The End of the Gandhis

Can Rahul Gandhi run India? Can anybody?

James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Illustration by Piotr Lesniak for FP
Illustration by Piotr Lesniak for FP
Illustration by Piotr Lesniak for FP

On Jan. 19, Rahul Gandhi, the 42-year-old heir apparent of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, the family that has ruled India for 37 of the 66 years since India gained independence, was appointed vice president of the All India Congress party, which his family has run for even longer than it has run India. A more honest way of describing this moment is that Rahul -- India is on a first-name basis with all members of the Gandhi family -- finally agreed to accept a senior position that had long been his for the asking.

On Jan. 19, Rahul Gandhi, the 42-year-old heir apparent of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, the family that has ruled India for 37 of the 66 years since India gained independence, was appointed vice president of the All India Congress party, which his family has run for even longer than it has run India. A more honest way of describing this moment is that Rahul — India is on a first-name basis with all members of the Gandhi family — finally agreed to accept a senior position that had long been his for the asking.

In so doing, he implicitly acknowledged that he is the party’s future and quite possibly its candidate for prime minister at a time when the world’s largest democracy seems rudderless, with its meteoric economic growth leveling off and a suddenly aroused middle class taking to the streets to protest rampant corruption and a pervasive culture of abuse toward women. Elections are scheduled for 2014. And though voters have rarely, if ever, expressed such contempt for Congress in polls and state ballots, the Gandhi name still casts a powerful spell over the country. But even his closest associates don’t know for sure whether Rahul wants to be prime minister or what he would do if he had the job. He may rejuvenate the longest-running dynasty in the democratic world — or he may terminate it.

Rahul remains a mysterious and deeply private figure. He gives infrequent speeches; rarely rises in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, where he has served since 2004; and virtually never holds on-the-record interviews with reporters, whom he plainly distrusts. Although fireworks lit up the sky on the day of his ascension and party functionaries toted signs proclaiming, “You are our pride, the glory of youth power,” Rahul seems determined to disappoint his most fervent and sycophantic supporters; he recently said that asking about his prime-ministerial ambitions was “a wrong question.” A party spokesman quickly clarified that whatever Rahul’s own view, “All Congress workers desire that Rahul Gandhi become the PM one day, and we are sure that our wish will be fulfilled.”

Not long after Rahul’s promotion, I contacted Kanishka Singh, a 34-year-old former Lazard banker who serves as Rahul’s gatekeeper, to inquire about an interview. Singh said that he couldn’t promise me anything. “We don’t want to blow our own trumpet,” he said, “because Rahul is not a trumpet-blowing kind of person.”

Rahul ultimately granted me a brief, strictly off-the-record audience at the colonial-era white bungalow that serves as his personal office a few blocks away from the party’s own New Delhi headquarters. I was brought to a small sitting room. Soon, Rahul came in, sat down on a white couch, and waited for me to speak. He wore sandals and floppy white kurta pyjamas; I had the impression that he could have bought the outfit in the market for $5 and gotten back change. He had been clean-shaven when he accepted his party post, but now sported a scruffy Che Guevara beard. The overall look was Gandhian revolutionary: virtuous, pure, a little fierce. We spoke, not about policy or personal ambition, but about Rahul’s project of reforming the Congress party from within. On this subject he was passionate, even vehement. I had been led to expect someone shy and even tentative, but Rahul’s manner was unceremonious, unsmiling, challenging, even abrasive, as if he expected a fight — which perhaps he did. He seemed to have assigned himself Mahatma Gandhi’s mission without possessing a grain of Gandhi’s temperament. I wondered whether so wary a man was suited to the lunatic carnival of Indian politics.

And that is a very pressing question. After nine years in power, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s United Progressive Alliance, a coalition of Congress and nine smaller parties, has been rocked by one scandal after another, including the fraudulent allocation of cell-phone broadcast licenses, a boondoggle that has cost India somewhere between $6 billion and $35 billion. Congress was born in India’s freedom struggle, but both the party and the government froze in the face of the recent mass protests, as if all the years in power had atrophied the party’s political instincts. At the same time, the economic growth that has paid for Singh’s rise and the expensive welfare programs Congress favors has sagged to 5 percent; nobody talks anymore about India “catching up” to China. No wonder, then, that Singh’s poll numbers have sunk to an all-time low. India Today, a leading newsweekly, recently wrote that his government has devolved into “a global headline of corruption and bad governance.” The country has reached an impasse.

