Analysis: Political earthquake looms as Nehru-Gandhi dynasty loses its lustre
POLITICS in Asia’s two giants, India and China, has suddenly turned very uncertain. China remains in authoritarian mode, of course.
But human-rights violations and suppression of dissent are raising the spectre of growing internal disruptions, particularly in the wake of purges within the top leadership. By contrast, India, with its firmly rooted liberal democracy, smells to some like roses. But many believe that India, too, faces uncertain political prospects.
In particular, there is widespread belief in India today that one of the two main political parties, the Indian National Congress, essentially run by Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, has run its course and will sink into oblivion. But the Congress has been written off before. Indeed, the uniform prediction prior to the 2004 election was that, after having lost three elections in a row, it was heading for its fourth defeat and dissolution. Yet it won that election, and then a second parliamentary election in 2009.
Politics is, of course, full of reversals of fortune. But it is unlikely that the Congress can survive the dire predicament it faces today.
For starters, in 2004, the party was challenging a government that had served for six years. This time, the Congress has governed for two consecutive terms, and its tenure has been marked recently by scandals that have made it look ineffectual and corrupt.
Second, and more important, voter attitudes have shifted significantly during the past decade. Average annual economic growth of 8.5 per cent between 2003 and 2011 has led to a revolution of economic optimism among voter. This marks a major shift from the fatalistic attitudes of the past, when incumbents benefited from voters’ belief that there was no real alternative to existing arrangements. The new mood has been reinforced by recent examples of political failure and success. Brazenly corrupt leaders such as Kumari Mayawati of Uttar Pradesh and Digambar Kamat of Goa were bundled out after one term. Meanwhile, positive role models such as Nitish Kumar of Bihar, Narendra Modi of Gujarat and Navin Patnaik of Orissa have been returned to power as chief ministers at least once, all have delivered remarkable results while maintaining a record of personal integrity.
Prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination over two decades ago created a wave of sympathy for his widow, Sonia, on whose sari-tails the Congress won in 2004. Today, no such tragedy is likely to help the Congress. Mrs Gandhi is rumoured to have cancer, but she has not capitalised on it.
But the real problem is that the Nehru-Gandhi brand has lost its lustre in India. That is partly a function of rapidly changing demographics. People born after 1975 now account for a very large proportion of the electorate. For these voters, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi are merely historical figures. Indeed, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has itself undermined the party’s survival prospects by making it difficult for it to recruit new leaders. It is common knowledge that for the past eight years, Mrs Gandhi has exercised almost total control within the party. As a result, no rival to Rahul has emerged.
With Mrs Gandhi in ill health, Rahul unable to connect to the electorate, and the Nehru-Gandhi brand name losing its appeal, the prospects for the Congress in 2014 look bleak. Only the outcome will tell whether it can survive.
• Jagdish Bhagwati is professor of law and economics at Columbia University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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