Yet another generation of Gandhis in Indian politics

When Rahul Gandhi, 47, was appointed vice-president of India’s Congress Party four years ago – under his mother, Sonia Gandhi – he told reporters that “power is poison”.

For a politician, it was a strange remark.

From Monday, Gandhi will be taking big draughts of that poison when he takes over from his mother as president of the party that was once an unbeatable election juggernaut in India.

It will be the start of one of the biggest political challenges in recent history for one of India’s most perplexing politicians.

Gandhi was a na??f who reluctantly entered politics 13 years ago on his mother’s wishes. He has taken many years to get to grips with his role. At crucial moments, when his leadership was needed, he was out of the country on some jaunt.

Over the years, he has battledwidespread mockery over his bumbling amateurishness and lack of political nous, earning him the derogatory moniker “Puppu”, a nickname for a small boy.

On occasions when he has tried to be aggressive, it has brought to mind British politician Denis Healey’s famous remark that being attacked by his rival, Geoffrey Howe, was like “being savaged by a dead sheep”.

On Monday, however, Gandhi takes over the reins as the latest member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to lead the 132-year-old Congress Party, which has been in opposition since 2014 when Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power.

Gandhi’s election, uncontested, as president is a formality because he has been the de facto leader for the past four years as his mother gradually withdrew, letting him take charge.

His anointment has been praised by veteran Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, who said: “Rahul Gandhi will be successful and his leadership will bring the Congress back to power.”

But whether Gandhi has it in him to lead the Congress Party to victory in an election is an open question. Almost everything is stacked against him. The party organisation is feeble: in her 19 years as president, Mrs Gandhi let it become moribund in virtually every state. Rahul Gandhi has spoken of the urgent need to rebuild it but has done little.

The party simply does not have grassroots workers and leaders who can canvass support, campaign for candidates, and get the votes in.

Gandhi’s other disadvantage is that the notion of dynasty no longer holds sway over the Indian public as it once did – his father, Rajiv Gandhi, his grand-mother, Indira Gandhi, and his great grandfather, Jawarharlal Nehru were all prime ministers.

The glamour and charisma attached to the name made the Gandhis India’s answer to the Kennedys. But young Indians tend to be less deferential now and more inclined to have a modern outlook. Dynastic inheritance of a political party sits uncomfortably with this outlook.

“The India of 2017, with its large pool of young voters deciding electoral outcomes, is increasingly questioning the politics of entitlement,” wrote political commentator Neerja Chowdhury in the Indian Express on November 22.

Gandhi’s other difficulty is that he has to take on one of the strongest prime ministers India has seen. Modi enjoys a rarely seen dominance over the political landscape. He has made his contempt for the young, still wet-behind-the-ears Gandhi obvious.

However, in the past few months Gandhi has lifted his game. Some of his barbs – including a series of sarcastic and catchy slogans – have landed. He has got under the skin of some of Modi’s ministers who normally treat him like the village idiot.

Moreover, he has led an unusually aggressive campaign in the past few weeks in the lion’s den – Modi’s home state of Gujarat where polling is to take place in phases up to 14 December. Political commentators were surprised at the energy and spirit which Gandhi brought to the task.

“He has shown at least that he can put up a decent fight, that he is not daunted by taking on Modi in a state where the Congress is extremely weak,” said Seema Mustafa, editor of the online newspaper, The Citizen.

But the scale of the task ahead of him is daunting. In the 2014 election, the party under his de facto leadership suffered its worst ever outcome: just 44 seats in Parliament. This was followed by a string of defeats in other state elections. The Congress Party, which has dominated the life of the nation since the days when it led the movement for independence, now rules in just six of India’s 29 states.

For the Congress, being so diminished is an existential crisis. Gandhi needs a vision and, so far, no vision has emerged.

He attacks Modi but fails to offer an alternative, nor even to offer solutions to questions of how he will create jobs or reduce poverty. Capitalising on Modi’s mistakes is useful (and Gandhi has succeeded in tapping into rising unrest over the lack of jobs and the economic slowdown) but this can only take him so far.

If he manages to narrow the gap between his party and the BJP in Gujarat (no one gives him any chance of winning), it will be a big feather in his cap.

But more than that, he needs to come up with fresh ideas that can inspire his party and the electorate. In the 13 years since he joined politics and stood for election as an MP, Gandhi has failed to make his mark.

He cannot afford to take another 13.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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