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The problems besieging Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are legion. Several key players in his United Progressive Alliance coalition are embroiled in high-profile corruption scandals. Despite hiking interest rates repeatedly, his government cannot contain runaway inflation, which now tops ten percent. And terrorists have struck New Delhi twice this year, killing dozens and giving ordinary Indians the impression that their government can't keep them safe. On top of all this, Singh seems to have little fight left in him: at 79 years old, he is reportedly exhausted by the challenges of maintaining unity over a fractious coalition and of administering even the most rudimentary elements of India's relationship with its neighbors.
This would seem to be the ideal moment for the opposition to pounce. But so far, at least, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has offered no viable alternatives. Instead, the BJP has tended to stick to the sidelines and carp about Singh's shortcomings. The party seems adrift: L. K. Advani, the BJP stalwart and former deputy prime minister, recently said that he has no interest in serving as prime minister, and Narendra Modi -- chief minister of Gujarat and a possible contender for party leader -- is unlikely to draw a national following because of his alleged involvement in an anti-Muslim pogrom that occurred under his watch almost a decade ago.
The country, frustrated with Singh's ineffectiveness, is looking to the leader who will take Singh's place when he finishes his term in two years, and they are turning toward Rahul Gandhi. Gandhi is the son of Sonia Gandhi, the Congress Party's reclusive leader and the widow of Rajiv Gandhi, the former prime minister who was assassinated in 1991. (Rajiv himself was the son of Indira Gandhi, who was killed in 1984.) Since 2004, Rahul, who studied at Harvard and at Trinity College, Cambridge, has been tailored for higher office by Congress Party grandees. But Rahul, 41, is untested and rough around the edges: though he assumed the position of a general secretary of the All India Congress Committee four years ago, he has little to show in terms of concrete party accomplishments. But there is little doubt in most minds that, given the paucity of other options, Rahul will get the top job when Singh retires. Not only does he seem destined to inherit a political mess; it remains to be seen whether two years will prove long enough to groom the next ruler of the world's largest democracy.
Singh seems to be making the job of his successor more difficult by the day. The prime minister's power base has been dissolving thanks to a string of corruption scandals that he has seemed unable to deal with. Indeed, he failed to rein in recalcitrant members of both his party and his cabinet until they backed him into a corner. Public outrage and elite disgust reached such a fever pitch last November that Singh finally demanded the resignation of his telecommunications minister, Andimuthu Raja, who was accused of having auctioned cell phone frequencies at throwaway prices to incompetent operators. Singh's delay in seeking Raja's resignation led to a spate of accusations that he was incapable of stemming the rot inside his Cabinet. Then Suresh Kalmadi, chief organizer of the October 2010 Commonwealth Games, was ousted amid stories of widespread cost overruns and procurement irregularities. In both cases, Singh waited to step into the fray until public frustration had reached a critical level. No wonder that the long-standing anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare was able to seize the public imagination with antigovernment demonstrations in July.
The prime minister has been bumbling abroad, too. In late September, a much-vaunted visit to Bangladesh designed to improve ties with a key neighbor ended in failure. The problem was that Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of the Indian state of West Bengal, which abuts Bangladesh, refused to sign a bilateral water accord that Singh had touted as the centerpiece of his visit. Banerjee had good reason for her recalcitrance -- the accord had the potential to harm agriculture in the southern part of her state -- but the fact that her rejection took Singh by surprise indicates that he is having a very difficult time navigating even the basic protocols of the office.
Then there are the Gandhis. Sonia Gandhi is widely believed to wield disproportionate power over the government and the nonconfrontational prime minister. But she is reportedly suffering from cancer, and she is running out of time to pave the way for her son. So far she has attempted to prepare him by handing over political authority within the party while she was away for treatment in the United States; she also handed him the unsavory task of negotiating with the anti-corruption activist Hazare.
Yet Rahul faces plenty more obstacles. The first is how to boost his political standing among party members. In a party known for political sycophancy and dependent on the name recognition of the Gandhi family, few party notables are ready to openly challenge his rise. In public, they will nod at his ascendancy. In taking on more party duties, Rahul is wading into controversial issues, such as land acquisition for industrial projects, but it remains to be seen if such high-profile efforts will deliver more votes to any of these Congress members.
Which speaks to Rahul's even larger challenge: he desperately needs to win over the Indian electorate. To build his base, Rahul had campaigned in the vital, populous state of Uttar Pradesh in 2007, with rather anemic results. The Congress Party won less than nine percent of the popular vote. At his mother's behest, Rahul has since made explicit efforts to demonstrate his sympathy for a range of growing public grievances. He has tackled antiquated land-acquisition laws desperately in need of reform. He has also tried to cast himself as the standard-bearer of disenfranchised communities, such as marginal farmers and India's tribal groups. He has traveled to key afflicted areas and has claimed that he is their sentinel in New Delhi. The young Gandhi has even spent time in the homes of Dalits (formerly known as untouchables) in order to publicly express his concern for their plight.
Despite the clear challenges ahead, there is little question that his position within the Congress Party is secure, given the absence of any viable challengers. One cannot fully appreciate Rahul's potential, however, without understanding the role of his sister, Priyanka Gandhi. Priyanka is planning to hit the campaign trail at the same time as her brother, to support both his candidacy and own position in the Congress Party. Though many consider her more politically adroit than her brother, it is not clear yet that she will be able to win over ordinary voters, especially impoverished rural ones.
The two plan to focus first on Uttar Pradesh, which holds statewide elections in 2012. If the brother-sister tandem does well, Rahul's chances in the next national elections, and those of Congress at large, would improve considerably.
As for the next question -- how Rahul would actually govern -- the answer will depend on whom he chooses to listen to. Well-informed observers in New Delhi note that, so far, he has relied mostly on advisers close to his mother. If he continues to do the same, the result will be incremental and mostly unimaginative policy choices. Steps toward economic liberalization would be halting, populist programs would continue apace, and internal reform of the party would remain in abeyance.
To seriously address the most difficult of India's endemic ills, Rahul would need to demonstrate a new level of imagination, verve, and decisiveness. That would mean not just good political optics but undertaking actual policy initiatives that solve the dilemma of land acquisition, the stubborn issue of judicial reform, and the country's seemingly intractable security problems. Flashy moves for the cameras may draw the praise of family and party power brokers, but they will leave much to be desired for a bold new national leader on the Indian stage.