India’s Opposition Faces an Uphill Battle
The Indian National Congress party has a new leader, but he will struggle to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: The Indian National Congress party elects a new leader, U.S. President Joe Biden’s comments about Pakistan spark anger, and India pulls out all the stops for the United Nations secretary-general’s visit.
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New Congress Party Leader Faces Uphill Battle
Senior politician Mallikarjun Kharge has won the race to lead the opposition Indian National Congress party, with the results announced Wednesday. It’s the first time in 24 years that Congress won’t be led by a member of the powerful Gandhi family, though Kharge was widely seen as the Gandhis’ preferred choice.
Kharge, 80, who has served in Parliament and as a federal minister, now takes up the unenviable task of restoring respect and relevance to a party that has fallen on hard times. Revitalizing the Congress party is a tall order that any Congress leader would struggle to achieve. Although it was a political juggernaut during India’s first few decades after independence, the party has struggled electorally for nearly a decade while facing allegations of corruption and nepotism.
Its fall from grace stems from a few factors. The first is institutional dysfunction. Ghulam Nabi Azad, a longtime Congress leader who left the party in September, accused the party of elevating a “new coterie of inexperienced sycophants” while sidelining more competent leaders. Other critics and even senior party members allege persistent favoritism despite the party’s stated commitment to non-Gandhi leadership. Kharge’s opponent, Shashi Tharoor, complained that influential leaders had pressed members to vote for Kharge.
Growing dissatisfaction among Indians about dynastic politics and corruption has also harmed the Congress party. During the party’s last term in power, from 2009 to 2014, graft scandals produced massive protests. These grievances helped fuel Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election victory in 2014; he emphasized his clean and efficient rule as Gujarat’s chief minister. Under Rahul Gandhi’s party leadership, Congress suffered another defeat in 2019, when Modi won the reelection in a landslide.
Now, Congress has no solution to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) stranglehold on politics—and especially Modi’s popularity. Despite policies that have alienated influential constituencies—the botched response to a devastating COVID-19 surge, controversial farm laws (later repealed), and major crackdowns on dissent—Modi has remained India’s most popular politician. The prime minister is two decades older than the Gandhi siblings who wield influence over the Congress party, but he has still managed to capture India’s youth vote.
Kharge must approach the Congress party’s reinvention from two sides. One focus is internal, targeting party reforms. In theory, putting a non-Gandhi in place at the head of the party is the first step, and Kharge has already pledged organizational reforms. That said, Tharoor—the candidate Kharge defeated—had a seemingly more comprehensive plan for reform, as Kapil Komireddi writes in Foreign Policy.
The other focus is external and emphasizes reconnecting with the public and shedding the party’s reputation as detached while also pushing back against the BJP’s often-divisive ideology. Rahul Gandhi has led this effort with a five-month “Unite India” march across 12 states. (Some critics have denounced his march as a tactic to distract the party from its internal turmoil.) Congress will come up against many challenges from Modi’s party: a muscular nationalism that resonates across the country, a leadership style that emphasizes efficiency, and a powerful public relations machine.
Countering the BJP will not come easy for Kharge. Indian analysts say he’s not “wily” enough to devise effective strategies to undermine the ruling party and he lacks the charisma of the Gandhi siblings or Tharoor. Furthermore, his perceived closeness to the Gandhis raises some doubts that he represents truly new leadership for Congress. Rahul Gandhi said his family would defer to the new party president. However, Kharge has indicated that he won’t shy away from consulting with the Gandhi family on some issues—and the family certainly won’t turn down the opportunity.
Furthermore, Kharge will need to hit the ground running. He must lead Congress into three state elections in 2023, with general elections less than two years away. Congress have a track record of electoral comebacks, but it has never faced an opponent as formidable as Modi. There’s also a broader inconvenient truth at play. Throughout South Asia, dynastic parties that have stayed afloat have often received backing from powerful militaries, from Pakistan to Sri Lanka. But in India, the military plays a much less prominent role in politics, and Congress can’t depend on support from people in high and unelected places.
The odds are against Kharge to uplift India’s sputtering opposition. The power of the BJP and Modi will likely only increase—and that bodes well for their prospects for a third consecutive five-year term in 2024.
FP Live: Deciphering China’s 20th Party Congress
As the dust settles on the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, tune in for an FP Live discussion with FP deputy editor James Palmer, Beijing-based reporter Melinda Liu, and Evan S. Medeiros, a professor at Georgetown University and former China director at the U.S. National Security Council, on Monday, Oct. 24, at 11 a.m. EDT. Register here.
What We’re Following
Biden comments spark furor in Pakistan. Speaking at a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reception in Los Angeles last week, U.S. President Joe Biden said Pakistan may be “one of the most dangerous nations in the world,” adding that it has “nuclear weapons without any cohesion.” The comments appeared to be off the cuff, but it has caused a furor in Pakistan: The U.S. ambassador in Islamabad was summoned for an explanation.
It’s unclear why Biden said what he did; it’s unusual for senior U.S. officials to make public statements about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Pakistani government and military officials issued statements insisting that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are safe and secure. And on Monday, the U.S. State Department distanced itself from Biden’s comments, affirming its confidence that Pakistan can secure its nuclear arsenal.
Islamabad’s unhappy reaction says a lot about its relations with Washington. Decades ago, U.S. officials believed their Pakistani counterparts lied about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, and the U.S. decision to sanction Pakistan once it formally became a nuclear weapons state in 1998 sent relations into a crisis. Islamabad has also chafed at Washington’s long-standing fears of Islamist terrorists seizing or accessing Pakistani nuclear assets.
U.N. secretary-general visits India. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres visited India this week—a significant trip because New Delhi is keen to play a greater role within the U.N., which has long been a key focus of Indian foreign policy. As India takes up the presidency of the G-20 in December, it hopes to leverage the position to deepen its engagement with the U.N. Above all, it advocates expanding permanent membership of the U.N. Secretary Council to include India—a goal that the United States has endorsed.
India arranged for Guterres’s activities in India to dovetail with some of the U.N.’s top priorities, especially clean energy and climate change mitigation. His visit included a stop in India’s first solar-powered village and the launch of a new initiative focused on making Indians “pro-planet people,” alongside Modi.
Still, there may have been a few awkward moments. Guterres is a strong critic of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and India has taken a muted position on the conflict at the U.N. The secretary-general also gently criticized India for its human rights record during a speech in Mumbai.
Rohingya leaders killed in refugee camp. Two Rohingya community leaders were attacked and killed in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, last Saturday. Both police and residents blamed the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an insurgent militant group fighting against the military in neighboring Myanmar; police also say violence has recently mounted in the camps. Just over a year ago, another Rohingya leader was killed in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, prompting Bangladesh security forces to crack down against the ARSA.
Bangladesh has struggled to maintain safe conditions in crowded camps for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees, who fled military violence in Myanmar in 2017. The decision last year to transfer some refugees to a remote island prompted international condemnation. Meanwhile, they have faced increasing violence—not just in Cox’s Bazar but also near the border with Myanmar. Dhaka is nonetheless quietly trying to negotiate an accord with the military regime in Naypyidaw that would repatriate some Rohingya refugees.
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Researchers Shweta Saini and Pulkit Khatri explain why there is so much hunger and malnourishment in India, one of the world’s biggest food producers, in the Print. “Before food reaches the plate, it travels from the farmer to wholesalers, retailers, and sometimes processors. At every stage, some proportion of crop production is lost,” they write.
In the Daily Star, journalist Eresh Omar Jamal argues that Bangladesh’s current power shortages are rooted in many years of failed policies. “It’s time to investigate the government’s past decisions, to really identify what went wrong,” he writes. “Otherwise, there will be no getting out of the crisis we are in; in fact, it might only get worse.”
In the Kathmandu Post, researcher Puspa Raj Pant discusses the reasons behind Nepal’s frequent traffic accidents. It is “not a result of a lack of laws and regulations,” he writes, “but insufficient arrangements for the administration and implementation of existing provisions.”
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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