A revolution is underway in India. The man leading the charge is neither a fiery ideologue nor a gun-toting guerrilla. Instead, he is the scion of one of the world's most famous political families. But Rahul Gandhi, 38, has set out to disrupt the very system that created his power. At first glance, he is simply trying to restore the 125-year-old Indian National Congress—a party once led by his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, his grandmother Indira Gandhi and his father, Rajiv Gandhi, and now run by his mother, Sonia Gandhi—to its once lofty position as India's dominant political group. But his tactics are game-changing: insisting on grassroots activism, building deep connections to rural India and trying to democratize the hierarchical Congress party itself. If he succeeds—a big "if"—India could soon undergo a kind of political big bang, ushering in a new model for developing countries: combining a well-functioning democracy with good government and economic growth. And if that works, Rahul will probably also ensure his own political future as the head of the nation.
Already Rahul, as he is known throughout the country, has been widely credited with Congress's big win in last month's elections. Not only was he, as Congress' general-secretary, the party's main campaigner—he spoke at 125 rallies across the country in six weeks, compared with 75 for his mother and 50 for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He was also its master strategist.
His approach—fully endorsed by his mother, the party's president—was risky, presenting Congress as a national party that stood for secularism, good governance and growth. Such tactics were in sharp contrast to the mainstream of Indian politics for the last 20 years, in which parties based on caste, ethnicity and religion had flourished. During those decades, Congress officials had made alliances with these regional groups in order to maintain their access to power, privileges, perks and money. But this strategy had also ensured the slow decline of Congress as a national force, ceding ground to parties based on identity politics. Rahul was convinced that to regain Congress's old strength, it must contest elections alone as much as possible—especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. These two states, which together send 120 members to the 543-seat lower house of the Indian Parliament, are crucial to any party's chances in New Delhi, and Congress had virtually become nonexistent in those areas.
Before the election, the conventional wisdom had it that Rahul's choice to go it alone would be a huge blunder. But it paid off—spectacularly. Congress more than doubled its tally in Uttar Pradesh, from nine seats (out of 80) to 21. And the party made serious inroads into several other constituencies. In Bihar, even if it only ended up with two seats, it managed to take away big chunks of votes from caste-based parties and reduced powerful regional satraps and minor coalition partners to insignificance. Elsewhere Congress swept the polls. The result? "This is Rahul Gandhi's moment," says Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Center for Policy Research, a New Delhi think tank. "He rose above the narrow identity politics of his opponents and showed that Indians long for inclusiveness and tolerance. He has changed the rules of politics."
Rahul also broke ground by pushing forward a slate of young candidates—a rare move in a country where age is venerated and 80-year-old politicians are a common sight. He bet that with 70 percent of the country under the age of 40 and half under 25, youth politics had reached a tipping point. And again he was vindicated. Most of his fresh faces won. Just as significantly, many of these newcomers had emerged through an open and democratic selection process in the party—and were thus seen as more connected to the grassroots than usual Congress hacks.
One such winner was Rahul's close aide, Meenakshi Natarajan, a biochemistry graduate from a small town called Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh. Natarajan couldn't have been more different from a typical Indian politician. Nobody in her family had ever served in politics. She traveled in crowded public transport, lived in a small rented apartment in Delhi and devoted her time to energizing students and young people to join the party. All this was unheard of in India, where candidates typically travel in 20-car convoys with hundreds of hangers-on. "The world missed the significance of our baby steps in democratizing Congress's youth organizations," says Natarajan. But the voters didn't. Rahul is "creating space for fresh ideas, competence and youthful energy," says political analyst Rajiv Desai. "If he can pull it off, this will eventually make the old timers and power brokers irrelevant in the party."
Since the election, calls have grown within Congress for Rahul to take a seat in cabinet or become prime minister himself; even Singh has said that he would try to persuade Gandhi to join the government. But Rahul has politely declined the offers so far, saying his focus remains the party. This has only enhanced his public image. According to Sam Pitroda, who was an aide to Rajiv Gandhi and is considered the father of India's telecom revolution, and now heads the country's National Knowledge Commission, "Rahul is not here for any short-term goals. He has a long-term vision. He is methodical, analytical, hardworking and humble."
