Rahul Gandhi said it was time to repair a broken system of governance in his first speech after being named deputy leader of Congress, an appointment that seeks to invigorate the ruling party ahead of next year’s election.
Gandhi, 42, was selected as Congress vice-president at a strategy meeting in Jaipur on Jan. 19, positioning the latest member of a famed political dynasty to lead the governing alliance into the poll. With 15 months until votes are cast, Gandhi must reverse the fortunes of a party that has been tainted by corruption charges, lost a succession of major state ballots and whose government is presiding over an economy poised to expand at the slowest pace in a decade.
“The time has come to question the centralized, unresponsive, unaccountable systems of decision-making,” Gandhi told his party yesterday in the capital of Rajasthan state. “There is a young and impatient India and it is demanding a greater voice in the nation’s future and they are not going to watch silently.”
Since being elected to parliament more than eight years ago, Gandhi has kept a low profile giving few speeches and declining requests to join the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In the biggest test so far of Gandhi’s leadership and star power, Congress managed only fourth place in May elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh after he took charge of the party’s campaign.
Opposition parties have pilloried Congress’s reliance on a family, who more than six decades ago helped deliver Indian independence and has provided the country with three prime ministers. Sonia Gandhi, Rahul’s mother, will continue as party president.
“This is an attempt to repackage the party before the election and distance it from the problems during this administration,” said Sandeep Shastri, a lecturer in politics at Jain University in Bangalore. “In the past, Rahul Gandhi has been reluctant to play a bigger role but now he’s going to have to become accountable for the direction he takes the party in.”
The announcement of Gandhi’s new role sparked celebrations and fireworks in Jaipur, led by members of the Congress youth wing, which Gandhi has headed for several years. Around half of India’s 1.2 billion people are under 25 years of age, a key demographic in the next election that a youthful leader like Gandhi may find it easier to tap into.
In an emotional 45-minute speech, Gandhi thanked the party for appointing him, stressed the need to eradicate corruption and said there should be a greater decentralization of power away from government. He talked about the assassination of his grandmother, former Premier Indira Gandhi, and how his mother cried in his hotel room the night before his appointment, warning him of the dangers of political power.
Gandhi said voters are fed up with “people who are corrupt talking about eradicating corruption, and people who disrespect women every day talking about women’s rights,” reflecting on two issues that have sparked street protests over the last 18 months.
Arun Jaitley, a leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, mocked Congress for its promotion of Gandhi, saying his abilities are untested and unproven. Jaitley said Gandhi was only being appointed because of his family name.
“The world’s largest democracy cannot be trusted to those whose actual potential we do not know, whose opinions on various subjects we do not know,” Jaitley said.
Gandhi’s vision for India remains unclear. He has failed to articulate his views on how to tackle corruption and whether he supports a greater role for foreign investment in the economy.
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 became mired in ministerial debate.
Gandhi’s decision to accept the new job is a “big development” as it sends a clear signal that he is ready to become prime minister if Congress wins the next general election that must be held at the latest in May 2014, said to Satish Misra, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
“Rahul has always appeared unsure of himself,” said Misra, who has been following Indian politics for the last three decades and has lived under all three prime ministers from the Gandhi-Nehru family. “It appears that he has pushed doubts about whether he is up to the job out of his mind.”
Gandhi’s family has 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.
Sonia Gandhi declined the opportunity to be prime minister in 2004 after leading Congress to election victory. Citing expected opposition attacks over her Italian ancestry, she instead opted to install Singh as premier.
Last year’s defeat in Uttar Pradesh is not the first time Gandhi has failed to shine during a provincial campaign. Elections in 2010 in Bihar, India’s third most populous state, also exposed the limits of Gandhi’s ability to draw votes. The party only managed to secure four seats in the local assembly.
Amid slower growth and with the fastest inflation in the BRIC group of major emerging markets, Singh’s management of Asia’s third-largest economy has come under attack.
“Our growth has definitely come down but not as much as in other countries of the world,” Singh said in a speech to party workers yesterday. “We are working hard to accelerate the pace of our growth.”
Author and Times of India columnist Santosh Desai said last year at the release of a new book on Rahul Gandhi that the presence of a member of the dynasty 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.