“We don’t have leaders in this government,” Bimal Jalan, a former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, told me. “There’s no sense that the cabinet has the collective authority to govern.” The only figure who can knock heads and force the government to act as one, he says, is Rahul, not because of Rahul’s own skills but simply because he is a Gandhi. Dynastic rule has produced a pathology of dependence that the dynasty’s latest member is trying, perhaps fruitlessly, to cure.

Sanjeev Gupta/EPA

THE INDIRA GANDHI MEMORIAL MUSEUM, at the family bungalow at 1 Safdarjung Road in the heart of colonial New Delhi, commemorates a clan bound to India first by a tradition of service, and then by martyrdom. Pilgrims wind through modest parlor rooms filled with photographs and news clippings and then are routed to the family quarters in the back where Rahul and his younger sister, Priyanka, lived with their parents — Rajiv and Sonia — and their grandmother Indira, who served as India’s prime minister from 1966 to 1977 and then again from 1980 until her assassination in 1984. A blown-up photograph shows a pudgy 12-year-old Rahul burying his face in his father’s chest after the cremation ceremony for Indira, murdered by Sikhs enraged at her decision to crush a Sikh separatist movement. The tour leads past the lawn where Rahul and Priyanka played to the garden where Indira was killed. In a recent speech, Rahul recalled that, in the high-security protective bubble that was 1 Safdarjung, he used to play badminton with two of Indira’s Sikh guards; they were, he thought, his friends. In fact, they were the men who murdered his grandmother.

Another photograph shows an older Rahul lighting the pyre for Rajiv, also assassinated, also the Congress leader. This was in 1991, when Rajiv was killed by Tamil separatists. Rahul has said that he pledged to enter politics when the train carrying his father’s ashes reached the northern city of Allahabad and he saw a vast crowd assembled to meet it. Such a vow, in such a family, carries dire overtones of fatalism.

It is the awful twinning of dynastic politics and premature death that, as with his father, ushered Rahul to the center of the Indian
stage. First, Rajiv was forced into politics when his younger brother, Sanjay, died in a plane crash in 1980. Then, after Indira’s assassination, Rajiv was sworn in as her successor, as if India really were a constitutional monarchy rather than a parliamentary democracy. Rajiv was turned out of office in 1989, and then murdered in 1991. The Gandhis found themselves without power, or even heirs. A non-Gandhi Congress government ruled India from 1991 to 1996, but when it lost the next elections, the party rapidly dissolved into squabbling factions, some of which allied themselves with Rajiv’s Italian-born widow, Sonia. The Congress party decided it could not survive without the Gandhis; in 1998, Sonia was installed as party president in a sort of putsch that only reinforced the impression of the family’s inherited right to rule. In 2004, when Congress returned to power after eight years in the wilderness, Sonia shocked India and dismayed the party by declining to serve as prime minister. Instead she picked Singh, a respected economist and party loyalist who could be counted on to do her bidding.

Rahul, meanwhile, was out of India during this period. He had gone off to America, where he graduated from Rollins College in Florida, and then got an M.Phil. from Trinity College at Cambridge University and worked at a consulting firm in London before returning home in 2002. But he was always the heir apparent, and while his mother has ruled the party over the last 15 years, few believe she has done so with anything other than him in mind.

Still, there’s no question that Rahul’s life has been scarred by all this tragedy and the resulting isolation. He has been surrounded by a security cordon since he was a boy; the black-suited guards of the Special Protection Group were thick on the ground at his headquarters when I visited. He has never married, prompting endless speculation. He recently explained, “If I get married and have children, then I will become a status quoist and will be concerned about bequeathing my position to my children.” That sounded very close to saying that he cannot cure the dynastic problem unless he ends the dynasty. However it ends up, Rahul’s reticence is existential. He stands apart, from those around him and even from his own party. “He’s not in the middle of us,” says Sandeep Dikshit, a member of Parliament and Congress spokesman. “He’s not meeting with us all the time. He doesn’t give himself up to our fancies.”

Surveying this epic family sweep, Jaswant Singh, an erudite opposition stalwart, says, “I am reminded of the late Mughal period,” when generations of dynastic rule began to disintegrate in the form of the hapless Shah Alam II, humiliated by his enemies and effectively displaced by the British. “I wonder,” murmurs Singh, “if we are fit for democracy.”

