what are widely viewed as stodgy socialist values.
Lately, Rahul Gandhi’s elevation to the top party job appeared even closer. His mother, who has been hospitalised with an unidentified medical condition more than once in the past few years, collapsed last week during a political rally and had to be airlifted to a New Delhi hospital. Many party leaders view his ascension as a given, and say he bears no blame for the party’s current troubles.
“Rahul Gandhi is not the president of the party. He is the vice-president. Therefore, there are constraints on what he can do, and how he can do it,” said Mani Shankar Aiyer, a senior Congress leader and a Gandhi loyalist. “I fully expect Rahul to come into his own only when he becomes the president of the party.”
Even critical political analysts say it’s too early to write off the Gandhis or the Congress, which remains the only political party likely to offer a viable political alternative to the BJP. Congress defectors have largely gone to regional parties in their home states.
“Even though the Gandhis have not been delivering victories, the party is still dependent on them for survival,” Hasan said.