To many, though, her real goal was not ideological, but familial. Inder Malhotra, a veteran political journalist, says that Sonia intervened to take over the listing Congress ship in 1998 because “she knew that her dream of passing the baton from her husband to her son would be a pipe dream unless she took over the party.” Thereafter, says Malhotra, “the only idea ever discussed at the annual party conclave was ‘Rahul Gandhi should be getting more responsibility.'”
Nehru died nearly 50 years ago, and the family record hasn’t been so great since. Indira responded to growing opposition by declaring emergency rule in 1975, suspending democracy for the only time in the history of free India. And while Indira did not inherit her father’s tolerance for opposition, she did absorb his faith in socialism and the centrally planned economy. Her great electoral slogan was ‘garibi hatao’ (“abolish poverty”), but she wasn’t able to transform the lives ofIndia’s peasantry as long as the so-called “Hindu rate of growth” 3.5 per cent obtained. Rajiv, who worked as a pilot for Indian Airlines before joining the family business, was a moderniser who shared neither his mother’s imperiousness nor her attachment to party tradition. One senior planning official from that time has written that Rajiv “wanted us to plan for the construction of autobahns, airfields, speedy trains, shopping malls,” and the like. “We were,” he recalled, “shocked into silence.” But Rajiv lost power before he could build those autobahns.
The India that we know today, the India not of somnambulant water buffaloes and clangorous temples and broken telephones, but of high-tech firms and social entrepreneurs and new cities rising up from the plains, only began to take shape during the non-Gandhi interregnum. In 1991, with India running out of foreign exchange and the International Monetary Fund balking at floating new loans absent reform, the Congress Government had no choice but to open up the economy by relaxing Government control, reducing subsidies, and cutting welfare payments. Since that time, India has grown as much as 10 per cent per annum and taken its place as a Third World success story. Manmohan Singh was then Finance Minister, but he is recalled as having acquiesced to, rather than pressed, the drastic changes. Whatever his beliefs, he understood that Congress stalwarts viewed an unshackled economy as a betrayal of Mahatma Gandhi’s commitment to the poor and Nehru’s faith in the planned economy. And in fact, Sonia began steering the party back to the left as soon as she took over its leadership. To many, though, her real goal was not ideological, but familial. Inder Malhotra, a veteran political journalist, says that Sonia intervened to take over the listing Congress ship in 1998 because “she knew that her dream of passing the baton from her husband to her son would be a pipe dream unless she took over the party.” Thereafter, says Malhotra, “the only idea ever discussed at the annual party conclave was ‘Rahul Gandhi should be getting more responsibility.'”
In 2004, Rahul stood for Parliament from Amethi, the small town in the giant northern State of Uttar Pradesh that his uncle, then his father, and then his mother had represented. Rahul did not so much choose a political vocation as choose not to resist one. In Indian terms, he accepted his destiny. “I think he has a greater sense of responsibility for the party than anyone else,” Pilot says. Rahul won handily, and the Congress party began waiting impatiently for him to ripen into Prime-Ministerial material.
Unlike his father, Rahul had taken a deep draught from the fountain of Congress. He opposed the controversial 2005 nuclear deal with the United States, which the left viewed as a violation of Nehru’s policy of “nonalignment” between East and West. He supported the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which has provided labor to as many as 50 million households, a classic big-Government approach to poverty reduction. Dikshit, the Congress spokesman, says that Rahul is closer in philosophy to Congress traditionalists like his mother than to pro-market reformers like his late father.
The economics and maybe even the politics of garibi hatao seem like an archaism in an era when several hundred million Indians belong to the middle class and several hundred million more aspire to join it. But Rahul may simply not be very invested in that debate. His model is an unrelated Gandhi: the great Mahatma. Rahul has said that he is inspired by Gandhi’s doctrine of selfless action; he has set himself a task of Gandhian renewal. In 2007, Rahul became head of the Indian Youth Congress, just as his father and uncle had before him. The Youth Congress had become a kind of training ground for the vast patronage operation that was the Congress party. Rajiv and Sanjay had been quite content to work with the materials before them; Rahul was not. He would turn the Youth Congress into a meritocracy a breathtakingly ambitious project in a country where virtually everything operates by bribery and connections.
Rahul threw himself into this crusade with a reformer’s passion and an almost touching faith in modern management skills. In 2006, Manicka Tagore, a Youth Congress official, was preparing for elections in Uttar Pradesh when he and 40 or so leaders were called to a meeting with Rahul in Delhi. They expected to introduce themselves they always introduced themselves but Rahul said they needn’t take the time. “You will be judged by your performance,” he said, “not who you are.” He used a laptop to lay out their tasks; that, too, was new. “He said that our work would be measurable,” Tagore recalls. “We had never before heard this word in politics. We worked day and night; nobody measured what we did. And then after 25 minutes, the meeting was over. It was like a dream.” This was Rahul half Gandhi and half Peter Drucker. And he succeeded: All told, Rahul brought 10 million new members into the Youth Congress.
One Congress leader told me he wished that Rahul had taken a Government Ministry “to demonstrate that he could get results.” Singh would have given Rahul just about any Ministry he wanted, but he never asked. Rahul believes that Ministers operating out of air-conditioned offices in Delhi just don’t get it. He once said, “Until a leader drinks the dirty water from wells in their homes and falls ill, he will not understand anything about poverty.”
The disdain is mutual, and Rahul is widely mocked as a political novice with no actual feel for the grassroots. He played a prominent role in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, and the party not only held on to power but did better than expected. He seemed, briefly, like the man for the moment. But in 2010, after Rahul barnstormed across Bihar, a huge and deeply impoverished State in the northeast, Congress won just four out of 243 seats in the State assembly. In Uttar Pradesh, the Gandhis’ home State and once the party’s heartland, Rahul played an even more central role in last year’s State elections, yet Congress finished fourth, gaining six seats to end up with just 28 of 403 seats. Because Gandhis are not permitted to fail, party officials publicly exonerated Rahul of all blame. (To be continued)
(James Traub is a fellow of the Center on International Cooperation.)