Can Rahul Gandhi run India? Can anybody?
BY JAMES TRAUB | MAY/JUNE 2013
On Jan. 19, Rahul Gandhi, the 42-year-old heir apparent of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, the family that has ruled India for 37 of the 66 years since India gained independence, was appointed vice president of the All India Congress party, which his family has run for even longer than it has run India. A more honest way of describing this moment is that Rahul -- India is on a first-name basis with all members of the Gandhi family -- finally agreed to accept a senior position that had long been his for the asking.
In so doing, he implicitly acknowledged that he is the party's future and quite possibly its candidate for prime minister at a time when the world's largest democracy seems rudderless, with its meteoric economic growth leveling off and a suddenly aroused middle class taking to the streets to protest rampant corruption and a pervasive culture of abuse toward women. Elections are scheduled for 2014. And though voters have rarely, if ever, expressed such contempt for Congress in polls and state ballots, the Gandhi name still casts a powerful spell over the country. But even his closest associates don't know for sure whether Rahul wants to be prime minister or what he would do if he had the job. He may rejuvenate the longest-running dynasty in the democratic world -- or he may terminate it.
Rahul remains a mysterious and deeply private figure. He gives infrequent speeches; rarely rises in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, where he has served since 2004; and virtually never holds on-the-record interviews with reporters, whom he plainly distrusts. Although fireworks lit up the sky on the day of his ascension and party functionaries toted signs proclaiming, "You are our pride, the glory of youth power," Rahul seems determined to disappoint his most fervent and sycophantic supporters; he recently said that asking about his prime-ministerial ambitions was "a wrong question." A party spokesman quickly clarified that whatever Rahul's own view, "All Congress workers desire that Rahul Gandhi become the PM one day, and we are sure that our wish will be fulfilled."
Not long after Rahul's promotion, I contacted Kanishka Singh, a 34-year-old former Lazard banker who serves as Rahul's gatekeeper, to inquire about an interview. Singh said that he couldn't promise me anything. "We don't want to blow our own trumpet," he said, "because Rahul is not a trumpet-blowing kind of person."
Rahul ultimately granted me a brief, strictly off-the-record audience at the colonial-era white bungalow that serves as his personal office a few blocks away from the party's own New Delhi headquarters. I was brought to a small sitting room. Soon, Rahul came in, sat down on a white couch, and waited for me to speak. He wore sandals and floppy white kurta pyjamas; I had the impression that he could have bought the outfit in the market for $5 and gotten back change. He had been clean-shaven when he accepted his party post, but now sported a scruffy Che Guevara beard. The overall look was Gandhian revolutionary: virtuous, pure, a little fierce. We spoke, not about policy or personal ambition, but about Rahul's project of reforming the Congress party from within. On this subject he was passionate, even vehement. I had been led to expect someone shy and even tentative, but Rahul's manner was unceremonious, unsmiling, challenging, even abrasive, as if he expected a fight -- which perhaps he did. He seemed to have assigned himself Mahatma Gandhi's mission without possessing a grain of Gandhi's temperament. I wondered whether so wary a man was suited to the lunatic carnival of Indian politics.
And that is a very pressing question. After nine years in power, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's United Progressive Alliance, a coalition of Congress and nine smaller parties, has been rocked by one scandal after another, including the fraudulent allocation of cell-phone broadcast licenses, a boondoggle that has cost India somewhere between $6 billion and $35 billion. Congress was born in India's freedom struggle, but both the party and the government froze in the face of the recent mass protests, as if all the years in power had atrophied the party's political instincts. At the same time, the economic growth that has paid for Singh's rise and the expensive welfare programs Congress favors has sagged to 5 percent; nobody talks anymore about India "catching up" to China. No wonder, then, that Singh's poll numbers have sunk to an all-time low. India Today, a leading newsweekly, recently wrote that his government has devolved into "a global headline of corruption and bad governance." The country has reached an impasse.
"We don't have leaders in this government," Bimal Jalan, a former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, told me. "There's no sense that the cabinet has the collective authority to govern." The only figure who can knock heads and force the government to act as one, he says, is Rahul, not because of Rahul's own skills but simply because he is a Gandhi. Dynastic rule has produced a pathology of dependence that the dynasty's latest member is trying, perhaps fruitlessly, to cure.