The analogy is a little harsh on India, which has the most solidly founded democracy among major countries in the emerging world. The military sticks to its own business, and conflict among the country’s innumerable ethnic, religious, and language groups is mediated for the most part through politics rather than violence. The signal achievement of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s founding prime minister and Rahul’s great-grandfather, was binding up a subcontinent that in its diversity resembled pre-modern Europe into a single highly elastic union. Ever since, a grateful nation has viewed the family as India’s great secular institution. As Sachin Pilot, a 35-year-old minister in the Singh government and a member of Rahul’s inner circle, told me, “Only the Gandhis don’t have a religious definition, a geographical definition, a class definition. They are symbolic of the Indian state.”

But that, of course, is also the central paradox of the Gandhis: A system in which national legitimacy belongs to a family and is passed down through inheritance is more likely to undermine than to fortify democratic governance. Nehru died nearly 50 years ago, and the family record hasn’t been so great since. Indira responded to growing opposition by declaring emergency rule in 1975, suspending democracy for the only time in the history of free India. And while Indira did not inherit her father’s tolerance for opposition, she did absorb his faith in socialism and the centrally planned economy. Her great electoral slogan was garibi hatao (“abolish poverty”), but she wasn’t able to transform the lives of India’s peasantry as long as the so-called “Hindu rate of growth” — 3.5 percent — obtained. Rajiv, who worked as a pilot for Indian Airlines before joining the family business, was a modernizer who shared neither his mother’s imperiousness nor her attachment to party tradition. One senior planning official from that time has written that Rajiv “wanted us to plan for the construction of autobahns, airfields, speedy trains, shopping malls,” and the like. “We were,” he recalled, “shocked into silence.” But Rajiv lost power before he could build those autobahns.

Sandro Tucci/Liaison via Getty Images

Robert Nickelsberg/Liaison via Getty Images

The India that we know today, the India not of somnambulant water buffaloes and clangorous temples and broken telephones, but of high-tech firms and social entrepreneurs and new cities rising up from the plains, only began to take shape during the non-Gandhi interregnum. In 1991, with India running out of foreign exchange and the International Monetary Fund balking at floating new loans absent reform, the Congress government had no choice but to open up the economy by relaxing government control, reducing subsidies, and cutting welfare payments. Since that time, India has grown as much as 10 percent per annum and taken its place as a Third World success story. Manmohan Singh was then finance minister, but he is recalled as having acquiesced to, rather than pressed, the drastic changes. Whatever his beliefs, he understood that Congress stalwarts viewed an unshackled economy as a betrayal of Mahatma Gandhi’s commitment to the poor and Nehru’s faith in the planned economy. And in fact, Sonia began steering the party back to the left as soon as she took over its leadership.

To many, though, her real goal was not ideological, but familial. Inder Malhotra, a veteran political journalist, says that Sonia intervened to take over the listing Congress ship in 1998 because “she knew that her dream of passing the baton from her husband to her son would be a pipe dream unless she took over the party.” Thereafter, says Malhotra, “the only idea ever discussed at the annual party conclave was ‘Rahul Gandhi should be getting more responsibility.'”

In 2004, Rahul stood for Parliament from Amethi, the small town in the giant northern state of Uttar Pradesh that his uncle, then his father, and then his mother had represented. Rahul did not so much choose a political vocation as choose not to resist one. In Indian terms, he accepted his destiny. “I think he has a greater sense of responsibility for the party than anyone else,” Pilot says. Rahul won handily, and the Congress party began waiting impatiently for him to ripen into prime-ministerial material.

Unlike his father, Rahul had taken a deep draught from the fountain of Congress. He opposed the controversial 2005 nuclear deal with the United States, which the left viewed as a violation of Nehru’s policy of “nonalignment” between East and West. He supported the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which has provided labor to as many as 50 milli
on households, a classic big-government approach to poverty reduction. Dikshit, the Congress spokesman, says that Rahul is closer in philosophy to Congress traditionalists like his mother than to pro-market reformers like his late father.

The economics and maybe even the politics of garibi hatao seem like an archaism in an era when several hundred million Indians belong to the middle class and several hundred million more aspire to join it. But Rahul may simply not be very invested in that debate. His model is an unrelated Gandhi: the great Mahatma. Rahul has said that he is inspired by Gandhi’s doctrine of selfless action; he has set himself a task of Gandhian renewal. In 2007, Rahul became head of the Indian Youth Congress, just as his father and uncle had before him. The Youth Congress had become a kind of training ground for the vast patronage operation that was the Congress party. Rajiv and Sanjay had been quite content to work with the materials before them; Rahul was not. He would turn the Youth Congress into a meritocracy — a breathtakingly ambitious project in a country where virtually everything operates by bribery and connections.

