THE INDIAN NATIONAL CONGRESS is the grand old party of the world’s biggest democracy. Its president is Sonia Gandhi, the 74-year-old widow of Rajiv Gandhi, a former prime minister who was also the son and grandson of prime ministers. Its de facto leader is Rahul Gandhi, Rajiv’s and Sonia’s 51-year-old son. Priyanka Gandhi, their 49-year-old daughter, is a general secretary. Somebody named Gandhi has run the party for all but six of the past 43 years.
Small wonder the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) calls Congress nepotistic. It also calls it corrupt and feudal, and this resonates with voters. The BJP, by contrast, presents itself as meritocratic, modern and welcoming to all comers (as long as they are Hindu nationalists). Narendra Modi, the prime minister, constantly reminds his compatriots that he is the son of a humble tea-seller.
The Gandhis are descendants not of the Mahatma but of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. Their party dominated Indian politics for decades. It was responsible for great abuses of power (the state of emergency in the 1970s) and great reforms (notably India’s economic liberalisation in 1991). But now it looks exhausted. It took electoral batterings in 2014 and 2019, but has failed to reform or seek new leadership. (Rahul resigned as party president in 2019, but was replaced by his mother.) Far from being a vote-winner, the Gandhi family is now Congress’s biggest liability.
This is not because Indian voters are allergic to dynasties in general. The chief ministers of the prosperous states of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are both sons of former regional-party bosses. Nearly a third of lawmakers in India’s lower house come from political families. Rather it is the Gandhis themselves who are the problem. Their circle is rife with venality and self-dealing. Worse, their immovable presence repels talent. Ambitious types see no future in a Gandhi-dominated Congress. Defections are common.
It is no longer clear what the Gandhis stand for, other than a vague secularism and not being Mr Modi. Congress’s most recent manifesto was heavy on socialist-era handouts, public-sector employment and loan waivers, but woefully light on policies to promote growth or create private-sector jobs. For all the faults of the BJP, it offers a clear vision of the India it wishes to make, disagreeable as that vision may be to liberals or non-Hindus.
India, like any country, needs a strong opposition to hold the government to account. Without one, checks and balances are left to citizens, civil society and street protests. That is a recipe for unrest. Mr Modi’s biggest recent reverse came when farmers furious about his (largely sensible) agricultural reforms demonstrated outside Delhi for a year.
An enormous, diverse and still-poor federal country such as India is ill-served by an overbearing central government. The BJP faces plenty of challengers at state level, but Congress remains its only plausible national opponent. In general elections it still attracts 20% of the ballots—though these secure just 10% of seats—a little more than half the BJP’s vote share but five times more than the next party. It needs to do much better.
For this reason, the Gandhis should go, taking their cohorts of septuagenarian yes-men with them. Rahul, the face of the party, is widely seen as a decent man. But he is holding the party—and India—back. That there is no obvious candidate to replace him is a sign of how poor a job he has done of promoting capable lieutenants.
With Rahul gone, the Congress party could start the difficult process of root-and-branch reform, turning itself from a club for family retainers into an outfit that attracts the best and brightest and promotes them speedily to positions of power. The next general election is about three years away. It is not too late for Congress to become a big-tent national party, capable of representing all Indians, as its founders intended. The Gandhis face a choice: they can either do the honourable thing, or they can lead Congress to extinction. That would give Mr Modi a free hand to shape India more or less as he pleases. ■