Rahul's makeover couldn't have come at a better time. Apart from regional players and corrupt special interests, the Congress Party had come to rely on vast amounts of black money to run its campaigns in recent years. Other parties were even worse, dominated by people who used fear and hatred to widen caste, religious and ethnic differences. Campaign slogans were often divisive and negative. Politicians became notorious for siphoning government resources and filling their coffers with kickbacks and bribes. While India now has some of the richest citizens in the world, it also has huge areas wracked by destitution, and more than half of its 1.2 billion people still live on less than 20 cents a day. Over the past two decades the Congress Party, which has ruled India for 45 out of its 62 years of independence, had gradually lost ground to its major rival, the anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, and smaller caste-based and sectarian parties. Forced to cobble together coalition governments, Congress had fallen hostage to pressure and blackmail from its junior partners.
Rahul observed this decline from a front-row seat. His was a life of both privilege and tragedy. He was barely 14 when his grandmother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was killed by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984. Suddenly, Rahul and his younger sister, Priyanka, found themselves enveloped in a security cocoon and lost whatever vestiges of normal teenage life they'd once enjoyed. Then, less than seven years later, the children also lost their father, Rajiv, who had catapulted into politics from his job as an airline pilot after Indira's death. Rajiv was killed by a Tamil suicide bomber at an election rally in 1991 in southern India.
After being shuttled from one school to another for safety reasons, Rahul was eventually sent to the United States, starting university at Harvard and eventually graduating from Rollins College in Florida. He then received an M.Phil. in development studies from Cambridge University. It was an academic career marked less by dramatic achievement than a desire for privacy. After graduating, he spent the next three years with the Monitor Group in London, a consulting firm founded by the management guru Michael Porter, before returning to India in 2002. Colleagues at the firm had no idea who they were working with—Rahul was using an assumed name—which meant Gandhi got no special treatment. His reputation within the company was "very impressive," in the words of one senior partner. And he'd go on to apply the training he got with Monitor in the careful, methodical way he would study the Indian electorate.
During Rahul's period abroad, the BJP, taking advantage of the rudderless Congress, had captured power with a coalition of a few other sectarian parties, and Congress had been reduced to a worn-out shell of its former self. Party leaders were dejected and desperately wanted another member of the storied Nehru-Gandhi line to rescue them. They ultimately managed to rope in Rahul's reclusive, Italian-born mother, Sonia. And she soon managed to save her husband's party from virtual extinction. Her tireless campaigning, political acumen and hands-on leadership revived Congress and helped return it to power in 2004.
Although Sonia tried to reform the party, she remained surrounded by elderly time servers and family retainers with no connections to the grassroots. Though the Congress Party had traditionally held the middle ground of Indian politics by appealing to all sections of society, factionalism and lack of ideas had drained its strength. Many advisers began pushing Sonia to let the articulate and savvy Priyanka become Congress' new face. But she was married and focused on raising her children, and was not inclined to join active politics.
Meanwhile, away from the public gaze, Rahul—often seen as shy and reclusive—began closely studying the Indian system and the way its parties were run. He began visiting his mother's parliamentary constituency in Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state and a place where Congress had become a nonentity. When the general elections were called in 2004, Rahul made his move: he ran for a seat from Amethi. He and his mother campaigned vigorously around the country and their efforts paid off: Rahul won his seat and nationally Congress managed to overthrow the BJP-led coalition. Declining the office of the prime minister, Sonia installed Singh—a former finance minister and an economist with sterling credentials—in the top job, signaling a break from the party's corrupt power brokers.
Sonia's critics saw her renunciation of power as nothing more than a clever move to keep the seat warm for her son by letting a loyal follower take the job till Rahul was ready for it. But Rahul had different plans. He stayed away from the media and devoted his time to studying ways to advance development—and Congress—focusing on his own constituency and the divisive, caste-based politics of Uttar Pradesh.
