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Congress party vice president Rahul Gandhi with senior party leaders arrives to file his nomination papers at the party headquarters, New Delhi, India, Dec. 4, 2017 (AP photo by Manish Swarup).

Rahul Gandhi’s Ascendance to Head India’s Congress Reflects a Bankrupt Party

Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017

On Dec. 4, Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India’s dynastic Gandhi-Nehru family, submitted forms to take over the leadership of the Indian National Congress party from his mother, Sonia Gandhi. Later this month, he is set to become the sixth member of his family to head the party. Since suffering a defeat in the 2014 elections to the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, Congress’ popularity has fallen to the lowest point in its long and storied history. In an email interview, Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science and Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington, describes what the young Gandhi’s stewardship means for Congress’ future, and why India’s broader political opposition looks ill-equipped to take on the powerful, Hindu nationalist BJP.

WPR: What did Rahul Gandhi’s elevation to head the Congress party signal about the state of the party and its prospects for the future?

Sumit Ganguly: It demonstrates the stranglehold of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. There seems to be a pervasive belief within the party that the Gandhi name is a sure-fire way to get votes, even though the available evidence points to the contrary. More to the point, it also suggests that the party stalwarts believe that there is no other individual who has a nationwide following. This, of course, veers on becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you do not allow anyone other than a member of that family to seize the reins of the party at the national level, you will never have a leader of truly national stature with nationwide name recognition. It also highlights a profound propensity for sycophancy within the party. Apart from this family cult, the party for the most part is bereft of ideological coherence. Congress provides an anemic defense of secularism; it is loath to wholly embrace economic liberalization; it has supported a range of welfare-like policies of uneven efficacy; and was implicated in stratospheric corruption scandals during its last term in office as head of the governing United Progressive Alliance that ended in 2014. Given its abject lack of leadership combined with the hollowing out of its ideological core, it is hard to see how Congress can be a viable source of opposition to the BJP.

WPR: What is the status of India’s broader political opposition outside the Congress party?

Ganguly: The opposition, for the most part, is in disarray. The communist parties are engaged in internecine political conflict, and their ideology has increasingly diminishing appeal. Their membership, as a consequence, is waning. In 2011, the communist parties lost one of their key bastions: the state of West Bengal, which they had ruled—or misruled, for the most part—for over 30 years. The other sources of opposition, other than Congress, primarily stem from regional parties scattered across the country. Some of them have proven to be quite opportunistic and have evinced, on occasion, a willingness to work with the BJP. Their concerns are primarily local and regional, and consequently it is difficult for them to forge a common basis of opposition to the BJP at the national level. Congress—the only nationwide opposition party worth its name—is beset with its own problems, as mentioned.

WPR: Why has the opposition failed to challenge the BJP’s dominance, and is there an opportunity for a coalition of forces that can pose a serious challenge?

Ganguly: The Congress party is bereft of astute and capable leadership, coalesced around one family and shamelessly sycophantic, so it does not seem ready to fashion a nationwide set of alliances to take on the BJP. Also, potential coalition partners have their own parochial concerns that may not readily dovetail with Congress’ interests. Furthermore, unless economic growth stalls significantly or serious corruption scandals come to light, a significant number of voters will prefer to stick with the BJP, as a known devil is preferable to its alternatives. On the other hand, some of the BJP’s initiatives—most notably the clumsily fashioned goods and services tax implemented this year—remain unpopular. If employment figures do not dramatically improve despite reasonable economic growth, and if vigilante actions against minorities continue apace, it may be possible for the Congress party to capitalize on these grievances in conjunction with some regional parties and offer some challenge to the BJP in the 2019 elections.