The Reluctant Prince of India's Political Dynasty and His Anticampaign

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi at the district collector's office on April 12 in Amethi, India Photograph by Arun Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Whither the House of Gandhi?

The Nehru-Gandhi family has dominated Indian politics since the nation’s independence in 1947, but it now faces a walloping at the polls, possibly its worst ever. While voting in national elections won’t be finished until next month, every indication is the Congress Party—for which a Gandhi presides as president and vice president—will lose the prime minister’s seat and watch its share of parliament thin considerably.

The face of that probable political calamity is Rahul Gandhi, a 43-year-old, good-looking Cambridge man who speaks of the need for a more inclusive political process. And as I’ve heard more than one liberal, middle-class Indian acknowledge with regret in their voices, he’s not much of a public politician.

“My grandmother and father were assassinated, and tomorrow I may also get killed. But I just don’t care” —Rahul Gandhi

Gandhi’s lineage contains a near-Shakespearean narrative of blood and politics: Great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru was independent India’s first prime minister (the family is not related to Mahatma Gandhi); grandmother Indira Gandhi was twice prime minister, oversaw a crackdown on civil liberties after her government declared an “emergency” in 1975, and was shot to death in 1984; father Rajiv served as prime minister and was later assassinated by a suicide bomber in 1991.

In January 2013, the ruling Congress Party named Gandhi its vice president. His mother Sonia, the Italian-born widow of Rajiv, is the party’s president. Rahul Gandhi stood at a podium before party leadership and gave his inaugural speech:

“Everybody congratulated me, but last night my mother came to my room, and she sat with me, and she cried. Why did she cry? She cried because she understands that the power so many people seek is actually a poison. … The only antidote to this poison is for all of us to see it for what it really is and not become attached to it. We should not chase power for the attributes of power; we should only use it to empower the voiceless.”

“I saw the people I loved be destroyed by this system,” Gandhi noted in a televised interview earlier this year.

The soul searching is compelling and powerful. It is at times accompanied by an almost stream-of-conscious telling of details—such as coming home as a teenager to find his grandmother’s blood—that create an atmosphere but do not exactly scream for votes.

Which would be OK, except that Rahul Gandhi is presumed to be Congress’s candidate for prime minister. That wiggle word, “presumed,” is necessary because while he is leading the party’s national campaign, Gandhi has stopped short of naming himself a candidate for prime minister, citing the procedural formalities of the position being appointed by parliament.

His reluctance is contrasted with the front runner, Narendra Modi, a charismatic man from a nationalist Hindu party. Modi, the thickly built son of a tea seller, has made his desire to be prime minister quite clear. He has taken to referring to Gandhi as shahzada, or prince.

In that television interview above, Gandhi several times referred to himself in the third person and argued that the political debate has missed the larger problem of the need to change the way governance works in India. The interviewer pressed Gandhi on whether he is, in his heart of hearts, a politician. Perhaps the situation has been thrust on him by the family into which he was born? Had he not been a Gandhi, would he have been a politician at all?

Rahul Gandhi paused, looked down, pursed his lips, and said, “Maybe, um, maybe you find me strange.”

He continued: “Maybe you find me—I look like an anomaly in the environment I’m in, maybe that’s what you’re saying, and frankly, in a lot of ways, I am an anomaly in the environment I’m in.”

For him, Gandhi said once more, power is a tool for helping people, not something to seek to own. As for the question about family, politics, and destiny, Gandhi did not give a complete answer.

Whatever comes of the election—Gandhi has struck a more defiant tone in recent comments, saying not to count Congress out despite the opinion polls—some observers of the clan are already looking ahead. Rahul has a sister, Priyanka, and she looks a good deal like her grandmother.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.