The Reign of Rahul

Why Making Gandhi Heir Apparent Is a Big Mistake

Supporters of the Congress Party hold posters of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, party chief Sonia Gandhi, and party vice president Rahul Gandhi. (Mansi Thapliyal / Courtesy Reuters)

In late January, Rahul Gandhi, the grandson of famed former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was named vice president of India's Congress Party. No such position had previously existed. The role's creation -- and Gandhi's elevation to it -- was an effort to solidify his status as the party's second-in-command and heir apparent of Sonia Gandhi, the current party leader and his mother. It was also an effort to shore up the Congress Party's standing as national elections approach. In a maturing Indian democracy, though, such tricks may no longer work. 

Assuming that the Congress Party-led government does not face a successful no-confidence motion in the next few months, Indians will go to the polls in 2014. Gandhi will likely spearhead the Congress Party's national campaign with an eye on the prime ministership. As I wrote in 2012, that is the role for which he has long been groomed. Congress Party elite have spared little effort and expense to paint him as the party's forward-looking youthful face. And Kanishka Singh, a young Wharton-educated party activist, has been on hand to stage-manage everything from Gandhi's political strategy to his public appearances. Meanwhile, goading from party stalwarts, most notably his mother, has curbed other contenders' ambitions.

If the Congress Party had resurrected internal democracy, which fell by the wayside under Indira Gandhi in the 1970s, it is doubtful that Gandhi would have emerged as a front-runner. As a number of Indian political commentators have underscored, Gandhi remains a halting speaker despite intensive coaching. And even his relative youth is unlikely to translate into votes from his cohort, which generally seeks a more meritocratic social order. For them, watching the latest scion of the Nehru-Gandhi clan slide so easily into a position of national leadership must surely rankle. 

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