By Mihir Sharma
Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg View columnist.
In what must be one of the least surprising election results in history, India’s venerable Congress Party has elected Rahul Gandhi as its next leader. Gandhi will succeed his mother, the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi. His father was also Congress president. So was his grandmother, his great-grandfather and even his great-great-grandfather, Motilal Nehru, back in 1919.
Many would say that Rahul is the least capable of the lot. This is, in my opinion, unfair: After all, his grandmother Indira was quite unsuitable as a leader, descending into paranoid tyranny, while his father Rajiv had a terrible run as prime minister marked by religious riots, pandering to extremists and massive overspending. But, unfair or not, Rahul Gandhi, in his quest to revive India’s moribund opposition, will indeed be faced with one great challenge: his own public image. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, through artful propaganda and years of maliciously edited videos, memes and forwards, has transformed the Gandhi scion into something of a joke — the bumbling dynast who can neither speak coherently nor reason cogently.
Some doubts have begun to emerge about the truth of that image. A series of sober conversations between Rahul and Indian students at U.S. universities earlier this year helped alter public perceptions a bit. And, in recent weeks, the Gandhi-led election campaign in the western Indian state of Gujarat has proved surprisingly effective.
In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who is from Gujarat himself — seems quite irked by how fierce the contest has been there. Most recently, Modi wildly accused his predecessor Manmohan Singh, a former army chief, four former ambassadors and a former vice-president of conspiring with Pakistan at a secret dinner in New Delhi. The purpose of the conspiracy? To take over Gujarat and install a Muslim as chief minister there. Few would have thought that a Gandhi-led campaign would ever have gotten such a rise out of the preternaturally confident Modi.
Congress’ skilled campaign in Gujarat could not come at a better time for Gandhi’s career; it means that there is considerably less mockery attending his elevation than there would have been otherwise. Still, one good campaign — and that too in a cause that is almost certainly a losing one — is hardly a sign that India’s oldest political party is closer to being revived.
It’s worth noting exactly how under siege Gandhi’s party is. It runs just two of India’s big states and has less than a tenth of the seats in the lower house of India’s Parliament. Worse, it has no story to tell. Once it was the party of nationalism, of the future, of development and reform, of the poor. All these mantles have instead been taken up by Modi.
To what extent can Rahul develop a convincing counter-narrative to the one Modi’s created over his time in office? Can he capitalize on the government’s failures of administration, such as the error-ridden introduction of the new goods-and-services tax? Can he transform Congress into an umbrella for all those dissatisfied with the government’s inability to create jobs? Unfortunately for the party, all these questions are subordinate to one other: Is Rahul’s own image now so toxic that Modi will win by default, however poorly he performs?
It’s futile to wonder if the Congress will wake up and dump the Gandhis, replacing them with more capable leaders. The truth is that only the presence of the Gandhis keeps the Congress together at all; in a country as diverse as India, centrifugal forces in politics are so strong that national parties tend to break up. To lose the Gandhis would be to lose Congress altogether — and without Congress, there is simply no national opposition to Modi’s BJP.
But to hold the party together means having to deal with the reality that Rahul Gandhi is in charge. And while Gandhi is certainly not the idiot he’s been portrayed as being, he’s far from being a natural politician. Nor is he the sort of policy wonk who can dazzle audiences with his preparedness for the government. Why would anyone vote for him?
That’s the central dilemma facing Congress going forward. I believe there’s only one way out of it — the same solution that his mother found. One person — a Gandhi — runs the party and another, the government. The Congress has found a successor to Sonia Gandhi. Rahul should be looking around for a successor to Manmohan Singh.
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