Over the past three years he has worked hard to acquaint himself with poor, rural India by making numerous visits to remote, neglected villages, where he would listen to locals' complaints while sitting cross-legged on their dirt floors, sharing their meals and sometimes even sleeping in their homes. On occasion he would lead villagers to government officials to demand better services or organize sit-ins in dusty towns to highlight the plight of the poor. His "discovery of India" tour (a riff on Nehru's book of the same name) was dismissed by the media and scorned by his opponents, one of whom referred to Rahul as an "aquarium fish." Yet Rahul persisted, often making unnoticed trips to remote tribes, panicking his security detail. Calculated or not, such moves are extremely rare for a politician of Gandhi's stature in India, where most leaders prefer to travel in air-conditioned comfort.
Rahul's current views on the economy seem to owe to these tours. Broadly speaking, he is pro-market, owing in part to his time at Monitor, but he insists that growth should provide opportunities for the poor. "What is the difference between a rich man and a poor man?" he liked to ask at campaign rallies. "Opportunity!" Rahul argues that the human talent in India's poorest states is as good as anywhere else and that it's the government's fault that these regions remain impoverished. He also believes in economic reform. Rahul has said that the current global financial crisis is a "short-term disruption" and large countries like India and China can benefit in the long run if they position themselves properly. But he wants "inclusive growth," and has supported job guarantees for the rural poor and loan waivers to farmers—measures derided by market reformers but that appear to have had strong political benefits for Congress and to have shielded India's rural sector from the worst of the current crisis. Rahul is also known to support the growing U.S.-India alliance and is said to speak well of George W. Bush in private for pushing it through.
Those who know Rahul say he is levelheaded and unruffled, draws inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi (no relation) and, like his sister, Priyanka, takes an interest in Buddhism and has attended teachings by the Dalai Lama. He meticulously seeks out different points of view before coming to a decision. He is a teetotaler who once favored fast cars but whose only apparent vice now is a fondness for Indian sweets. The siblings are close ("There is no one closer to me than my sister [Priyanka]," he recently told a questioner). For a while, he was known to be dating an attractive Spanish architect, but he is now India's most eligible bachelor and appears in no hurry to change that status.
In a sense, given the magnitude of the job he's assigned himself, it's no wonder that Rahul turned down a cabinet post. The work he has in mind involves enlisting 10 million young people into the party's youth wing and holding democratic elections to produce new leaders from among them. He has already managed to sign up some 1.5 million youngsters in three opposition-ruled states—Punjab, Gujarat and Uttarakhand—to join the Youth Congress. All this has helped Rahul construct himself as an agent of radical change. "His strategy of positioning himself as an outsider seems a masterstroke," says Mehta, the New Delhi analyst. The irony, of course, is that in seeking to make the Congress Party more democratic, Rahul is working against the legacy of his own grandmother, who suspended internal party elections in the mid-1970s, allowing her to chose the party's regional leaders herself—a process most experts believe helped turn Congress from a grassroots, vibrant party into a court full of fawning retainers.
Still, the seductions of power remain strong—indeed, this may be the biggest obstacle Gandhi will face. "Rahul has a unique role to play in defining India's political destiny over the coming decades," says Ramesh Ramanathan, a former Citibank senior manager who gave up a flourishing career in Europe in his mid-30s to start a Bangalore nonprofit that promotes government accountability and who now works as an adviser to the government on urban renewal. "Thousands of ambitious people will gather around him like moths around a lamp to feed their own careers." Rahul's success will depend on how well he avoids the trap of hubris, so common among Congress leaders, and how well he handles the inevitable flatterers and hangers-on. "So far he has been careful not to let any [such clique] grow around him," says Mehta. "He seems to allow only those around him who have no ax to grind."
There are other obstacles. Congress remains extremely resistant to any moves that would weaken its party grandees. Regional governments will not eagerly make room for newcomers at the expense of favored castes and clients. The Indian bureaucracy has a long way to go before it begins actually serving the people rather than obstructing their path. Big business will also be happy to slow down certain reforms—in order to slow down competition—or guide them in ways that let it game the market.
Still, the process Rahul Gandhi has unleashed has the potential to turn India into a shining example of how to manage a successful economy and a successful democracy in a large, heterogeneous country. It's true that he faces enormous challenges. Yet he also enjoys enormous advantages—especially his family name and his rising popularity. This stature will only grow if Rahul manages to remain uncorrupted. Of course, it will be all too easy for him to succumb to the status quo, to do just well enough to achieve high office and then to stop fighting. But that would be a tragic waste of India's greatest hope in a very long time.