India's Gandhi family is a dynasty on the rocks

The Nehru-Gandhi family's star power is at its lowest point after a historic trouncing in the national election. The Congress Party is mulling an end to dynastic politics.

Adnan Abidi/Reuters
Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi (C), her son and vice-president of Congress Rahul Gandhi and India's outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (R) attend the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting in New Delhi May 19, 2014. India's Congress party suffered its most humiliating defeat in the national election in May. Both party chief Sonia Gandhi and her son and heir apparent, Rahul, have accepted responsibility for the loss.

India’s most powerful political dynasty, the Nehru-Gandhi family, is at its nadir after a historic trouncing in this spring’s national election.

On Tuesday, the Gandhi-family led Congress Party was denied its request to lead the opposition in parliament, since the party couldn’t muster the minimum 10 percent of seats necessary for a formal opposition role. It won only 44 seats out of 543 parliament seats in May while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi, swept to victory, winning the first outright majority in India’s parliament since 1984.

That added to other recent humiliations for the Gandhis like the publication of a tell-all book by a former Gandhi family supporter and a lawsuit over newspaper ownership that dragged family leaders Sonia and Rahul Gandhi into court. 

The iconic family – producer of three dominant Indian prime ministers, including the country's first – has overcome obstacles before. But the depth of defeat this time has sparked a quiet, but widespread debate within the Congress Party over whether it’s time to look beyond dynastic politics.

'Poor leadership'

After the devastating election result in May, Sonia Gandhi – the family matriarch and party head – commissioned a team to explain the failure.

Last week the the team released its conclusions: defeat was due to a spate of corruption scandals, poor handling of economy, infighting in the party, and poor leadership. But the report rejected any specific blame for Ms. Gandhi or her son, Rahul. 

But while her appointed team didn't take that step, more and more party members are daring to say that Sonia and Rahul are the ones holding the party back.  

For years now Mr. Gandhi's mother has been grooming Rahul for high office. But he seems to have inherited few political skills.

Though seen as well-intentioned, Rahul remains a reluctant leader. He chose to never run a government office during his party's years in power, and refused to call himself a candidate for prime minister this spring. In parliament he usually sits in the back bench, and has never asked a question in his ten years as an MP. Critics question his political acumen and accuse of him of blindly following his party managers.

“Rahul treated the party like a lab,” says Gufran Azam, a former Congress Party leader. “He did immature experiments which eventually led to our fall.”

Sister better than brother?

But others aren’t willing to look beyond the family yet. Some Congress leaders openly praise Rahul’s sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, calling her a charismatic and intuitive leader and demanding that she take up a more active role.

Though Ms. Vadra didn't campaign much during the election – she is a housewife who has never held elected office – she led a fierce attack on Mr. Modi during the election that dominated media headlines for days.

“Around 70 per cent of the country’s population is under 40. It would be good if two young people [Rahul and Priyanka] lead the party. They complement each other,” says senior Congress leader Amarinder Singh.

Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar says that everyone in the party desires Priyanka’s involvement and that many see in her qualities of her grandmother, Indira Gandhi

“It would be utterly wrong for any of us to preempt Priyanka's life,” said Mani. “That decision would be entirely up to her. She knows where her duty lies.”

The road ahead 

In the immediate future, the Gandhi family will need to battle a declining public image. Former external affairs minister K. Natwar Singh, once one of Sonia’s closest confidants, published a recent book describing her as "authoritarian, obsessively secretive and suspicious.” 

Sonia says that she will write her own book to tell her side of the story.

A court case brought by a BJP leader put a further spotlight on the family. Sonia and Rahul appeared in a Delhi court in early August for alleged cheating and misappropriation of funds in acquiring ownership in 2010 of the now-defunct newspaper National Herald. The Congress Party calls the case a political vendetta. 

Personal criticism aside, what is more worrying for the Gandhis is that not only has the party lost votes in many key states, it is also losing the support of minorities like Muslims, Adivasis (indigenous peoples of India), and Dalits (formerly called 'untouchables') to regional parties.

Young party leaders like Sachin Pilot, a minister in the previous government, are suggesting a complete overhaul of the party at the grassroots level. “What we need is a shake up from top to bottom," Mr. Pilot told The Week magazine. “We may not be numerically very strong [in parliament], but the party worker is still out there. People who are rooted in electoral realities should be heard.”

Unless the party rebuilds its base among these groups and regains its momentum it’s likely to further decline. "There is no doubt that we are facing a tough time,” says Saif-ud-Din Soz, a senior Congress Party leader. “But we are going to make a come back as we did in the past.”  

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