Requiem for Rahul?

It’s never wise to write off dynasties, but if ever a political family deserved to fade away, it is the Nehru Gandhi dynasty which two days ago appointed Mallikarjun Kharge, 71, a little known and relatively inexperienced and elderly member of parliament, to lead the Congress Party in the Lok Sabha because neither Sonia nor Rahul Gandhi are willing to take the post.

Rahul, along with his far-from-well mother, led the Congress to a shattering and personally humiliating general election defeat last month when the party won only 44 Lok Sabha seats, 162 fewer than in the outgoing parliament. This was the Congress’s worst-ever result. It was even below the minimum figure of 54 (10 percent of the total) needed under India’s constitution to be recognized as the official opposition. It reduced Congress to the level of regional parties – the AIADMK from Tamil Nadu won 37 seats.

Since that defeat, there have been many criticisms of the family’s leadership, especially of Rahul’s autocratic style and that of his advisers led by the aloof Kanishka Singh, the son of a former foreign secretary, and including Jairam Ramesh, a self-confident and controversially outspoken though effective minister in the last government.

One senior party member suggested that Rahul’s experiments in democratizing the choice of election candidates backfired, mainly because primary elections were manipulated by people with money who habitually bribe voters.

Both mother and son offered to resign as the party’s president and vice-president, but that was inevitably rejected by the party’s top working committee. In an attempt to stem a subsequent revolt, two critics who were too outspoken in their personal criticisms of Rahul were instantly suspended from party membership.

Loyalists then called for either Sonia or Rahul to become the official opposition leader in the Lok Sabha. Since Sonia is probably not well enough for the task and has always preferred to be visible but mostly silent in parliament, Rahul should, it could be logically argued, have taken the post since he was the party’s assumed (but undeclared) prime ministerial candidate in the election.

But there are snags. For years, he has regularly vanishes from public view, often on unexplained trips abroad, and has shown no sign of having the stamina to sit day by day on the parliamentary front bench, or the leadership qualities to be effective if he was there. Given his lack of experience in parliament (he has only made two or three speeches in 10 years as an MP), he would have also probably found it hard to win the respect and support of the AIADMK and the other opposition parties that Congress needs as allies in opposing the new BJP government.

How then, one might ask, if he could not or would not lead the opposition, could Rahul have become prime minister, if Congress had won – or would he and Sonia have appointed someone else in the same way that Sonia appointed Manmohan Singh in 2004? Perhaps he expected to be dynastically parachuted into the prime minister’s office so that he could preside from there, and in parliament, with the born-to-rule attitude that this shy and retiring man often displays.

Be that as it may, having decided that they would not lead in the Lok Sabha, it was surely the Gandhis’ duty to nominate a parliamentary leader who would command respect and provide robust opposition to Narendra Modi, the new prime minister.

There were at least two veteran experienced and able candidates available – Kamal Nath, 67, who has held many ministerial posts and is famed for his connections in India and abroad, and Veerappa Moily, 74, a former Karnataka state chief minister who held various senior posts in the last government. The ambitious Nath would have been opposed by many other Congress leaders, and is thought not to be trusted by Sonia, but it is unclear why Moily was not picked.

The most adventurous choice would have been Jyotiraditya Scindia, 43, a bright, committed politician from a former royal maharajah’s family in Madhya Pradesh and the son of the late Madhavrao Scindia, who was a leading Congress politician of Sonia’s generation. Jyotiraditya has won four elections as an MP and was a minister in the last government, but he has a fatal flaw – the Gandhis would not dare pick him because he would have immediately been seen, and might have become, an alternative leader challenging Rahul’s dynastic supremacy.

Kharge was presumably chosen because he has no further political ambitions, having briefly been railways minister in the last government. He made no secret of his obedience to the leadership. “I will seek the guidance of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi on what can be done and how to go about it. They will tell me,” he told journalists when asked how and what he intended to do.

This illustrates how political dynasties, and especially the Gandhis, fail their parties and the country by preferring to promote safe loyalists and not the best available people. It is difficult to see how Kharge, whose political career has mostly been spent in his home state of Karnataka, will gain respect in parliament, just as loyalists appointed to important ministries such as defence and home affairs in the last government failed to perform.

Rahul, who is 44 later this month, has been seen little since he stood with his mother on May 16, the day the results were published, smiling oddly as she acknowledged defeat. People wondered – and tweeted – why he had such a grin on his (unusually) clean shaven face.

Was it relief that he would not have to decide whether to accept the prime ministership, to which he knew he was ill suited? More unkind tweets suggested he was looking forward to a five-year holiday and many vanishing trips abroad.

Three days earlier, he had horrified even well-wishers by failing to attend a farewell dinner thrown by Manmohan Singh, the retiring prime minister, (though he did attend Modi’s prime ministerial swearing in on May 26 – photo above – with the beard back again!). His absence from the dinner sparked gossip about why he was suddenly unable to attend such an important event just a few minutes drive from his Delhi home.

New avenues of gossip developed when the Congress Party announced that he was making a quick but unexplained trip abroad, having apologized to Manmohan Singh for his absence two days earlier. Why in that case, people wondered, had it not been announced before the dinner – or was he not abroad at all?

Rahul’s personal failings have led to repeated calls in recent weeks for Priyanka, his 42-year old sister, to become active in national politics instead of confining her activities to Sonia’s and Rahul’s Uttar Pradesh constituencies. She mirrors, it is often said, the style of her grandmother Indira Gandhi, and she has far more charisma and is far more approachable than Rahul.

Like Rahul however, she sometimes displays the family’s dynastic airs and behaves on visits to villages as a patroness rather than someone desperate for votes. There have been calls for her to replace Rahul, but it seems more likely that she might be projected along with him as the ideal team to carry the party into the next general election.

Logically, Rahul’s political career (if one can call it that) should now be over because he has led his party into defeats not only in this general election but two earlier state assembly polls. He has also refused to acknowledge whether he is a prime ministerial candidate and his attempts to reform the party have failed.

But this is dynastic politics that do not follow such logic and the Gandhi family is essential for the survival of the Congress Party, which could break up in to rival factions without the Gandhi glue. The desperation with which even leading politicians view the family’s survival was demonstrated by Salman Khurshid, who till recently was the foreign minister and earlier had other top posts. He has been quoted opposing independent criticisms of the Gandhi family, saying: “You cannot introspect about your leadership. The leader must help you introspect.”

With such loyalty, Rahul is probably safe, for now at least, with Sonia and Priyanka protecting him. But unless the family finds a way to reassert itself, this could be the beginning of the decline of the dynasty – and the beneficiary of all this of course is Narendra Modi who faces a rudderless and divided opposition as he starts the 10 years that he wants to govern India. His supporters will welcome that, but others will say the family has again let the country down in order to protect its dynastic survival.

John Elliott is the Asia Sentinel New Delhi correspondent. He also blogs under the name Riding the Elephant, which can be found at the bottom right corner of the Asia Sentinel front page.