TTHE NATIONAL INDIAN CONGRESS is the big old party of the biggest democracy in the world. Its president is Sonia Gandhi, the 74-year-old widow of Rajiv Gandhi, a former prime minister who was also the son and grandson of prime ministers. Its de facto leader is Rahul Gandhi, the son of Rajiv and Sonia, 51 years old. Priyanka Gandhi, their 49-year-old daughter, is general secretary. Someone by the name of Gandhi has led the party for almost six of the past 43 years.
No wonder the ruling Bharatiya Janata (BJP) describes the Congress as a nepotist. He also calls it corrupt and feudal, and that resonates with voters. The BJP, on the other hand, presents itself as meritocratic, modern and welcoming to all (as long as they are Hindu nationalists). Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister, constantly reminds his compatriots that he is the son of a humble tea merchant.
The Gandhi are not descendants of the Mahatma but of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. Their party has dominated Indian politics for decades. He is responsible for major abuses of power (the state of emergency in the 1970s) and major reforms (notably the economic liberalization of India in 1991). But now he looks exhausted. It took electoral blows in 2014 and 2019, but failed to reform or seek new leadership. (Rahul resigned as party chairman in 2019, but was replaced by his mother.) Far from being a vote winner, the Gandhi family are now Congress’ biggest liability.
It is not because Indian voters are allergic to dynasties in general. The chief ministers of the prosperous states of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are both the sons of former regional party leaders. Almost a third of Indian lower house lawmakers come from political families. Rather, the Gandhi themselves are the problem. Their circle is full of venality and self-centeredness. Worse, their unchanging presence repels talent. Ambitious types see no future in a Congress dominated by Gandhi. Defections are frequent.
We no longer know what the Gandhis represent, apart from a vague secularism and not being Mr. Modi. The most recent congressional manifesto was heavy on socialist-era handouts, public sector employment, and loan waivers, but woefully light on policies to promote growth or create jobs in the sector. private. For all the faults of the BJP, he offers a clear vision of India that he wishes to make, as unpleasant as that vision may be for liberals or non-Hindus.
India, like any country, needs strong opposition to hold the government to account. Without it, the checks and balances are left to citizens, civil society and street protests. This is a recipe for restlessness. Mr Modi’s biggest recent setback came when farmers furious at his (largely sane) farm reforms protested outside Delhi for a year.
A huge, diverse and still poor federal country like India is poorly served by an authoritarian central government. The BJP faces many state-level challengers, but Congress remains its only plausible national adversary. In the general election, he still won 20% of the vote, although they won only 10% of the seats, or just over half of the votes. BJPshare of the votes of maize five times more than the next party. He must be doing a lot better.
For this reason, the Gandhis should leave, taking with them their cohorts of septuagenarians yes-men. Rahul, the face of the party, is widely regarded as an honest man. But he is holding back the party and India. The fact that there is no obvious candidate to replace him is a sign of the poor job he has done to promote good lieutenants.
Once Rahul leaves, the Congress party could begin the difficult process of deep reform, transforming from a club for family servants into an outfit that attracts the best and brightest and quickly promotes them to positions of power. The next general election will be held in about three years. It is not too late for Congress to become a national party with a big tent, capable of representing all Indians, as its founders intended. The Gandhi are faced with a choice: They can either do the honorable thing or drive Congress to extinction. This would give Mr. Modi a free hand to shape India more or less as he pleases. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the title “Heir today, gone tomorrow?” “