As A New Gandhi Takes Over, Can India's Opposition Find Its Footing Again?

Dec 12, 2017
Originally published on December 12, 2017 8:10 am

Rahul Gandhi, the 47-year-old scion of India's Nehru-Gandhi family, takes the helm of the National Congress Party this week, raising questions about the potency of the political opposition in the world's biggest democracy.

Rahul succeeds his mother, Sonia Gandhi, 71, who steps down amid concerns of ill health, and ends a record 19 years as party president.

The Indian National Congress party once controlled almost the entire country. As the beleaguered opposition today, it's been losing state election after election since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power in May 2014. The two parties lock horns this week in a closely watched contest in Modi's state of Gujarat to elect a new assembly.

But will the generational shift signal a change in fortune for the lackluster opposition? What's at stake for India if the main opposition continues to be enfeebled?

Rahul Gandhi is seen as a sweet-tempered young man, but a neophyte, more party mascot than savvy political boss. It's been said that he has neither the charisma of his grandmother, Indira Gandhi, nor the intellect of his great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister.

Gandhi, who officially takes over on Saturday, will face the daunting task of restoring the glory — and even relevance — of the party at a time of turmoil in India.

Social activist Harsh Mander says that under the leadership of Modi — a self-proclaimed Hindu nationalistand the BJP, India "is passing through a very difficult time." One of the biggest challenges for the opposition, Mander says, is combating repression of dissent, and curbing a growing "permissive climate of hate." Dozens of violent incidents, including murder, have been carried out in the name of protecting the cow, which the country's Hindus consider a holy animal.

Mander says in the face of such intimidation, it's critical for the opposition to find its voice. While he says he's willing to give Rahul Gandhi a chance, he worries that he will "continue to be advised to be cautious" and pursue a more ambiguous stand. Gandhi has been criticized for playing to the BJP's Hindutva strengths, paying visits to an unusual number of Hindu temples during the campaign in Gujarat.

Gandhi was the only candidate for the party's top post, a nomination he won unanimously. Critics condemn the Congress party's dynastic character; Modi rode to office deriding the party as out of touch and undemocratic, and handed Congress the biggest loss in its 132-year history.

Modi on Monday wished Rahul a "fruitful tenure" as the sixth Gandhi to become president of the Congress party. Last week, he declared, "Those who have no internal democracy can't work for [the] people."

But Neelanjan Sircar, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, says the Congress party has no real mechanism to move ground level leaders up the ranks. In addition, he says competing factions within the Congress party could tear it apart. Although Gandhi may not be ideal, Sircar says it may be difficult to hold the party together without him.

But expecting a relatively young Gandhi to be a magnet for the youth vote may disappoint. Many of India's young reject politics that smacks of elitism and exclusion. Inheriting political office or consolidating power around one family offends their sense of meritocracy.

Yet others point out that dynastic politics are hardly limited to the Congress party: The Samajwadi Party that until recently governed Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in India, deployed dynastic practices to field family members in contested seats at election time. Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times, calls dynastic rule a "remnant of the feudal culture," that is alive and well. Why grill only Congress he asks.

Rahul Gandhi has been sharpening his skills for the thrust and parry of Indian politics. While he can't compete with Modi's oratory, The Mint newspaper reports that despite no ground game in Gujarat, the Congress Party has "emerged as a contender." It is Modi's BJP that appears nervous.

Still, Neelanjan Sircar of the Centre for Policy Research says the opposition is failing to frame adequate answers to fundamental questions. "This is an ugly time," Sircar says, "there is no way of sugarcoating it."

He says the BJP, for example, promotes a notion of nationhood that relies heavily on a Hindu identity. Commentator Shekhar Gupta sees "unapologetic, overt religiosity" melding with a new nationalism.

Sircar says the opposition Congress party, which is secular, is not even debating an alternate conception of what it means to be Indian. It's only reacting to actions that undermine India as a secular state.

Meanwhile, he points out that some opposition politicians privately admit they won't appear alongside Muslim leaders for fear it will politically harm them. "The idea that politicians are now afraid to represent a secular identity, says something about where we are as a country," says Sircar.

What it says is that Modi's BJP has managed to frame the terms of the national debate, and the Congress party opposition needs to enter its new era asserting a compelling and countervailing vision.

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