Looming Rahul Rise Tests Gandhi Grip on India Before Vote

Nobody among India’s 1.2 billion people has been groomed to run Asia’s third-biggest economy more than Rahul Gandhi. Whether he wants to follow his father, grandmother and great-grandfather in doing so remains unclear.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 81, signaled last week that Gandhi, 43, would replace him if their Congress party extends its decade-long rule in elections due by May. While Gandhi has turned down Cabinet posts and seen few successes leading campaigns in state elections since becoming party vice president last January, his last name remains the key unifying force in the 128-year-old organization run by his mother, Sonia Gandhi.

“It’s about who he is, not what he’s accomplished,” said Sudha Pai, the author of seven books on Indian politics and a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, named after Rahul’s great-grandfather, an independence hero. “Gandhi may enthuse the cadres and bring the party together better than anyone else can, but it won’t enable it to win more seats in the election.”

Rahul faces a challenge convincing voters he’ll be different than Singh, a former finance minister whom Sonia Gandhi picked to run the government in 2004. Party policies to boost rural wages have also spurred Asia’s highest inflation and slowing growth, leaving Congress behind in opinion polls to the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party months before the vote.

‘Troubled Economy’

“If we get a person like Rahul Gandhi who has not really shown any cognizance of the private sector or investment climate, an already troubled economy could be in trouble,” said Rajiv Kumar, former chief executive officer of the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, whose board includes an economic adviser to Singh and executives from Indian companies such as Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd. and ICICI Bank Ltd. “It’s dangerous to think he could drive the economy without giving due attention to the drivers of growth.”

In campaign speeches for state elections held last year, Rahul said opposition parties don’t care about the poor because they asked how the government would pay for programs to provide cheap food and medical insurance. India’s budget deficit in the first eight months of the fiscal year beginning April 1 reached 94 percent of the target, adding to concerns the country’s credit rating would be downgraded to so-called junk status.

Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime minister candidate, has contrasted the faltering national economy with higher-than-average growth rates in Gujarat, the western India state he has run since 2001. He has also lambasted Rahul Gandhi, saying voters should prevent the country from being ruled on the “whims of a prince.”


While Gandhi’s last name opens him up for attack, the Congress party risks falling apart due to infighting if he doesn’t take the reins, said Subrata Mukherjee, a retired professor of political science. Possible alternatives -- including Defense Minister A.K. Antony, Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram or parliamentary speaker Meira Kumar -- would struggle to hold the party together, he said.

“Congress is a monarchy -- there is no second leadership and that’s why Gandhi is such an obvious choice for prime minister,” he said. “If there were any real doubt, it would be devastating to the campaign.”

Voting will probably be held throughout the country in phases from mid-April to early May, the Press Trust of India reported yesterday, citing unidentified sources in the Election Commission. It did not mention a day for counting the votes.

‘Great Leader’

Rahul Gandhi has the potential, talent and vision to lead India, and Congress’s rank and file want him named as the prime minister candidate before the election, Shakeel Ahmad, a general secretary of the party, said when asked about criticism that Rahul lacks experience. The party will hold a meeting of senior leaders from across the country on Jan. 17.

“He has a very strong image -- the image of a great leader,” Ahmad said of Rahul. “As a prime ministerial candidate he will able to galvanize party workers and boost their morale. He is the need of the hour for Congress party.”

Kanishka Singh, Rahul Gandhi’s personal assistant, didn’t answer two calls to his mobile phone yesterday.

Since he was first elected to parliament in 2004, Rahul Gandhi has faced high expectations. His great-grandfather was Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. Indira Gandhi, his grandmother, led the country for more than 15 years before her assassination in 1984.

Harvard, Cambridge

She was succeeded by Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul’s father, who lost power in 1989 and was killed by a suicide bomber two years later. Sonia Gandhi, Rahul’s mother, became president of the party in 1998, a post she still retains.

Rahul Gandhi attended Harvard University until his father’s death, and then switched to Rollins College in Florida “ostensibly due to security concerns,” according to “Decoding Rahul Gandhi,” a biography by Aarthi Ramachandran. He later attended Cambridge University, the book said.

As a lawmaker, Rahul has kept a low profile, giving fewer parliamentary speeches than other party leaders and declining Singh’s requests to join the government. He has spent his time developing the party’s ground organization, and introduced elections in its youth wing.

“I always felt that our government would have been strengthened if Rahul Gandhi was part of the government, but Rahul felt he had responsibility to the party, which did not permit him to join the government,” Singh said, adding that Gandhi had “outstanding credentials.”

Election Losses

That has yet to translate into success at the polls. Since 2009, when Rahul Gandhi helped Congress win a second five-year term and started playing a larger role in campaigns, the party has lost 17 of 29 elections in states and union territories that account for most of the seats in India’s parliament.

Last month, Congress lost four state elections to the BJP, sending the country’s benchmark stock index to an all-time high as investors bet on the ouster of a government that has overseen the slowest growth in a decade. Standing by his mother afterward, Rahul told reporters the party “would involve people in ways that you cannot even imagine now.”

The Gandhi family has suppressed regional leaders to maintain control over the party, making it unlikely any big changes will take place, according to Ramachandran, who wrote the biography of Rahul.

“Although Rahul has talked about changing the party’s structure, it’s virtually impossible for him to dismantle it without undercutting his own family’s power,” she said by phone.

Singh Rebuke

While Gandhi has avoided hot-button issues such as a border dispute with Pakistan and forming a new state in southern India, he made a splash in September when he denounced a Cabinet resolution allowing convicted lawmakers to retain their seats. Singh was forced to retract the order while rebuffing calls to resign over the public rebuke.

Instead of brandishing his anti-corruption credentials as party officials proclaimed, his opponents saw it as more evidence that Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have been calling the shots for the last decade.

“The mother and son have been running the government by proxy anyway,” said GVL Narasimha Rao, a member of the BJP’s panel on election reforms. “Rahul’s taking over will not make a substantial difference.”

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