Can Raul Gandhi Save Congress From Oblivion?

This article first appeared on Riding the Elephant.

At last the years of waiting are over.

Rahul Gandhi, the 47-year old "pop up" vice president of India's Congress Party, is being elected – anointed would be more accurate – as the party president.

Nominations for the post closed this afternoon with no rival candidate emerging and generations of top Congress politicians gathered in the party's headquarters to congratulate the "young" Gandhi, who has been resisting his coronation for years.

By the end of this month, when the formalities are completed, Rahul Gandhi will succeed his mother Sonia, who will be 71 on December 9 and is not in good health. She has held the post for 19 years, waiting for him to be ready and willing to inherit the dynastic mantle of his father and her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1991.

Rahul Gandhi's succession has been widely mocked and criticised for its lack of democracy and the inevitability of his rise during a laborious and long delayed countrywide candidate selection process, with no rival emerging. Prime minister Narendra Modi today congratulated the Congress on their "Aurangzeb Raj," a reference to the undemocratic succession of India's Mughal rulers.

Rahul Gandhi meets Indian farmers from Tamil Nadu as they protest in New Delhi on March 31, 2017. MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty

"Rahul has been the darling of the Congress men and Congress women and this is yet another step in his devotion to the Congress party and country," former prime minister Manmohan Singh, 85, told a television reporter in a remark that seemed unnecessarily eulogistic but in fact echoed the views of most Congress politicians who believe the party would break up without a Gandhi at the top.

How well Rahul Gandhi does or does not do as party leader – and many expect a negative rather than a positive outcome – is of vital importance for the future of Indian politics and the country's noisy and chaotic but effective democracy.

If he emerges from the ineffectual role he has played since he entered politics in 2004, the Congress could again become a major force, working with other mostly regional opposition parties to challenge the dominant Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

But if he fails, political opposition to the BJP and prime minister Narendra Modi will remain fragmented, and Congress itself could gradually implode.

Gandhi's ascendancy should not therefore be dismissed as a questionable but inevitable dynastic inheritance in the family that has dominated the Congress Party since before independence in 1947 when Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi's graet-grandfather, became prime minister.

A state assembly election now taking place in Gujarat, Modi's home state, presents Gandhi with his first crucial test. An election has also recently been held in Himachal Pradesh, a small northern state currently run by Congress.

Voting in Gujarat, where the BJP has been in power continuously since 1995, is scheduled for December 9 and 14, and the count for both states will be on December 18.

The BJP is virtually certain to win in Gujarat. Gandhi's success or failure will be judged on whether he has managed to work effectively enough with other opposition groups to reduce significantly the BJP's number of seats from the 115 it won in the last election in 2012 to below 100. That will be difficult, though BJP leaders appear resigned to losing some of their majority after 22 years in power.

Gandhi has had a series of election failures since he became vice-president in 2013, when he gradually took over some of the party leadership from his mother.

Congress lost badly in the general election in 2014, after ten years in power, winning only 44 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha. It was also routed in state assembly elections in Bihar in 2015, and earlier this year in Uttar Pradesh (UP).

The BJP secured a landslide victory in UP and significantly won six out of ten assembly seats in the districts of Amethi and Rae Bareli, the Gandhi family's traditional political base where Rahul and Sonia Gandhi are the members of parliament. Last week in UP civic polls. Congress lost Amethi's two municipal board seats.

The BJP has been targeting the Amethi constituency with Smriti Irani, a fiery politician and government minister, standing against Rahul Gandhi in 2014. She cut his majority from 370,000 in 2009 to just 108,000, and is now aiming to humiliate him further by defeating him in the 2019 general election.

It may seem odd that the BJP is putting so much effort into attacking and ridiculing the hapless Gandhi. "Some people grow in age but not in understanding," Modi said in parliament in May last year.

The reason must be that they realise the Congress Party cannot function effectively without a Gandhi as the leader. Mocking him and defeating him in key elections therefore weakens both him and the party. On the other hand, if he does emerge as an effective leader now that he is the party president, he could rally opposition and provide a significant opposition to Modi in 2019.

No leadership potential

Till recently, he has shown no leadership potential and has had no distinct political or economic message. He has taken no apparent interest in formulating and developing government policy beyond occasional bursts of noisy opposition and carefully scripted speeches and interventions in parliament. He refused when Congress was in power to gain experience as a minister, despite being urged to do so by Manmohan Singh.

He earned the "pop up" reputation because of the way he has suddenly taken up issues, or visited trouble spots, especially those affecting the landless poor, but has shown little or no further interest after a few loud and mock-angry performances.

