Rahul Gandhi returns to Indian politics — but does anyone care?


Nearly a year after Narendra Modi won a landslide victory in India’s parliamentary elections, it sometimes feels like Modi is governing the world’s largest democracy unopposed.India Flag Icon

To some degree, that’s true, because his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी), won so many constituencies that no other party emerged with enough seats to become the official opposition in the Lok Sabha (लोक सभा), the lower house of India’s parliament.

That was an especially humiliating result for India’s traditional ruling part in the post-independence era, the Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस), which was swept from power after presiding over a decade of accelerating corruption and stagnating economic growth.

But as Modi prepares to fight for a land reform bill that would make it easier to acquire farmland for development and to build new industrial corridors, better transport links, and other infrastructural improvements that are central to Modi’s goal of greater economic development, urbanization and modernization, Rahul Gandhi has returned from a two-month sabbatical to lead the movement against the land reforms. He was set to travel to Punjab today to attack a bill that’s attracted widespread opposition among India’s farmers. Gandhi, anxious to pit Congress on the side of India’s poor, is waging an uncharacteristically energetic battle to become the leading figure in what could be the first major hurdle in Modi’s reform plans.

Nevertheless, there’s some question whether he or anyone in his family is best suited to lead the Modi-era opposition.

In most democracies, if you lead a campaign that reduces your representation from 206 seats to just 44, your days would be numbered as a party leader. Not so in India, where Rahul Gandhi, who led a listless effort last year against Modi, continues on as the party’s vice president, and where his mother, Sonia Gandhi, continues as party president. To emphasize the point, much of the campaign’s problems rested with Rahul Gandhi himself, who led a meandering, unsure and listless effort to hold onto power. There’s a sense that not only did Gandhi fail to articulate a rationale for perpetuating Congress’s rule, but he embodied the half-hearted entitlement that’s now defines the Nehru-Gandhi family.

For all the talk of a split between Congress’s old guard (characterized by Sonia) and its young guard (characterized by Rahul), no segment of the party mounted an effective effort to defend its interests in subsequent state elections. In October 2014, Congress lost its hold on Maharashtra state in south-central India, winning just 42 out of 288 seats in the legislative assembly, despite the fact that Mumbai has always been one of the most consistently pro-Congress cities in India. It also lost control over the government in Haryana, a smaller state that forms the Delhi hinterland. Most staggering of all was Congress’s failure to win a single seat in the February 2015 elections in Delhi, a territory that, until late 2013, the party controlled for nearly two decades. Instead, Arvind Kejriwal and his anti-corruption, good-government Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, आम आदमी की पार्टी, literally the ‘Common Man’ Party) delivered the most stinging political defeat to Modi since last year’s general election. In so doing, Kejriwal, now the Delhi chief minister, usurped the Gandhis as the most effective opposition leader to the Modi government.

In the face of these setbacks, and while Modi was introducing a budget to parliament, Rahul Gandhi abruptly went on sabbatical in February and March to take a break from day-to-day politics and for ‘introspection,’ hardly a reassuring move to those who want a more full-throated voice to challenge Modi’s center-right BJP. Even skeptics within his own party accused Gandhi of a disappearing act. Given his record, it’s not entirely unreasonable that he would want to disappear for a while to reassess the party’s future.

Gandhi’s emergence again this month in opposition to the Modi government’s push for a a step that has spawned an angry response from rural Indian farmers. His strident opposition to the reform bill has given rise to talk of a ‘Gandhi 2.0,’ and there’s talk that Rahul will move throughout the rest of 2015 to take on the role of party president from his mother, and launch a reshuffle of the party’s leadership to elevate a new younger class of officials, such as

For 38 of the country’s first 50 years, a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family served as prime minister, and but for the fact Sonia Gandhi was born in Italy (and not India), she might have easily served as prime minister from 2004 to 2014 instead of Manmohan Singh, who spent much of his decade in power roadblocked by the Gandhi family in his efforts to enact deeper liberalization of the Indian economy. When electoral defeats invariably come, the Nehru-Gandhi family has always heaped more blame on leaders outside the family, including Singh in the last election and his predecessor,  P. V. Narasimha Rao, in the 1990s.

Instead of developing bright young talent within the Congress Party, the Nehru-Gandhi family has made it almost impossible for any rising stars to challenge their hold on the party. To the extent the party has a more accessible and likable alternative to Rahul Gandhi, it’s his sister, Priyanka Yadra, whose charismatic charm is typical eclipsed by the whiff of graft and corruption surrounding her husband.

India has taken a schizophrenic approach to land acquisition in the past. Until 1984, haphazard record-keeping and disregard for property rights meant that the government often took land with little process or explanation and below-market compensation. Reforms in 1984 and in 2013 tried to fix that, requiring a ‘social impact’ statement and the approval of nearly three-fourths of the landowners prior to government acquisition. Modi’s reforms seek to amend the 2013 law by reducing the hurdles for acquisition.

Notably, the most successful period of economic reform came not under the BJP’s prior mandates, but under Rao and Singh in the early 1990s. Early hopes that Singh, as prime minister in the 2000s, would introduce fresh reforms for a still-too-bureaucratic economy were dashed as the Gandhi family blocked any attempt at real reform. As Rahul Gandhi jumps full-heartedly into the plight of rural farmers, he has yet to provide any alternative to Modi’s grand attempt to revive the Indian economy. Having blocked Singh when the Congress was in power, Rahul Gandhi is now staking his political future on blocking reform in the Modi era as well.

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