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”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS -

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

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