Rahul Gandhi will lead the ruling Congress party’s campaign for parliamentary elections due within 18 months, signaling the elevation of the latest member of India’s famed political dynasty.
Congress President Sonia Gandhi appointed her son Rahul, 42, to head a six-member panel that will formulate and implement alliances, the manifesto and publicity ahead of the 2014 poll, the party said in a statement issued yesterday.
“It’s a clear indication that eventually he will lead the party and will become prime minister if Congress comes to power,” said Sanjay Kumar, a New Delhi-based analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. “He has become the mascot of the party for the election and will play a more decisive role.”
Manmohan Singh, India’s 80-year-old prime minister, will look to Gandhi to help resurrect the government’s fortunes after being dogged for almost two years by corruption allegations, a faltering economy and plunging popularity. Flunking a major leadership test, Congress was routed into fourth place in May elections in Uttar Pradesh state after Rahul Gandhi took charge of the party’s campaign.
Gandhi’s family have dominated Congress and Indian politics since freedom from British rule in 1947. Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s great-grandfather and independence movement hero, became the country’s first prime minister. He was followed by his daughter, Indira Gandhi, and her son, Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul’s father. Both were assassinated, Indira while still in office, bringing comparisons with the Kennedy family.
“A lot of people think that the Nehru-Gandhi name brings some sort of magic,” said B.G. Verghese, an analyst with the Center for Policy Research and a former aide to Indira Gandhi, in a phone interview in New Delhi before yesterday’s announcement. “The great problem we have in India is of nostalgia when we should be looking to the future. I don’t think Gandhi is a man of ideas.”
Since being elected to parliament eight years ago, Rahul Gandhi has kept a low profile giving few major speeches and declining requests to join Singh’s government. If Congress were to win the 2014 election, senior party figures have said they’d press Gandhi to become prime minister.
While he was one of four senior Congress members handed control of the party while Sonia Gandhi had surgery overseas in August last year, an illness the family has refused to discuss, Rahul Gandhi now faces a far greater challenge in seeking to win back support for a party hit by a series of graft claims and presiding over a slowing economy.
Indian industrial production unexpectedly fell in September and the trade deficit widened to a record last month as exports declined, adding to signs that Asia’s third-largest economy is struggling.
When he has spoken Gandhi has focused on issues facing India’s poor and how to make economic growth more inclusive, throwing his weight behind a bill to raise compensation for farmers’ land when it’s acquired for industry or roads. Even with Gandhi’s backing, the proposals remain mired in ministerial debate.
Gandhi “has been maintaining a scam-free, pro-poor image, working silently to modernize and democratize the party, building his own team,” said Rasheed Kidwai, author of the book “Sonia: A Biography.”
Singh in September began his biggest policy push in a decade, opening the retail and aviation industries to foreign investment, raising diesel prices and cutting tax on Indian companies borrowing abroad in a bid to revive a stalled agenda. He followed that up in October with proposals to allow greater overseas holdings in the pensions and insurance industries, and an overhaul of his Cabinet.
Opposition lawmakers have pledged to counter many of the reforms when parliament reconvenes Nov. 22.
While he has been groomed to lead Congress since entering parliament in 2004, Gandhi hasn’t announced his views on key issues such as the global economic slowdown, foreign policy or ways to combat corruption, according to Verghese.
Author and Times of India columnist Santosh Desai said in September the presence of a Gandhi at the top of the Congress provided a degree of certainty to a broad-based party whose constituents often have little else in common.
Still, “It’s a fading legacy that holds the party together by necessity,” Desai said at the release of a new book on Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi.