Rahul Gandhi may rejuvenate the longest-running dynasty in the democratic world — or he may terminate it… He seemed to have assigned himself Mahatma Gandhi’s mission without possessing a grain of Gandhi’s temperament. I wondered whether so wary a man was suited to the lunatic carnival of Indian politics.
On January 19, Rahul Gandhi, the 42-year-old heir apparent of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, the family that has ruled India for 37 of the 66 years since India gained independence, was appointed Vice President of the All India Congress party, which his family has run for even longer than it has run India. A more honest way of describing this moment is that Rahul India is on a first-name basis with all members of the Gandhi family finally agreed to accept a senior position that had long been his for the asking.
In so doing, he implicitly acknowledged that he is the party’s future and quite possibly its candidate for Prime Minister at a time when the world’s largest democracy seems rudderless, with its meteoric economic growth leveling off and a suddenly aroused middle class taking to the streets to protest rampant corruption and a pervasive culture of abuse toward women. Elections are scheduled for 2014. And though voters have rarely, if ever, expressed such contempt for Congress in polls and State ballots, the Gandhi name still casts a powerful spell over the country. But even his closest associates don’t know for sure whether Rahul wants to be Prime Minister or what he would do if he had the job. He may rejuvenate the longest-running dynasty in the democratic world or he may terminate it.
Rahul remains a mysterious and deeply private figure. He gives infrequent speeches; rarely rises in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, where he has served since 2004; and virtually never holds on-the-record interviews with reporters, whom he plainly distrusts. Although fireworks lit up the sky on the day of his ascension and party functionaries toted signs proclaiming, “You are our pride, the glory of youth power,” Rahul seems determined to disappoint his most fervent and sycophantic supporters; he recently said that asking about his Prime-Ministerial ambitions was “a wrong question.” A party spokesman quickly clarified that whatever Rahul’s own view, “All Congress workers desire that Rahul Gandhi become the PM one day, and we are sure that our wish will be fulfilled.”
Not long after Rahul’s promotion, I contacted Kanishka Singh, a 34-year-old former Lazard banker who serves as Rahul’s gatekeeper, to inquire about an interview. Singh said that he couldn’t promise me anything. “We don’t want to blow our own trumpet,” he said, “because Rahul is not a trumpet-blowing kind of person.”
Rahul ultimately granted me a brief, strictly off-the-record audience at the colonial-era white bungalow that serves as his personal office a few blocks away from the party’s own New Delhi headquarters. I was brought to a small sitting room. Soon, Rahul came in, sat down on a white couch, and waited for me to speak. He wore sandals and floppy white kurta pyjamas; I had the impression that he could have bought the outfit in the market for $5 and gotten back change. He had been clean-shaven when he accepted his party post, but now sported a scruffy Che Guevara beard. The overall look was Gandhian revolutionary: virtuous, pure, a little fierce. We spoke, not about policy or personal ambition, but about Rahul’s project of reforming the Congress party from within. On this subject he was passionate, even vehement. I had been led to expect someone shy and even tentative, but Rahul’s manner was unceremonious, unsmiling, challenging, even abrasive, as if he expected a fight which perhaps he did. He seemed to have assigned himself Mahatma Gandhi’s mission without possessing a grain of Gandhi’s temperament. I wondered whether so wary a man was suited to the lunatic carnival of Indian politics.
And that is a very pressing question. After nine years in power, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s United Progressive Alliance, a coalition of Congress and nine smaller parties, has been rocked by one scandal after another, including the fraudulent allocation of cell-phone broadcast licenses, a boondoggle that has cost India somewhere between $6 Billion and $35 Billion. Congress was born in India’s freedom struggle, but both the party and the Government froze in the face of the recent mass protests, as if all the years in power had atrophied the party’s political instincts. At the same time, the economic growth that has paid for Singh’s rise and the expensive welfare programmes Congress favours has sagged to 5 per cent; nobody talks anymore about India “catching up” to China. No wonder, then, that Singh’s poll numbers have sunk to an all-time low. ‘India Today’, a leading newsweekly, recently wrote that his Government has devolved into “a global headline of corruption and bad governance.” The country has reached an impasse.
“We don’t have leaders in this Government,” Bimal Jalan, a former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, told me. “There’s no sense that the cabinet has the collective authority to govern.” The only figure who can knock heads and force the Government to act as one, he says, is Rahul, not because of Rahul’s own skills but simply because he is a Gandhi. Dynastic rule has produced a pathology of dependence that the dynasty’s latest member is trying, perhaps fruitlessly, to cure.
The Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum, at the family bungalow at 1 Safdarjung Road in the heart of colonial New Delhi, commemorates a clan bound to India first by a tradition of service, and then by martyrdom. Pilgrims wind through modest parlour rooms filled with photographs and news clippings and then are routed to the family quarters in the back where Rahul and his younger sister, Priyanka, lived with their parents Rajiv and Sonia and their grandmother Indira, who served as India’s Prime Minister from 1966 to 1977 and then again from 1980 until her assassination in 1984. A blown-up photograph shows a pudgy 12-year-old Rahul burying his face in his father’s chest after the cremation ceremony for Indira, murdered by Sikhs enraged at her decision to crush a Sikh separatist movement. The tour leads past the lawn where Rahul and Priyanka played to the garden where Indira was killed. In a recent speech, Rahul recalled that, in the high-security protective bubble that was 1 Safdarjung, he used to play badminton with two of Indira’s Sikh guards; they were, he thought, his friends. In fact, they were the men who murdered his grandmother.
Another photograph shows an older Rahul lighting the pyre for Rajiv, also assassinated, also the Congress leader. This was in 1991, when Rajiv was killed by Tamil separatists. Rahul has said that he pledged to enter politics when the train carrying his father’s ashes reached the northern city of Allahabad and he saw a vast crowd assembled to meet it. Such a vow, in such a family, carries dire overtones of fatalism.
It is the awful twinning of dynastic politics and premature death that, as with his father, ushered Rahul to the center of the Indian stage. First, Rajiv was forced into politics when his younger brother, Sanjay, died in a plane crash in 1980. Then, after Indira’s assassination, Rajiv was sworn in as her successor, as if Indiareally were a constitutional monarchy rather than a Parliamentary democracy. Rajiv was turned out of office in 1989, and then murdered in 1991. The Gandhis found themselves without power, or even heirs. A non-Gandhi Congress Government ruled India from 1991 to 1996, but when it lost the next elections, the party rapidly dissolved into squabbling factions, some of which allied themselves with Rajiv’s Italian-born widow, Sonia. The Congress party decided it could not survive without the Gandhis; in 1998, Sonia was installed as party Ppresident in a sort of putsch that only reinforced the impression of the family’s inherited right to rule. In 2004, when Congress returned to power after eight years in the wilderness, Sonia shocked India and dismayed the party by declining to serve as Prime Minister. Instead she picked Singh, a respected economist and party loyalist who could be counted on to do her bidding.
Rahul, meanwhile, was out of India during this period. He had gone off to America, where he graduated from Rollins College in Florida, and then got an M.Phil. from Trinity College at Cambridge University and worked at a consulting firm in London before returning home in 2002. But he was always the heir apparent, and while his mother has ruled the party over the last 15 years, few believe she has done so with anything other than him in mind.
Still, there’s no question that Rahul’s life has been scarred by all this tragedy and the resulting isolation. He has been surrounded by a security cordon since he was a boy; the black-suited guards of the Special Protection Group were thick on the ground at his headquarters when I visited. He has never married, prompting endless speculation. He recently explained, “If I get married and have children, then I will become a status quoist and will be concerned about bequeathing my position to my children.” That sounded very close to saying that he cannot cure the dynastic problem unless he ends the dynasty. However it ends up, Rahul’s reticence is existential. He stands apart, from those around him and even from his own party. “He’s not in the middle of us,” says Sandeep Dikshit, a member of Parliament and Congress spokesman. “He’s not meeting with us all the time. He doesn’t give himself up to our fancies.”
Surveying this epic family sweep, Jaswant Singh, an erudite opposition stalwart, says, “I am reminded of the late Mughal period,” when generations of dynastic rule began to disintegrate in the form of the hapless Shah Alam II, humiliated by his enemies and effectively displaced by the British. “I wonder,” murmurs Singh, “if we are fit for democracy.”
The analogy is a little harsh on India, which has the most solidly founded democracy among major countries in the emerging world. The military sticks to its own business, and conflict among the country’s innumerable ethnic, religious, and language groups is mediated for the most part through politics rather than violence. The signal achievement of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s founding Prime Minister and Rahul’s great-grandfather, was binding up a subcontinent that in its diversity resembled pre-modern Europe into a single highly elastic union. Ever since, a grateful nation has viewed the family as India’s great secular institution. As Sachin Pilot, a 35-year-old Minister in the Singh Government and a member of Rahul’s inner circle, told me, “Only the Gandhis don’t have a religious definition, a geographical definition, a class definition. They are symbolic of the Indian State.”
But that, of course, is also the central paradox of the Gandhis: A system in which national legitimacy belongs to a family and is passed down through inheritance is more likely to undermine than to fortify democratic governance.
(To be continued)
(James Traub is a fellow of the Center on International Cooperation.)