Rahul threw himself into this crusade with a reformer’s passion and an almost touching faith in modern management skills. In 2006, Manicka Tagore, a Youth Congress official, was preparing for elections in Uttar Pradesh when he and 40 or so leaders were called to a meeting with Rahul in Delhi. They expected to introduce themselves — they always introduced themselves — but Rahul said they needn’t take the time. “You will be judged by your performance,” he said, “not who you are.” He used a laptop to lay out their tasks; that, too, was new. “He said that our work would be measurable,” Tagore recalls. “We had never before heard this word in politics. We worked day and night; nobody measured what we did. And then after 25 minutes, the meeting was over. It was like a dream.” This was Rahul — half Gandhi and half Peter Drucker. And he succeeded: All told, Rahul brought 10 million new members into the Youth Congress.

One Congress leader told me he wished that Rahul had taken a government ministry “to demonstrate that he could get results.” Singh would have given Rahul just about any ministry he wanted, but he never asked. Rahul believes that ministers operating out of air-conditioned offices in Delhi just don’t get it. He once said, “Until a leader drinks the dirty water from wells in their homes and falls ill, he will not understand anything about poverty.”

The disdain is mutual, and Rahul is widely mocked as a political novice with no actual feel for the grassroots. He played a prominent role in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, and the party not only held on to power but did better than expected. He seemed, briefly, like the man for the moment. But in 2010, after Rahul barnstormed across Bihar, a huge and deeply impoverished state in the northeast, Congress won just four out of 243 seats in the state assembly. In Uttar Pradesh, the Gandhis’ home state and once the party’s heartland, Rahul played an even more central role in last year’s state elections, yet Congress finished fourth, gaining six seats to end up with just 28 of 403 seats. Because Gandhis are not permitted to fail, party officials publicly exonerated Rahul of all blame.

Unsurprisingly, India’s political class doesn’t know what to make of Rahul. “He’s almost extraordinarily laconic,” says Vinod Mehta, the former editor of Outlook magazine. “I gave up talking to him because I kept asking questions, and I didn’t get any answers. He didn’t trust me.” Baijayant Panda, a leading opposition figure from the eastern state of Odisha, recalled having Rahul over to dinner with half a dozen other people, all known to him. “For the first 20 or 30 minutes, he didn’t open his mouth,” Panda told me. “Then he spoke, and it was some surprise to us to discover that he has opinions.” One of his opinions was that Congress was going to sweep the upcoming elections in Odisha, where Panda’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD) party held power. Panda had just spent three weeks crisscrossing the state, and he was quite sure the BJD would retain power. Rahul had just paid a flying visit to spend a night with tribal villagers — and, Panda says wickedly, to repair to a special tent “for a shower and a glass of Chianti.” In the event, it was the BJD that swept.

Panda concluded from Rahul’s reckless boast that this protected young man lives inside a cognitive bubble and is content to stay there. But Rahul seems aware of the echo chamber of sycophancy and tries to reach beyond it. A prominent public intellectual, no fan of the Gandhis, told me that Rahul had asked to meet with him — not just once, but multiple times. “He needed someone to hold up a mirror,” this figure says. Rahul has turned the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies in Delhi into a kind of party think tank, inviting foreign and domestic academics to talk about subjects as remote as robotics and as utilitarian as performance measurement. People who know Rahul well say that, unlike either of his parents, he is a person of real intellectual curiosity who always has a book in his hands. He reminds one, a little bit, of Al Gore.

It’s certainly not modesty that makes Rahul shrink from politics; if anything, it’s a sort of idealistic grandiosity. When he accepted his new post at the party’s session in Jaipur, the old princely capital in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, he said, “The voices of a billion Indians … are telling us that the course of their lives cannot be decided by a handful of people behind closed doors who are not fully accountable to them. They are telling us that India’s governmental system … robs people of their voice, a system that disempowers instead of empowering.” He went on to say, in a strikingly harsh critique, “All our public systems — administrative, justice, education, political systems” are “closed systems” designed to “promote mediocrity.”

Rahul wants to change India, and Indians. He wants to end the culture of sycophancy and nepotism — the same culture that has placed the Gandhi family at the center of the Congress party, and at the center of India. “I am a symptom of this problem,” he acknowledged in a 2008 speech. “I want to change it.” In other words, he wants to use the cult of the Gandhi family to make the Gandhi family unnecessary.

