Such views underscore the reality that the party’s fate is closely intertwined with the performance of the Nehru Gandhis, a reality Rahul says he accepts.
“If I hadn’t come from my family, I wouldn’t be here. You can enter the system either through family or friends or money. Without family, friends or money, you can’t enter the system,” Rahul says. “My father was in politics. My father was in politics. My grandmother and great grandfather were in politics. So it was easy for me to enter politics.”
“This is a problem – I am a symptom of this problem. I want to change it,” he adds.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The question many are now asking, though, is whether circumstances favor the party’s crown prince the way they have favored his predecessors. Can the charisma of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty revive the party as it faces a political onslaught from entrenched regional parties, an aggressive right wing and ever more vigilant civil society groups?
When Indira Gandhi became premier more than five decades ago, the Congress was the dominant party, and she faced an internal struggle just to climb to the top. Rajiv Gandhi, in contrast, was far from being a battle-hardened politician when his mother’s death saw power thrust upon him.
But the country’s oldest party is no longer quite the power it once was, and has seen its support in crucial areas ebb. Indeed, weak organizational structures in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, which alone send close to 150 members to parliament between them, has meant Congress has had to rely on other parties.
“Rahul’s predecessors had the luxury of being certain about something, but the young scion exists in different political surroundings, and in a world where he can’t be a dreamer like Nehru and doer like Indira Gandhi,” says Rashid Kidwai, a political analyst and author of 24 Akbar Road. “He has to be pragmatic, he doesn’t have that magic wand, so he will have to have a different kind of road map for himself and his party.”
A recent book entitled Rahul,which claims to be the first authoritative biography on the young politician and is written by journalists Jatin Gandhi and Veenu Sandhu, argues that “while there is no denying that political dynasties stand in conflict with the principles of democracy, it is equally important to acknowledge that they do not, and cannot, negate the foundation on which democracy is built.”
The Gandhi family, therefore, shouldn’t be seen as inherently undemocratic. But at the same time, it’s clear that Rahul will need to present his own vision if he is to lead his party and country. And, according to Yogendra Yadav, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies writing in Outlook magazine, “in a climate of cynicism, he has presented something of a forward-looking vision. Eschewing the staple language of caste-community equations, he has raised issues of development. In a party that had given up on the poor and the disadvantaged, he has brought back the language of social justice.”
But not everyone is so enamored. Swapan Dasgupta, a senior conservative journalist, says that although Rahul Gandhi clearly works hard, that he is also “an untested creature, who has been parachuted from top. He is impulsive, combative. But this is not politics, and doesn’t give any idea of his political direction.”
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank, agrees that many questions still linger about what Rahul Gandhi really stands for.
“In a way it’s good that he started talking about issues such as foreign direct investment and UID (the unique identity program),” Mehta says. “But I am still not sure about the big picture…What does he think about identity politics?”
As much as the general election result itself, then, all eyes will be on the impact of the “Rahul factor” in the Uttar Pradesh election. If Congress can pull off a good result, then it will mean not only that the rightist elements represented by parties like the BJP are struggling to gain traction ahead of the general election in two years’ time, but that Rahul himself has taken one more step on the path to power.