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”

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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

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.

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