Monday, November 21, 2011

A Look at the Man Who Could Be India's King

The Gandhi family scion may turn out to be an empty suit. Indians, now used to meritocracy, won't like that.

In democracies, dynastic succession should be a deviation from the norm. In India, many political parties are anyway led by sons and daughters of former bosses, but nowhere is this more prevalent than in the ruling Congress party, which the Gandhi-Nehru family has dominated since independence. Another succession is now in the offing, assuming of course that Indians keep tolerating this deviation.
India's "first dynasty" has been the subject of much speculation in the past three months. Family matriarch and president of the Congress party Sonia Gandhi is reportedly suffering from an unspecified illness. Talk of succession is natural and there is a growing clamor for her son Rahul to assume what numerous party functionaries have dubbed "greater responsibilities." The current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was always thought to be preserving the throne for the young Mr. Gandhi to ascend to it one day.
That day may be arriving. The 41-year-old Mr. Gandhi may soon be appointed working president of the Congress, to take charge of his mother's day-to-day responsibilities. His public rally this month in Phulpur, Uttar Pradesh, was widely seen as a first step in that direction, since that constituency was once represented by Mr. Gandhi's great-grandfather and India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
But banking on the young Mr. Gandhi as a future prime minister is a shot in the dark. His words and actions so far hardly justify the aura surrounding him.
European Pressphoto Agency
Sonia Gandhi (left) confers with her son and the heir apparent, Rahul.
Naturally shy, he has hitherto confined himself to photo opportunities. The media has made much of the night Mr. Gandhi spent at a poor untouchable's home; the ride he took in Mumbai's crowded suburban train; or the motorcycle trip into a village protesting land acquisition—all these acts symbolizing that he is in touch with the downtrodden. At a time when the country is sick of the septuagenarian politicians running the country, his 41 years of age have made him a "youth icon."
For all these tributes lavished on him, Mr. Gandhi lacks substance however. His parliamentary interventions have been patchy and confined to prepared texts; he has sometimes been shouted down by older parliamentarians. WikiLeaks revelations show him as someone prone to making casual remarks about "Hindu terrorism" posing a greater danger than Islamist terror. Meanwhile, he is spearheading his party's campaign in state elections next year in Uttar Pradesh, one of the largest states in India. But Congress is poised at best to win third place, and Mr. Gandhi may be stuck with the tag of an under-achiever.
Most worrying, the future leader seems to stay away from the burning questions of the day. He also hasn't involved himself much in the party's crisis management in the last year. Such aloofness may have contributed to the mystique around him but it has also prompted questions about what he believes.
The few indications Mr. Gandhi has given about his political beliefs are not encouraging. Like his mother, he has positioned himself as a "sepoy" of the poor, untouchables and tribals, as he himself tells it. He has played down his commitment to economic modernization in favor of mega-welfare schemes run by the central government. In many ways, he seems inclined toward a controlled economy run by "pro-poor" politicians, a thrust that is at odds with India's restless entrepreneurship today.
The full contours of his political views, of course, are conjecture. Mr. Gandhi has been wary of unscripted interactions with the media. Despite being in the limelight for seven years since he became a member of parliament, he remains a distant and unfamiliar figure to both the political class and the media.
Perhaps Mr. Gandhi thinks this aloofness will help him, as it helped his mother. As a widow of Rajiv Gandhi, the former prime minister who became a martyr when Tamil Tigers assassinated him in 1991, Mrs. Gandhi was treated with feudal deference. Her son, though, is not going to be the beneficiary of that generosity.
Mr. Gandhi enters the political fray in an India that has unrecognizably changed in the past two decades. With wealth and social mobility, the country has grown more assertive—and perhaps even insolent to the authority earlier imposed by caste, family or dynasty. One part of the anti-corruption movement that has grabbed headlines this year is a pushback against the politics of privilege. Indians have enjoyed success in the economic arena out of meritocracy, and find the lack of it in politics outdated. They are not going to take kindly to an empty suit like Mr. Gandhi, whose only claim to fame is his name.
This social churning should make the Congress Party sit up and question the old ways of dynasty. Instead, the possibility of a new leader from the Gandhi family has the party cadre suddenly energized. Mr. Singh's government has hurtled from crisis to crisis and many are now doubling down on the idea of dynasty to rescue the party. That idea is soon going to be tested.

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