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. 

Further, personal characteristics aside, Gandhi's political record is hardly burnished. He has served nearly two terms in parliament, but his name has not been associated with a single piece of legislation. This is not because bills he decided to sponsor died; he simply hasn't sponsored any. He has also failed to bring home victories for the Congress Party in key states. Despite a vigorous personal campaign in legislative assembly elections in the populous state of Uttar Pradesh last year, the Congress Party went down in an ignominious defeat, winning a mere 28 seats in the 403-seat assembly. A notionally socialist party, the Samajwadi Party, and a regional party, Bahujan Samaj Party, took home the lion's share of the vote.

Finally, Gandhi has demonstrated little dexterity in seizing on the issues of the day. He was virtually invisible in 2011, when the activist Anna Hazare riveted India with a sit-in against corruption. Worse still, Gandhi never spoke out about the December of 2012 rape of a young woman in New Delhi that sparked protests near the presidential palace. After a harsh police effort to remove the demonstrators led to an uproar, even India's normally reticent prime minister, Manmohan Singh, felt compelled to express remorse about the rape and the government's clumsy attempt to break up the demonstrations. But Gandhi was curiously absent from the scene. 

Simply put, Gandhi's training and his family's efforts to push him to the top might not be enough to endear him to all Congress Party loyalists, or bring home another Congress Party victory.

To be sure, Gandhi and the Congress Party might draw some comfort from the fact that the main opposition party, the right-leaning Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in utter disarray. In December and January, the BJP held its own internal election for the party presidency and chose the stolid and uncharismatic Rajnath Singh. Singh, a longtime political figure in his homestate of Uttar Pradesh, managed to deftly sideline the incumbent, Nitin Gadkari. Helping Singh was the fact that Gadkari faces allegations of tax avoidance -- a serious black mark in a country that has seen major anticorruption protests in the last few years. 

Although the BJP appears to have closed ranks behind Singh, party officials still have much work to do to win over an increasingly sophisticated Indian electorate. BJP officials have resorted to rote populism -- they have, for example, staunchly opposed India's opening to  multi-brand retail firms such as Walmart to Tesco -- and have even opposed key liberal reforms. Some BJP leaders simply wish to stall the Congress Party at every juncture, regardless of the issue. Others actually fear that liberal reforms could undermine an important constituency: small shopkeepers who dread competition from foreign conglomerates. The party has also sought, with varying degrees of success, to shed its virulently anti-Muslim image.

That effort has not been helped, though, by the rise within the BJP of Narendra Modi, the highly controversial chief minister of the western state of Gujarat. Under Modi's watch, in February 2002, some Hindu Gujaratis carried out a pogrom against Muslims after some Muslims attacked and set on fire a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. In the uproar, more than 2,000 Muslims died. It was only last year that an Indian court convicted one of the principal instigators of the attacks on Muslims, Mayaben Kodnani, who was a member of Modi's cabinet.

Modi remains unrepentant about his institutional role during the tragedy and has done little to address the insecurities and concerns of the substantial Muslim minority in his state. He is also known as being somewhat autocratic and lacking in diplomatic skills. He is nevertheless very popular in the region for his record of generating considerable economic growth and promoting industrialization. To be sure, Modi will have a difficult time garnering enough nationwide support to challenge someone like Singh, but given that the BJP is not monolithic but a collection of various factions, anything could happen. 

Gandhi and his boosters within the Congress Party are certainly counting on the BJP's internal schisms and Modi's unpopularity among minorities in his home state (and beyond) to work to his advantage. Although these limitations will hobble the BJP, however, they are not enough to hand victory to Gandhi, either. In the end, the party that has placed all its bets on him could well discover that his dynastic halo has less appeal in India's evolving political order than it expected.

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  • SUMIT GANGULY is a Professor of Political Science and holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.
  • More By Sumit Ganguly