Can the Indian Congress Party survive without the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty of which it has become synonymous? For the followers of the dynasty, accustomed to treating India’s oldest political party as a family stronghold, the idea is heretical. But they have to recognize a hard truth: Rahul Gandhi, 49, has become a handicap for the party his family has led for much of the past 70 years.
A new debate over the future of the Congress Party follows a second consecutive beating by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party Bharatiya Janata in the May national elections. Congress won only 52 of the 543 seats in the directly elected lower house of Parliament, or about one sixth of the BJP. In 14 of the 30 states, Congress failed to secure a single seat.
Last week Mr Gandhi resigned his post as party chairman. In a letter, he accepted responsibility for the national defeat while accusing the BJP of deploying “all the machinery of the Indian state” against Congress.
In an advanced democracy, the idea of a party leader resigning after an election bombing would hardly raise eyebrows. In the Congress Party, it suffices to trigger an earthquake. Conventional wisdom in Congress holds that only a family member can have the stature to unite bickering party leaders and motivate workers. Without a Nehru-Gandhi in charge, the argument goes, Congress will quickly become a rudderless mess.
There is only one problem with this view: Congress has become a rudderless mess with a Nehru-Gandhi in charge. The besieged party faces a wave of defections from state lawmakers in Goa and Karnataka. Adding insult to injury, Mr Gandhi – the son, grandson and great-grandson of prime ministers – lost in the family stronghold of Amethi in the last election. Since entering politics 15 years ago, after a stint as a management consultant in London, Gandhi has only managed to be consistent on one thing: a listening ear for the public opinion.
In 2017, despite a record leading his party to a string of losses as vice president, Mr Gandhi succeeded his mother, Sonia Gandhi, of Italian descent, as Congress President. Overall, aside from a brief glimmer of promise at the end of last year when Congress wrested three Hindi states from the heart of the BJP, the offspring of Nehru-Gandhi was no match for Mr. Modi and his main advisor, BJP President Amit Shah.
During the election campaign, voters often criticize Mr. Gandhi for his clumsy speech and his apparent lack of seriousness. Their frequent vacations abroad are a poor contrast to the Modi-Shah duo’s fierce work ethic and no-take-no-prisoners philosophy.
On the substantive issues, Mr. Gandhi is not doing better. He lacks the imagination to confront the BJP on the two issues that matter most to India: the economy and religious pluralism.
Over the years, the leader of Congress has attempted to present himself as a messiah of the poor. He organized sleepovers in poor villages with visiting foreign dignitaries such as the British Foreign Secretary. He declared himself a “soldier” for an isolated tribe threatened by a multinational bauxite mine. Mr. Gandhi often claims to represent “India of the poor” versus “India of the rich”.
This year, Gandhi sought advice from left-wing French economist Thomas Piketty, who helped Congress set up a massive 3.6 trillion rupee ($ 53 billion) income guarantee program for the 50 millions of poorest Indian families. In view of the election results, he found few takers.
Mr. Gandhi’s approach is gravely flawed. Many voters Congress seeks to woo have already been captured by Mr. Modi, whose extensive welfare programs include health insurance, subsidized housing and cooking gas cylinders, and small loans for independent entrepreneurs. Besides, the Prime Minister, a former tea seller from Gujarat, makes a champion of the poor far more credible than a socialist champagne globe-trotter from Delhi with a famous family name.
The last thing India needs is another leftist politician promising handouts. It may be overkill to expect Mr. Gandhi to start tricking Milton Friedman or Friedrich Hayek, but a more centrist approach to economics would have allowed Congress to better target ambitious voters thwarted by Mr. Modi to create jobs or revive the economy. growth.
On religious pluralism, Mr. Gandhi oscillated unconvincingly between defending his family’s commitment to secularism and a belated effort to convince voters that he is an ardent Hindu by visiting temples in the approaching elections and posting on Instagram a 12-day trek to a sacred mountain in Tibet. He failed to grasp the central challenge: to address reasonable concerns about radical Islam while ensuring fairness to ordinary Indian Muslims.
In his resignation letter, Gandhi said Congress must “radically transform”. It should start by becoming a party that champions the ideas India needs for its future, rather than a family that remembers its past.
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