Rahul Gandhi’s storied lin­eage may not be enough to win In­dia’s love

▶▶Af­ter a pe­riod of drift, Rahul Gandhi seeks to counter Modi’s pop­u­lar­ity and re­vive the Con­gress party ▶▶“Gandhi has def­i­nitely evolved as a politi­cian”

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It was one of the stranger episodes in In­dian politics: On the day in May 2014 that the storied In­dian Na­tional Con­gress suf­fered its worst de­feat, party Vice Pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi stood by with a wide grin on his face as his mother con­ceded the elec­tion to Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi. That so­lid­i­fied the im­age of Gandhi as out of touch. As the son, grand­son, and great­grand­son of prime min­is­ters, he’d been ex­pected even­tu­ally to lead the coun­try. In­stead the party’s elec­toral col­lapse seemed to lib­er­ate him.

Two years later, the 45-year-old heir to the na­tion’s most fa­mous po­lit­i­cal dy­nasty no longer ap­pears am­biva­lent about his role. He’s act­ing like a sea­soned politi­cian, at­tract­ing large crowds wher­ever he speaks.

“I con­sider that de­feat a bless­ing,” Gandhi said while meet­ing mem­bers of the me­dia in Delhi in March. It helped clear a lot of un­nec­es­sary ideas from his head, he said. He’s emerg­ing as a threat to Modi and, al­most by de­fault, a top chal­lenger to re­place him in 2019. The prime min­is­ter is still an over­whelm­ing fa­vorite to win an­other term based on pop­u­lar­ity sur­veys. The Con­gress party’s re­cent record run­ning the gov­ern­ment—in­ef­fec­tive man­age­ment of the econ­omy, al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion—may still be too fresh in vot­ers’ minds.

Can Gandhi prove he has the stamina and drive to lead his party this time around? Af­ter Con­gress’s de­feat, he seemed adrift. In early 2015 he went on a two-month sab­bat­i­cal from his party du­ties, prompt­ing #whereis­rahul­gandhi? to trend on Twit­ter. Spec­u­la­tion on his where­abouts in­cluded Thai­land, Italy, and Aspen, Colo. Gandhi came back re­vi­tal­ized. He’s been trav­el­ing through ru­ral In­dia brand­ing Modi as a cham­pion of the elite who doesn’t care about farm­ers. The strat­egy paid off in Au­gust last year: Modi dropped a pro­posal to ease rules on land ac­qui­si­tion. In Novem­ber, Modi’s rul­ing party lost an elec­tion in Bi­har, In­dia’s third­most-pop­u­lous state.

Gandhi has since kept up the of­fen­sive, stag­ing anti-Modi events in Mum­bai, As­sam, Delhi, and other cities. Ear­lier this year he also hired Prashant Kishor, a top po­lit­i­cal strate­gist who had helped en­gi­neer Modi’s vic­tory. “Gandhi has def­i­nitely evolved as a politi­cian,” says Mi­lan Vaish­nav, se­nior as­so­ciate in the South Asia Pro­gram at the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace. “One sees this in his de­meanor, speeches, and pres­ence. In years past, he was vir­tu­ally ab­sent at the time of na­tional cri­sis. That is no longer the case.”

Per­haps most telling was Gandhi’s Fe­bru­ary visit to Jawa­har­lal Nehru Univer­sity in Delhi. Po­lice ar­rested the stu­dent union pres­i­dent on charges of sedi­tion for al­legedly mak­ing an­tiIn­dia state­ments at a rally. Gandhi re­jected ad­vice to stay away. “To hell with it. I will go,” he said, re­call­ing the de­ci­sion. For Gandhi, the is­sue was sim­ple: The gov­ern­ment was sti­fling free speech, and some­one needed to in­ter­vene. He spoke to the stu­dents sev­eral days af­ter the ar­rest.

Gandhi’s fam­ily has long dom­i­nated the Con­gress party, which has run In­dia for about 80 per­cent of the time since in­de­pen­dence in 1947. Among the prime min­is­ters the clan pro­duced were Nehru; his daugh­ter, Indira Gandhi; and her son Ra­jiv. Rahul’s Ital­ian-born mother, So­nia Gandhi— Ra­jiv’s widow—has led Con­gress since 1998. Indira Gandhi was murdered by her Sikh body­guards in 1984, and his fa­ther died in a sui­cide bomb at­tack seven years later. Rahul was en­rolled at Har­vard at the time of his fa­ther’s death but trans­ferred to the less-well­known Rollins Col­lege in Florida to com­plete his de­gree un­der an as­sumed name. He later ob­tained a mas­ter’s

“Modi wants to bring progress, and all Rahul Gandhi is in­ter­ested in is to de­fame In­dia and stop the trans­for­ma­tion of vil­lages.”

Shrikant Sharma, Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman

de­gree in de­vel­op­ment stud­ies from Cam­bridge and worked for a con­sult­ing firm in Lon­don. He re­turned to In­dia to join politics just as Con­gress swept back into power in 2004.

Over the next decade, Gandhi kept a low pro­file. He rarely spoke in pub­lic and de­clined to be Con­gress’s prime min­is­te­rial can­di­date in the 2014 cam­paign. His rhetor­i­cal skills were rou­tinely crit­i­cized. In one of many gaffes that went vi­ral, he said in 2010: “Politics is ev­ery­where—it’s in your shirt, it’s in your pants.”

