Endgame for the Gandhis?

India may well be looking at the end of the Gandhi dynasty. Countrywide opinion polls suggest that the 129-year-old Congress Party, India’s oldest, headed by the country’s most entrenched dynasty – will suffer devastating losses in the ongoing general elections when results are declared May 16.

The waning appeal of the Gandhi family members – Congress President Sonia, 67, widow of former Indian PM Rajiv, and their son Rahul, 43, the party vice president and its prime ministerial candidate – has been all too evident lately and is increasingly fuelling such speculation. The Congress’ lackluster performance at the center, with GDP growth at a decade low and its top ministers embroiled in political scandals, hasn’t helped.

The odds of Rahul Gandhi becoming the next PM have plummeted so low that Mumbai bookies have stopped taking bets. Gandhi, it seems, appears poised to preside over the most devastating defeat in Congress’s history.

Rahul has been dubbed for years India's absentee crown prince and a whimsical Member of Parliament who rarely speaks in public. He is known to disappear from public view for long stretches only to reappear at will. He was expected to replace Manmohan Singh as PM, but his lack of interest in the family business and poor political savvy have scuppered his elevation.

The Gandhi clan, which has dominated Indian politics for 37 years of the country’s 67 independent years, has produced three prime ministers, including India’s first, Jawaharlal Nehru who had a towering presence. Then his daughter, the formidable Indira Gandhi took over, followed by her elder son, Rajiv. Both Indira and Rajiv were assassinated.

Although in the past decade Manmohan Singh has been premier, there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that the “First Family” is the undisputed power. Singh owes his allegiance to the Italian-born Sonia as she was the person who chose him for the PM’s chair in 2004, perhaps because he posed no threat to the Gandhi family.

Rahul, long groomed for high office, entered the political foray in 2004. But he seems most reluctant to embrace political life. He refuses to call himself a prime ministerial candidate, and alludes to the assassinations of his father and grandmother as the reason. He has also eschewed all ministerial responsibility. In his rare public speeches, he seems bereft of any fresh ideas on economics, politics or governance.

“It’s hard to dispute the fact that the hold of the Nehru-Gandhi family is at an all-time low,” said Kartik Gupta, visiting professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “The Gandhi name doesn’t resonate as much with the country’s younger demographic, a majority of who were born after Indira – Rahul’s grandmother -- died. Her father, Nehru, is even further removed from public memory.”

An ever younger electorate is assessing the Nehru-Gandhi family by their own experience. Though the UPA fared well in its first five years after it came to power in 2004, things started unraveling later. A slew of corruption scams involving high-ranking Congress ministers, spiraling inflation and a crippling current account deficit snowballed into crisis. The timing couldn’t have been worse. This was the period when the party was projecting Rahul as the successor to Singh, though the former was not officially named as its prime ministerial candidate.

Rahul has done little in his decade in politics. On the contrary, Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the right-wing Hindu fundamentalist Bhartiya Janata Party has been drawing much bigger crowds. He is also a far more powerful orator, and has more than a decade of administrative experience as a fairly successful chief minister of India’s richest state of Gujarat.

One of Modi’s avowed aims, say political pundits, is to erase the Gandhi name from the Indian political marquee. Despite being a polarizing figure (he is largely held responsible for the Godhra pogrom in Gujarat which killed hundreds of Muslims in 2002), he has succeeded in bolstering the view that the Gandhis have let the country down. And that it is time for a change to usher in a stronger and more decisive leadership for the country.

With Sonia battling health problems, and Rahul’s appeal not working, the Gandhis have pulled out their last trump card: the most charismatic and appealing member of their family: Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. She is Rahul’s sister and bears a striking resemblance to her grandmother, Indira. She is articulate and has the ability to draw the crowds. But Priyanka has been emphatic that her first priority isn’t politics, but her family and two young kids.

She also has an Achilles heel in her husband, Robert Vadra. Once a small-time entrepreneur, Vadra’s meteoric rise to flamboyant real-estate tycoon, the owner of properties worth millions, has raised eyebrows. It has also triggered speculation that the Gandhi son-in-law has benefited from his proximity to the country’s most powerful family. If Priyanka were to assume a more active role in politics, say observers, her spouse and his dubious deals would be perfect grist for the Opposition’s mill.

Be that as it may, few are ready to write the Gandhi family’s political obituary. Indian politics are difficult to predict, and polls are often wrong. The Gandhis have long relied on votes from India’s vast numbers of rural poor, and some believe that those voters, who have benefited from their largesse in the form of a welter of fiscally irresponsible welfare schemes, will still turn out in force for them.

“The Gandhis are so entrenched in Indian political history that they will not be written off in a hurry. With Priyanka campaigning vigorously for her brother and the masses warming up to her, she just might be preparing for a more active political role,” said a senior BJP member.

However, it will take a considerably active Priyanka and considerable luck to overcome a complex of scandal, a lackluster brother, disarray in the Congress camp, a struggling economy and a sense that the party has been around too long to keep the Gandhis a continuing part of the Indian political landscape.

Neeta Lal is a new Delhl-based senior journalist. Email: neetalal@hotmail.com