Harish Tyagi/EPA

BETWEEN THE POOR performance of the Singh government and Rahul’s own weak appeal, the auguries for 2014 are grim. “Right now things look really bad,” says Mani Shankar Aiyar, a senior Congress official. “The only thing that helps us is that things look just as bad for the BJP” — the Bharatiya Janata Party, Congress’s only rival as a national party. The BJP and its coalition partners are riven by internal feuds. But the BJP, unlike Congress, has a more or less coherent platform. During its last term in office, from 1998 to 2004, the party governed as the party of modernity and the middle class; its slogan was “India Shining.” In a recent poll, A.B. Vajpayee, the prime minister who served during that period, edged out Indira as India’s best prime minister ever (presumably among voters too young to remembe
r Nehru). But the BJP government was undone by anger among the poor, who felt that their India was scarcely shining, and by the calamitous 2002 anti-Muslim riots in the western state of Gujarat, which offered a sickening reminder of the party’s foundation in Hindu chauvinism.

The BJP’s not-quite-undisputed leader today is Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, who embodies the party’s commitment to business and the markets as well as its reckless courtship of Hindu resentment. Modi has turned Gujarat into India’s most business-friendly state, recruiting leading multinationals and India’s own cutting-edge firms. But Modi, who came up through the RSS, the BJP’s strident Hindu nationalist wing, had just begun his tenure when the riots broke out, and he is widely blamed for allowing or encouraging the police to stand by as Hindu mobs ransacked Muslim neighborhoods and murdered an estimated 900 Muslims. Indeed, the United States has denied Modi a visa under a section of the immigration law that bans visits by any foreign government official who “directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”

Modi appeals to the wish for a strong leader. Swapan Dasgupta, a newspaper columnist and one of the few members of Delhi’s intellectual class who supports the BJP, describes Modi as “a blend of Putin and Lee Kuan Yew.” Even that may be generous. Modi is viewed inside his party as a bully and authoritarian, and many figures who share his views will try to block his ambitions. Liberals find Modi terrifying. Ashis Nandy, a leading sociologist as well as a clinical psychologist, concluded after meeting with Modi in the late 1980s that he presented “a classic, clinical case of a fascist.” Even if that’s too alarmist, Modi may be prepared to cross, or slyly approach, some of India’s most dangerous red lines. For this reason alone, secular and liberal-minded Indians will feel almost desperate for Rahul to stand against Modi. A face-off between the two would turn into a referendum not only on left-right approaches to the economy and poverty but on Indian identity itself.

Modi would be a formidable candidate. He is a riveting public speaker and has none of the second thoughts about power that afflict Rahul. He seems to view his potential rival with contempt. He has likened himself to an “ocean fish” prepared to “weather huge storms,” and Rahul to a “small fish floating around in the comfort of aquariums.” (Modi’s father manned a railway-station tea cart.) One recent poll showed Modi first with 36 percent of voters and Rahul second with 22 percent. Of course, India doesn’t have presidential elections; voters choose a party, not a leader. In many cases they will be voting for one of the regional parties that increasingly dominate Indian politics. Still, the BJP is likely, though not certain, to endorse Modi as its candidate for prime minister.

That, of course, will mean even more pressure on Rahul to serve as the party’s standard-bearer. Many Congress officials believe — and fervently pray — that he’ll ultimately submit. Others think not. “Rahul is not seeking to be prime minister,” says Meenakshi Natarajan, who worked closely with him in the Youth Congress. “For him, it’s much more important to transform the party than to gain power.”

A great deal can happen between now and the late summer or early fall of next year, when elections are likely to be held. Congress has lost one state election after another and is likely to lose some more. This won’t directly affect the national vote but will point to the party’s ongoing enfeeblement. The economy is unlikely to turn around quickly enough to help the party’s prospects, though more “pro-poor” schemes now being planned may lure impoverished voters back into the fold. Congress could rebound, but it could also lose catastrophically; Mehta, the former Outlook editor, predicts that it will win fewer than 100 seats in the 552-seat Lok Sabha, which would be a party-shaking calamity. The last time Congress endured such a disaster, it turned to Sonia for rescue. This time the party would have to engage in serious soul-searching. Some members may conclude that they are better off without the Gandhis. Rahul has said that he wants to make himself — and his family — unnecessary. That could happen sooner than he thinks.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea. Twitter: @jamestraub1

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