Can Gandhi heirs revive dynasty?

With national elections expected this spring, India's faltering Congress Party is banking on a new generation of Gandhis.

Boom times are terrible times for opposition politicians, even if you have the benefit of a good name.

So consider the case of Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi. The 30-something children of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, grandchildren of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and great-grandchildren of India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru could be presumed to have the sort of pedigree advantages of people like Prince Charles or George W. Bush.

But in the seven years that have passed since the Congress Party was last in power, most of the indicators have worked against these young up and comers. Under the watch of the Congress's chief rival, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the economy is booming at around 8 percent this quarter. Foreign investment is up and foreign exchange levels have reached a staggering $100 billion. Even foreign policy seems to be working to the BJP's advantage, with peace talks scheduled next month with Pakistan.

Like Reagan's Morning in America campaign, the BJP is mounting a feel-good campaign called "Shining India." For the Gandhi family, it's a challenging election season, but for political watchers, it's a sign that India has learned to live without the Gandhis and the Congress Party. Some observers say this latest generation of Gandhis may be India's last.

"The fact is that the Congress Party has been declining for decades," says Saeed Naqvi, a senior political columnist in New Delhi. "They don't have the heart for ruling. They're content with being members of parliament, with rallying around their working committees, with reclining against their sausage cushions. But when it comes to ideas, they have nothing to offer."

"Congress is in a state of funk," he continues. In recent offcycle elections Congress - led by Priyanka and Rahul's mother, Sonia Gandhi - lost three out of four contests to the BJP. "Now, are these kids going to rescue the party and run for parliament? They may be obliterated."

This week, India's ruling BJP announced plans to dissolve Parliament on Feb. 6, setting the stage for national parliamentary elections sometime within the next 45 days. Indian election officials say the election date is likely to be in April.

The announcement was not unexpected, but the political dealmaking has begun in earnest. Out in the countryside, villagers are seeing politicians once again, and hearing promises one hears every election cycle.

Siblings test the waters

Last week, Priyanka and her brother Rahul formally joined the Congress Party. While neither has yet announced a run for Parliament, both are clearly testing the waters. In Rae Bareli, a district seat held by the Gandhi family since the time of Nehru, the siblings visited a women's self-help employment project.

Speaking with the Indian magazine Outlook, Priyanka tested the same message likely to be echoed by Congress candidates nationwide: the economic boom has benefited only the rich; the vast majority of India's population, the rural poor, remain unaffected.

"What kind of development are we talking about?" she asked the reporter. "Although I have no locus standi [standing] to say anything at all on the issue, it still is very shameful to see leaking thatched huts, people without jobs or without enough to eat. You can see yourself how good anyone can feel here."

Down in his own electoral district in Tamil Nadu, the senior Congress ideologue Mani Shankar Iyer also campaigned on the failings of the BJP's boom.

The boom times are a recent phenomenon, he says, noting that during six years of BJP rule, the performance of India's gross domestic product has been "dreadful," at around 5 percent or less.

India's ability to feed itself has also diminished, with a per capita daily availability of food grain dropping 100 grams. The new total of 380 grams per day compared to the minimum requirement of 500 grams stipulated by the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad.

A top-heavy boom?

More important than growth figures, he adds, is the question of the BJP's priorities. All the benefits of the BJP boom have gone to the upper middle class and rich, he says, leaving out 70 percent of India's population.

As an example, he points to a recent job advertisement by the Indian Railways for 20,000 new low-level jobs. Even though the job called for hard manual labor, more than 5.5 million people applied, including college graduates, engineers, and doctors.

"This is the true face of Shining India," says Iyer. To rival the BJP slogan, Congress will fall back on an old favorite from Indira Gandhi's time. "Congress ka haath, ghareebon ke saath." (Congress's hand will be with the poor.)

But it is precisely such old values that could prove a disadvantage for Congress this election season, says Rajiv Bharqava, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. In this sense, trotting out the Gandhi children - reminders of a bygone era - presents both risks and rewards.

In an India of cellphones, software programming companies, and freer trade, Congress's old values may seem outdated, harking to a more isolated, socialistic nation. Yet among India's urban and rural poor, Congress was also a reliable friend, a party that promised and delivered largess, and was largely responsible for the green revolution that allows this country of 1 billion citizens to feed itself.

However, it was Rajiv Gandhi, Bharqava notes, who brought the first supercomputer to India in 1990, and Rajiv Gandhi's party that paved the way for the reforms that created the technology boom that have made Indian cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad rivals of the Silicon Valley. But it was also the Gandhi family that brought socialism to India, a system that created enormous regulatory barriers to businesses, both foreign and domestic.

"The entry of the Gandhi kids is to enthuse Congress's own people, to galvanize them," says Mr. Bharqava. But while he says that Congress has suffered from "low self belief" for a long time, he says he doesn't expect a major election sweep for the BJP this year. In fact, he says, the current election cycle may hurt the ruling BJP as much as it hurts Congress.

Perhaps recognizing Congress' advantage among the poor, the BJP has put forward a new pension scheme that would provide a monthly payout of just over $10 for those unable to afford their own savings plan. But Bharqava says that such strategies will be met with skepticism.

"The record will be pretty abysmal for all parties, the anti-incumbency factor will be strong," says Bharqava, predicting that both BJP and Congress will lose about 20 seats to smaller regional parties. "There is some truth that India's growth has not been for everybody. Only the larger metropolitan areas will care that the Indo-Pakistani talks have started, that the tech economy is booming, that computers are cheaper."

As for the Congress Party, he offers just this bit of hope. "I don't think they are going to fall apart just yet."

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