LONDON – When Rahul Gandhi was formally anointed to the number two position in India’s Congress party, his installation as vice president was accompanied by the usual shenanigans among party operatives.
Nine years after the grandson of Indira Gandhi — and the son of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi — entered politics, the highest decision-making body of the party unanimously has passed a resolution to raise the profile of Rahul, until now just one of 11 general secretaries of the Congress.
In the past few years, senior party leaders have been falling over themselves in demanding that Gandhi, 42, be given a greater role in the party. So now, after having been in charge of the Youth Congress and other such organizations within the party, he has taken center stage as Congress prepares for parliamentary elections in 2014.
For a long time Gandhi had seemed reluctant to join the fray, although there has never really been any doubt about the true power center in the Congress, and even in the government. His dithering about officially acknowledging his role was seen as doing great harm to the party.
The governing coalition United Progressive Alliance, which is led by the Congress, is widely viewed as one of the worst governments India has had in recent memory. The party has been under attack for the past two years from an increasingly vocal middle class and from young people who demanding greater accountability across India’s political system.
With the elevation of Gandhi, Congress is hoping that it will be able to convince the electorate that the party is fresh and ready to relaunch itself.
It is significant that while much has been made of Narendra Modi as the probable prime ministerial candidate of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP’s leadership has yet to sort out the issue.
Parliamentary elections will be called within 15 months, but Congress has already begun to sound the drumbeat of the coming campaign. The party is expecting its sinking fortunes to be salvaged by this new leader, although Gandhi has been unsuccessful so far in most of the electoral battles he has supervised for the party.
He seems to possess neither leadership vision nor the ability to articulate it clearly, the two attributes that his party most needs at this critical juncture. Gandhi has rarely spoken in Parliament, and when he has done so, his performance has generally been lackluster.
He was, however, more successful in his speech in response to his new appointment. He evoked the bonds of his family with the party and the family’s sacrifices. The sycophancy of the faithful was on full display. There was an outpouring of tears from some of the most senior members of the party. Crying became competitive as leaders vied with each other to see who could shed the most tears. “In Rahul Gandhi, the party has found its most effective and most accepted young leader,” cried one. Another suggested that this was the Congress party’s “Obama moment.”
For someone whose family has wielded power ruthlessly in India most of the last six decades and more, it was a bit rich of Gandhi to refer to power as “poison” and to suggest “we should not chase power”.
Although he referred to the hypocrisy of “the system”, he conveniently ignored that it was he who was being a hypocrite when he complained that “people who are corrupt stand up and talk about eradicating corruption” and when he called for a complete transformation of the “system.”
The Gandhi family has fielded the most powerful politicians in India since Partition — they are the system. So what is Rajul Gandhi going to transform?
Many expect him to initiate major organizational changes within the party. So far he has wielded great power in Congress, but shared no responsibility. Now he will find it difficult to evade questions about his failures. The Congress has grown out of touch with the aspirations of ordinary Indians, and seems bereft of new ideas.
Today’s India is not the country of the 1980s, when the fresh face of Rajiv Gandhi was enough to give a new lease on life to a doddering old party. India today is an impatient country, demanding good governance and resolute leadership — not qualities that have been the hallmark of Rahul Gandhi’s vision so far.
In his speech to the party, Gandhi suggested that the extant “system” was designed to keep people with knowledge out of power and promote mediocrity.
He is so right. It is indeed a tragedy for India that a person like Gandhi, whose only claim to fame is his surname, is the nation’s most influential leader today.
The best shock that he could give the system would be for him to graciously bow out of politics altogether, thereby ending the culture of dynastic politics in India’s Grand Old Party, a culture that has besmirched the reputation of Indian democracy.
Harsh V. Pant teaches political science at King’s College, London.
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