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It's game over for the Gandhis but Congress has a chance to begin anew

Sadanand Dhume | WSJ/ 12 Jul 19 | 07:47 AM

Can India’s Congress Party survive without the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty with which it has become synonymous? For dynasty loyalists, habituated to treating India’s oldest political party as a family fiefdom, the thought is heretical. But they need to acknowledge a harsh truth: 49-year-old Rahul Gandhi has become a liability for the party his family has helmed for much of the past 70 years.

Renewed debate about the Congress Party’s future follows a second consecutive drubbing by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in the national elections in May. Congress won only 52 of 543 seats in the directly elected lower house of Parliament, about one-sixth as many as the BJP. In 14 of 30 states, Congress could not snag a single seat.

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Last week Mr. Gandhi resigned as the party’s president. In a letter, he accepted responsibility for the national defeat while also accusing the BJP of deploying “the entire machinery of the Indian state" against Congress.

In an advanced democracy, the idea of a party chief stepping down after an electoral shellacking would barely raise an eyebrow. In the Congress Party, it’s enough to trigger an earthquake. Conventional wisdom in Congress holds that only a member of the family can command the stature to unite squabbling party chieftains and motivate workers. Without a Nehru-Gandhi in charge, the argument goes, Congress will quickly become a rudderless mess.

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There’s only one problem with this view: Congress has become a rudderless mess with a Nehru-Gandhi in charge. The beleaguered party faces a spate of defections by state legislators in Goa and Karnataka. Adding insult to injury, Mr. Gandhi—the son, grandson and great-grandson of prime ministers—lost in the family bastion of Amethi this past election. Since he entered politics 15 years ago, after a stint as a management consultant in London, Mr. Gandhi has managed to display consistency in only one thing: a tin ear for public sentiment.

In 2017, despite a record of leading his party to a string of losses as vice president, Mr. Gandhi took over unopposed as Congress president from his mother, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi. On the whole, apart from a brief glimmer of promise late last year when Congress wrested three Hindi heartland states from the BJP, the Nehru-Gandhi scion has proved no match for Mr. Modi and his chief consigliere, BJP President Amit Shah.

On the campaign trail, voters often fault Mr. Gandhi for his clumsy oratory and apparent lack of seriousness. His frequent foreign vacations contrast poorly with the Modi-Shah duo’s ferocious work ethic and take-no-prisoners ethos.

On substantive issues, Mr. Gandhi does no better. He lacks the imagination to take on the BJP on the two issues that matter most to India: the economy and religious pluralism.

Over the years, the Congress leader has attempted to style himself a messiah of the poor. He has held sleepovers in poor villages with visiting foreign dignitaries such as Britain’s foreign secretary. He has declared himself “a soldier" for a remote tribe threatened by a multinational bauxite mine. Mr. Gandhi often claims to represent “the India of the poor" against “the India of the rich."

This year, Mr. Gandhi turned for advice to the leftist French economist Thomas Piketty, who helped Congress come up with a massive 3.6 trillion rupee ($53 billion) income-guarantee scheme aimed at 50 million of the poorest Indian families. Going by the election results, it found few takers.

Mr. Gandhi’s approach is severely flawed. Many of the voters Congress seeks to woo have already been captured by Mr. Modi, whose expansive welfare schemes include health insurance, subsidized housing and cooking-gas cylinders, and small loans for self-employed entrepreneurs. Besides, the prime minister, a former tea seller from Gujarat, makes a far more credible champion of the poor than a globe-trotting champagne socialist from Delhi with a famous last name.

The last thing India needs is yet another leftist politician who promises handouts. It may be far-fetched to expect Mr. Gandhi to start spouting Milton Friedman or Friedrich Hayek, but a more centrist approach to the economy would have allowed Congress to better target aspirational voters upset by Mr. Modi’s inability to create jobs or rev up economic growth.

On religious pluralism, Mr. Gandhi has oscillated unconvincingly between defending his family’s commitment to secularism and a belated effort to convince voters that he’s an ardent Hindu by temple-hopping in the runup to elections and Instagramming a 12-day trek to a sacred mountain in Tibet. He has not grasped the central challenge: addressing reasonable concerns about radical Islam while ensuring fairness toward ordinary Indian Muslims.

In his resignation letter, Mr. Gandhi said Congress must “radically transform itself." It should start by becoming a party that champions the ideas India needs for its future, rather than a family that harks back to its past.

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