Now, as op­po­si­tion leader, Gandhi the dy­nas­tic heir has turned into a vo­cal pro­po­nent of mer­i­toc­racy. He uses lengthy meet­ings with jour­nal­ists, stu­dents, and en­trepreneurs to de­nounce hi­er­ar­chy and dis­crim­i­na­tion based on In­dia’s caste sys­tem. Those views have also shaped his ef­forts to re­form the Con­gress party, al­though he has lit­tle to show for it. Gandhi wanted U.S. style pri­maries to pick party lead­ers, but he dropped the idea af­ter op­po­si­tion from re­gional power bro­kers.

Shashi Tha­roor, a Con­gress mem­ber, says Gandhi’s lead­er­ship style con­trasts with Modi’s de­sire to be “the man on the white horse”—the heroic res­cuer. “Gandhi says he doesn’t have all the an­swers, he doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily know all the ques­tions, but he is will­ing to lis­ten,” Tha­roor wrote in an e-mail.

Gandhi, whose mother was raised a Ro­man Catholic, rou­tinely warns that Modi is erod­ing In­dia’s sec­u­lar foun­da­tions in fa­vor of the Hindu ma­jor­ity. At a Fe­bru­ary meet­ing in the south­ern state of Ker­ala, Gandhi told sev­eral dozen en­trepreneurs that in­tol­er­ance of dif­fer­ing view­points would sti­fle in­no­va­tion. “I have no right to shut you up, and you have no right to shut me up,” he said. “That is my idea of In­dia—it is free flow of ideas.”

On the sub­ject of the econ­omy, Gandhi is much less clear. “Most in­vestors don’t see se­ri­ous prime min­is­ter ma­te­rial in him as of now,” says Jay Shankar, chief econ­o­mist at Reli­gare Cap­i­tal Markets in New Delhi. “One doesn’t know where he stands.”

Even though Con­gress had its worst show­ing ever in the 2014 elec­tions, it re­mains a ma­jor po­lit­i­cal force. Al­though the prime min­is­ter’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is try­ing to ex­pand be­yond its tra­di­tional base in north In­dia, Con­gress is in­flu­en­tial in western, south­ern, and eastern states and sev­eral pock­ets in the north.

But Gandhi’s resur­gence has yet to trans­late into elec­toral gains. As of April 30, in 15 elec­tions that have been fought since he took over as Con­gress’s vice pres­i­dent in 2013, the party has man­aged to win only one ma­jor state while los­ing four. His pres­ence in Par­lia­ment has been in­con­sis­tent. Gandhi has been in at­ten­dance about 60 per­cent of the time Par­lia­ment has met since Modi took of­fice. That’s far be­low the av­er­age of 82 per­cent for mem­bers of Par­lia­ment. In a poll by me­dia com­pany In­dia To­day Group ear­lier this year, about 40 per­cent of re­spon­dents wanted Modi to have an­other term; only 22 per­cent pre­ferred Gandhi.

“He has no al­ter­na­tive vi­sion to of­fer to the vot­ers,” says A.S. Narang, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst in New Delhi. “Un­less he or the party comes up with a plan by the 2019 elec­tions, he doesn’t stand a chance.” A Pew Re­search Cen­ter poll showed Gandhi’s pop­u­lar­ity rose to 62 per­cent last year, from 50 per­cent in 2013, but that’s still 25 per­cent­age points be­low Modi’s.

Modi’s re­cent state elec­tion losses have mostly helped re­gional par­ties, prompt­ing sug­ges­tions that Bi­har Chief Min­is­ter Ni­tish Ku­mar should lead an anti-Modi coali­tion in 2019. For Modi, a for­mer tea seller turned chief min­is­ter of pros­per­ous Gu­jarat state, Gandhi rep­re­sents all that’s wrong with In­dia. On the cam­paign trail, he de­ri­sively called him “Shahzada”—the prince—and told vot­ers that elim­i­nat­ing Con­gress from the na­tion would bring free­dom from a cul­ture rep­re­sent­ing “dy­nasty politics, nepo­tism, cor­rup­tion, com­mu­nal­ism, di­vi­sions in so­ci­ety, or poverty.”

“Modi wants to bring progress, and all Rahul Gandhi is in­ter­ested in is to de­fame In­dia and stop the trans­for­ma­tion of vil­lages,” says Shrikant Sharma, a spokesman for the BJP.

Gandhi hasn’t said defini­tively whether he wants to be prime min­is­ter in 2019. Be­fore then he must per­suade both his party and vot­ers to buy into his vi­sion of a more equal In­dia. Para­dox­i­cally, his suc­cess may de­ter­mine whether the Nehru-Gandhi dy­nasty re­mains a po­lit­i­cal force—or if Con­gress moves on with­out the fam­ily that’s been at its core for decades. “He’s perched be­tween a rock and a hard place, but he also wields tremen­dous power,” says Nikita Sud, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of de­vel­op­ment stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford. “How he wields that power is crit­i­cal.” Unni Kr­ish­nan, with Jeanette Ro­drigues

The bot­tom line Rahul Gandhi has de­cided to be­come a se­ri­ous politi­cian. But he still lacks the sup­port needed to win at the polls.

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