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”
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