Rahul Gandhi: End of the Line?

Oil painting of Rahul Gandhi. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Rahul Gandhi submitted a thousand-word letter of resignation as president of the Congress Party of India on 3 July.

Two questions arise: “Is this for real?” and “Why has it taken so long?”

In May, the Congress won only 55 seats in a house of 542 and 20 per cent of the vote in the general elections to India’s lower house of parliament. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was re-elected with an increased majority – 303 seats in their own right and 353 including allied parties. The BJP won 37 per cent of the votes.

Rahul, 49, is easily depicted as someone born with a silver sceptre in his hands. His mother Sonia Gandhi, 72, is the former President of the Congress Party. She is the Italian-born wife of deceased Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was the son of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was the daughter of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. From his early twenties, Rahul has been projected as the future leader of the Congress.

Rajiv Indira and Sanjay Gandhi
Indira Gandhi with sons Rajiv Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Why has Rahul’s resignation taken so long?

Outsiders often ask why the relatives of Jawaharlal Nehru are still central in Indian politics 55 years after his death. Families in politics are not uniquely Indian – witness Bush, Clinton and Trudeau. Growing up with politics gives a person networks and confidence, and the family name provides widespread recognition.

Name recognition has been more important in India than in other democracies. Until 20 years ago, movie stardom or the name of a hero of the independence movement was the most effective trademarks for India-wide recognition. Today, the trademark names of  “Congress,” “Gandhi” or “Nehru” is like the “Fried” in what was once “Kentucky Fried Chicken” – no longer an asset

Mobile phones have changed that. Today, India is a country of 350 million smartphone subscribers, more than 1,000 million mobile subscribers and 400 million regular internet users. Hundreds of millions of Indians now interact with the world in ways impossible 15 years ago.

The elections of 2014 and 2019 have shown how the latest media, used skillfully by a vast, disciplined organization, make a formidable machine. The BJP organization was bigger and stronger, and its extensive media capacity meshed cleverly with its on-the-ground workers.

Rahul Gandhi is a charming, well-informed man. But there has long been a sense that he was a reluctant politician who would rather be somewhere else doing other things. His letter of resignation may, therefore, express a genuine desire to get off the unrelenting hamster wheel of politics.

During the recent election campaign, for example, the 69-year-old prime minister out-travelled and out-rallied the 49-year-old contender, according to a scoresheet kept by the Times of India. The Prime Minister racked up 25 more rallies and 10,000 more kilometres.

WIth Rahul Gandhi
Rahul Gandhi during an election campaign. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Part of the explanation for the difference was money. In the old days when it was in government, Congress was the moneybags party. That advantage now lies with the BJP and Narendra Modi, who has cultivated a reputation as a friend of big business. Money makes travel easy and pays for rallies and the expenses of the people who organize them. Congress now is short of both workers and funds.

Money is also one of the reasons offered when people ask why an Italian woman and her son (and daughter Priyanka) have remained so central to Indian politics for nearly 30 years. As early as 1991, soon after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, a well-connected Indian editor repeated “persistent rumours … that Mrs Sonia Gandhi alone has access to vast cached funds that a party with an empty kitty desperately needs.” (Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, “War of Succession. Sonia’s Only Role in Politics,” Statesman Weekly, 7 September 1991, p. 11).

If money is a cynical explanation for the persistence of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul, idealism and love of country are another. This version holds that after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991, senior leaders of the Congress convinced that the Gandhi name was crucial for electoral success, begged her to lead the party. With heavy heart, this version goes, she consented. As her health declined, Rahul dutifully took up the baton.

Is the resignation for real?

Jawaharlal Nehru’s descendants have often professed renunciation of, and reticence about, high office. After his death, Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi was brought into the government, even though she held no elected position. Her connections were formidable: she had run her father’s household for most of his 17 years in office. Party men felt they needed the family connection to attract voters.

Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul’s father, claimed to have been reluctant to come into politics to help mother after Indira returned to power in 1980. Rahul’s mother, Sonia, was said to have urged her husband not to leave his job as an airline pilot and disrupt a happy family life.

Sonia, however, had a political training comparable to Indira Gandhi’s own. She and Rajiv lived much of their married life in the prime minister’s house, and Sonia was there when Indira was murdered in her own garden in 1984. Once Rajiv became prime minister, Sonia was near the centre of political storms from the mid-1980s. Nevertheless, she professed reluctance to take on Congress responsibilities after her husband’s assassination in 1991.

Rahul Gandhi Sonia Gandhi 380 PTI
Rahul Gandhi with mother Sonia Gandhi. Courtesy: PTI

By 1993, however, she was clearly engaged in political struggles, and by 1998 had displaced the former prime minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao, and got rid of the party president, Sitaram Kesri. As Congress president, she was the wire-puller for the two-term Congress governments of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from 2004 to 2014. Adversaries belittled him as a puppet.

It’s fair to speculate about how genuine Rahul’s recent resignation is. A flock of party leaders have followed him in “resigning” from various party posts. Journalists do not rule out the possibility that most of them will come flocking back after making pledges to commit themselves to renewal, to work at the grassroots, to foster internal party democracy and so on.

Nor has Rahul’s younger sister, Priyanka, 47, resigned from her position as a general secretary of the Congress, in spite of having had responsibility for the party’s election campaign in much of Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s largest state. The Congress won only one seat out of 80 in UP, that of Sonia Gandhi. Rahul lost Amethi, long a family stronghold, by more than 50,000 votes. “If a Gandhi failed to flourish there,” a correspondent of the Economist wrote in 2011, “he would be in trouble” (Economist, 19 November 2011, p. 30). Priyanka chose not to contest at all.

Rahul has announced that he intends to stay in politics as a devoted foot-soldier of the Congress to combat the BJP vision of an ultra-nationalist, Hinduized India.

If the party does choose a new president, Rahul’s presence as “devoted foot-soldier,” is unlikely to be much comfort. The new leader will be portrayed by opponents as a puppet.

If the past is anything to go by, it may be quite an accurate portrayal.