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The Biggest Losers in India's Election


The Indian election has been disastrous for a number of people and parties, but no single entity has been as damaged as the Nehru-Gandhi family and its Congress Party. Congress has been in power since 2004 when Manmohan Singh took over as the country's first Sikh prime minister. He was already known as the trained economist who "opened up" the economy back in the early 1990s, and he had a reputation as honest and thoughtful. Unfortunately, Singh was hamstrung by some combination of his own inertia and weakness, and the fact that he didn't really control "his" party, or indeed the country. The result was that the government was never able to capitalize on its successes, or transcend its failures. 

India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, ran India from independence in 1947 until he passed away in 1964. His father had been an important Congress member during the independence campaign, and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, was prime minister from 1966 to 1977, and 1980 to 1984. (The first stint in power was interrupted because she declared an "emergency" in authoritarian fashion, and the electorate eventually ousted her; in 1984 she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards after she had ordered the brutal siege of the Golden Temple, which had been taken over by militants.) Her oldest son, Rajiv, was prime minister from 1984 to 1989, before being assassinated by the Tamil Tigers in 1991. (Her younger son, the thuggish Sanjay Gandhi, assisted his mother in carrying out the "emergency," and seemed to take pleasure in things like forced sterilization campaigns; the country is lucky he died in 1980.)

If this already might seem like a tale of decline—for all his flaws, Nehru was a hero of the independence movement, a deep thinker, and an important prime minister—this election may signal a new nadir. Singh's lack of control stems largely from the fact Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of Rajiv, was the most powerful person in the country before today. Sonia is impressive enough in her own right, and appears to have decent values; yet she still has no interest in democratizing the institution she runs, or handing it off to anyone with a different surname. There are, as it happens, two people with that surname. The first, her son Rahul, was the face of the Congress Party's campaign, and what a nice face it is. Yet Congress was defeated handily; Rahul appears to have barely won his home constituency. A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable described him as an "empty suit," which seems fair enough, or perhaps slightly too kind; the unhappy-looking guy should clearly do something else with his life, but such is the burden of dynastic politics. (Just look at the British royals: Do they seem happy?) 

The results today, which reveal a massive win for Narendra Modi's right-wing BJP, usually appear when the incumbent party has shown itself to be so disgraceful or incompetent that nothing else matters to voters. But the record Congress amassed over the past ten years (especially in its first term) is not all dishonorable. India has faced a number of gross corruption scandals on Singh's watch, and the economy is slowing; but the last decade has seen positive strides on a number of human development indicators, uneven but real growth, rough but significant urbanization, and a committment from the national government to initiate social welfare programs in a country that is still very poor. Poverty rates have declined much faster under this government than previous ones. (See this typically smart column by Mihir Sharma for more.)

Singh was hamstrung by his own weaknesses, yes, but also by the perception (and probably reality) that he didn't have power. This was in part because he presided over a rickety coalition; but it was also because Sonia and Rahul continued to control the party, and the former's attitude to her corrupt, inefficient, and creaking organization can best be described as inertia-driven and nonconfrontational—unwilling, above all else, to rock the boat. Corruption and mismanagement were frequently greeted with nothing more than a shrug. (Singh couldn't fire powerful ministers without her assent.)

India, then, might have to outgrow the Gandhi family before the Congress Party can change. I intentionally didn't mention the other child of Sonia Gandhi's earlier, but according to several reports, this occurred today:  

A group of workers gathered outside the head office mid-afternoon chanting: “bring Priyanka, save Congress.” Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is Rahul’s charismatic younger sister, who has an uncanny resemblance to Indira, their grandmother.

Vadra campaigns just for her mother and brother, and draws gigantic crowds.

That just about covers it, from the vain hope that the next in line will save them, to the pathetic reliance on things like Priyanka's resemblance to her nasty grandmother. India's dynastic politics is surely far from dead, but it does seem like the country is passing the Congress Party by in some way. As Byron might say if he were alive today, Congress needs to stop searching its gene pool and look to the wider ocean.