India’s Rahul Gandhi Vows Battle While Avoiding SpotlightBibhudatta Pradhan and Andrew MacAskill
India’s Rahul Gandhi pledged a fight to retain power in elections due by May while avoiding the pressure of being named as the Congress Party’s official prime ministerial candidate as it faces a resurgent opposition.
The scion of India’s foremost political dynasty said his party remains popular as it had implemented policies that empowered the poor since taking power in Asia’s third-biggest economy a decade ago. Opinion polls show Congress losing to the Bharatiya Janata Party, with both falling short of a majority.
“We will go into this battle as warriors with our heads held high,” Gandhi told Congress leaders from around the country yesterday as they chanted “Long Live Rahul Gandhi.” “We will fight with everything we have within us.”
The party’s decision to avoid projecting Gandhi as its next head of government came as leaders met to devise a strategy to head off a challenge from Narendra Modi, the prime minister candidate declared by the BJP. Under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government, backed by the Gandhis, India faces the risk of a credit-rating downgrade as inflation remains elevated and economic growth lingers near a 10-year low.
“It is too late for a course correction, and this attempt by Rahul Gandhi is unlikely to be fruitful,” said A.S. Narang, professor of political science at the New Delhi-based Indira Gandhi National Open University. “The tone and tenor is part of the election theatrics.”
Gandhi said elected members of parliament will choose the prime minister according to the country’s constitution if Congress retains power. President Sonia Gandhi on Jan. 16 rejected calls from party executives to name Rahul as the formal prime ministerial candidate.
The move irked some members of the party, which the Gandhi family has controlled most of the time since India won independence from Britain in 1947.
“I am disappointed 100 percent,” said Vikas Upadhyay, 34, a party leader from Chhattisgarh state in eastern India. “People want transparency in politics. It would be better to project a young, dynamic prime minister against Modi.”
Congress made a tactical choice to avoid naming Rahul as its candidate to protect him in a difficult election, according to Satish Misra, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation, a policy group based in New Delhi.
“They don’t want to put Gandhi’s image at risk when Congress is facing one of its worst battles in history,” Misra said. “It will not make a huge difference as they have made it clear that Rahul Gandhi will be the prime minister if the party retains power.”
The rupee rose 0.6 percent this week to 61.5500 per dollar in Mumbai, the biggest gain since the five days through Dec. 6. The currency was little changed yesterday. The S&P BSE Sensex retreated 1 percent to 21,063.62 at the close, the most since Jan. 2. For the week, the index rose 1.5 percent.
At a packed stadium yesterday, about 4,000 party leaders and workers shouted for Rahul to be announced as the prime ministerial candidate. In his speech, the 43-year-old Gandhi vowed to bring “new blood and thought” to the party while promising to tighten anti-corruption laws, provide cheap cooking gas and improve facilities for health and education.
Politicians from the Hindu-nationalist BJP, which began a three-day meeting starting on Jan. 17, mocked the ruling party.
“Congress is clueless on what they want to do,” Rajiv Pratap Rudy, a BJP leader and former government minister, said by phone. “It’s a lost battle for them.”
Gandhi’s family has dominated Congress and Indian politics for more than six decades, and he’s faced high expectations since he was first elected to parliament in 2004.
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.
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 has been Congress president since 1998.
“The Congress party is putting this distraction of candidacy behind them and moving on,” said B.G. Verghese, a political analyst at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. “They have a tremendous campaign advantage in being able to lead a government and pass legislation that could sway voters in the months before the election. Let’s see if they use that advantage.”