A Son Rises, Part II
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”
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
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
“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 The bottom line Rahul Gandhi has decided to become a serious politician. But he still lacks the support needed to win at the polls.