Early in 2015 he literally disappeared from public life just before Budget Day and was away, presumably abroad, for 56 days without any explanation of where he was or why he had gone. Later it emerged that he had been pondering a major political role, maybe becoming party president – the post he is now accepting at the end of 2017.

Even Jyotiraditya Scindia, one of the most competent and discreet Congress politicians of Gandhi's generation, and a close adviser, said in a television interview that, while he accepted Rahul Gandhi's (and Sonia's) leadership, "the time for introspection is way over. I think the time for execution [of a new approach] should have started a couple of months ago." That was in March 2015 and it has taken till now for the new approach to begin.

Re-energized campaigning

A re-energised Rahul Gandhi began to emerge in September when he visited the US and impressed audiences with his grasp of issues at the University of California in Berkeley and then in Washington and New York. This gained wide publicity in India, angled at the idea that he had progressed from his earlier off-beat style.

He was guided there by Sam Pitroda, one of his father's closes advisers who helped develop India's telecom industry. Pitroda has stayed close to the family over the past 30 years and now has brought a fresh angle to Gandhi's presentations.

A re-energised Rahul Gandhi has emerged in recent weeks during the Gujarat election campaign where he has, for the first time, stayed the course with several day-long visits packed with election meetings.

But his style is not subtle: for example, with the Hindu nationalists as his main opponents, he has suddenly made a series of visits to Hindu temples, which he has not done before. At one temple, he was entered in the visitors' book in the "non-Hindu" list, which unnecessarily gave Modi and others the chance to question his religion, reviving memories of criticisms that Sonia Gandhi faced because of her Italian Catholic background.

He has also harried the government, especially over its controversial demonetization and sales tax (GST) policies that have caused widespread disruption and hardship for very small traders and businesses. He can with some justification claim to have forced the government to introduce wide sweeping improvements to the GST.

There have been media reports that the Congress Party has been in touch with UK-based Cambridge Analytica, which helped President Trump win his election with closely focussed campaigns. It has also stepped up its Twitter and other social media campaigning, though that ran into problems with several thousand retweets on a @OfficeOfRG tweet from alleged "bots" of Russian, Kazakh and Indonesian origin.

More positively, he allowed his Twitter handlers to announce somewhat sarcastically, but with a sense of fun, that his pet dog Pidi was the mastermind behind his tweets.

"People been asking who tweets for this guy… I'm coming clean, it's me… Pidi. I'm way cooler than him. Look what I can do with a tweet… oops… treat!" Rahul tweeted with a video of Pidi balancing a biscuit on its nose and then obediently, on Rahul's command, eating it.

Perhaps his main failing is the sense of entitlement that he displays as the crown prince of the dynasty that has played a leading role in Indian politics for a century and has had a dominant role since independence. Although he can be a mild conversational individual genuinely interested in social and other causes, he has an air of superiority that is not acceptable to leaders of other parties.

Sitaram Yechury, a Communist party leader who has had good relations with Congress, said on television last month that "Sonia is the glue that binds the opposition", adding "the united opposition will break if Rahul takes over."

For that reason, reports suggest that Sonia Gandhi will continue to play a role on broader opposition issues, leaving Rahul to run the Congress Party. How well that will work remains to be seen. One of the reasons for Rahul declining to become president in recent years has been a clash between the older and younger generations of the party's leaders, with Sonia Gandhi siding with those who want to minimize change.

That is a challenge that Rahul Gandhi will now have to grapple with. Much will depend on who he picks as his chief advisers, and how well he and they work with the older generation.

Later, there will be speculation about whether he ever wants to be prime minister and whether, if Congress emerged from a general election as the leading party (improbable though that seems today), he would hand the prime minister's job to someone else, as his mother did with Manmohan Singh.

What is clear is that the Gandhi family is here to stay, with Rahul's sister Priyanka, hiding for now in the background but a potential player.

For many observers, as the Financial Times put it in an editorial a few days ago, Rahul's presidency cements Congress's "status as a hereditary anachronism".

The reality however is that, while it may look anachronistic from abroad, it is not so in India where there are many political dynasties in the states.

The more important point is that, by not stepping aside, Rahul Gandhi has been doing the country a disservice because he has been blocking the evolution of the Congress Party, either under new competent leadership, or by allowing it to split and crumble and thus encourage new opposition alignments to emerge.

He now has a chance to prove the critics wrong.

John Elliott writes from New Delhi. His latest book is Implosion: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins).

Editor's Picks

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts