Gandhi vs Modi: Critical moment for Congress as India prepares to vote

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Gandhi vs Modi: Critical moment for Congress as India prepares to vote

A.Ahul Gandhi seems angrier now. For years, even his close friends wondered whether he had the will to follow in the footsteps of his father, grandmother and great-grandfather, all Indian prime ministers. When he led the Congress party’s ill-fated campaign for the 2014 general elections, his speeches, often in halting Hindi, mostly fell flat. Five years later, he led his party to another crushing defeat, even losing his own parliamentary seat in the long-standing family stronghold of Amethi in northern India. Shortly after, he resigned as party leader.

And yet, as the general elections approach, which begin on April 19, Mr. Gandhi has found fire in his belly. It was one thing to remember when The Economist joined the final leg of a 6,300-mile journey across India that he completed last month. At rallies in the western state of Maharashtra, he denounced Narendra Modi, the prime minister, as a threat to democracy. He castigated the tycoons who dominate his economy. And he deplored endemic inequalities. “There is no place for you in this country,” he told a crowd in (now fluent) Hindi. “I don’t understand why you’re not doing anything about this.”

Mr Gandhi’s new zeal almost certainly came too late to swing this year’s results, due on June 4. Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (or BJP) should win again. But Congress loyalists hope it will help revitalize the party in coming years and position Mr. Gandhi as a more serious challenger in 2029. Until then, they say, public anger over unemployment and Inequalities could have dented Mr. Modi’s popularity. . And Mr. Gandhi has time on his side. At 53, he is twenty years younger than Mr. Modi.

The question is therefore no longer whether Mr Gandhi has the courage to fight. It’s a question of whether this Cambridge-educated, half-Italian scion of a political dynasty is the right person to overhaul a party that even some allies liken to a dysfunctional family business. Loyalists say the party needs a Gandhi to bind it and that Rahul proved himself during his two-leg trans-India tour, which he carried out largely on foot. But after a series of high-profile defections, even some supporters are beginning to wonder whether a third straight general election defeat should mean the end of the Gandhi family’s nearly eight-decade hold on the party.

To be fair to Mr Gandhi, the odds have been against him in recent times. Mr. Modi has restricted the independence of the media, the judiciary and civil society. His tax and investigative agencies have targeted dozens of opposition politicians, arrested two of his party leaders and frozen congressional bank accounts. Mr Gandhi himself is under investigation for money laundering (he denies any wrongdoing) and was suspended from Parliament for four months in 2023 after being found guilty of defamation for mocking the name of Mr. Modi. The vote is so uneven that congressional leaders recently considered boycotting the vote.

Nevertheless, Congress remains the only viable national alternative to BJP. Although Congress’s national vote share has declined steadily, from a peak of 49% in 1984 to 20% in 2019 (see chart 1), it retains a hard core of support among secular Indians, Muslims and others. other minorities, particularly in the south. And there is still a path to national power – if Mr Gandhi can meet the three pressing challenges within his purview.

Graphic: The Economist

The first is ideological. Over the past decade, Congress has struggled to identify a consistent message to compete with the BJPThe combination of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) and development. Portraying Mr. Modi as a threat to democracy does little to dent his support base among the Hindu majority, many of whom admire his muscular leadership. Congress leaders have dabbled in “soft Hindutva”, chatting with holy men and making high-profile temple visits. But this only seems to irritate the Congress stalwarts, while failing to steal BJP voice.

Recently, Congress has made inequality its central campaign theme. A manifesto, published on April 5 (and denounced by Mr. Modi as pro-Muslim), contained commitments including a legal right to apprenticeship, a minimum support price for farmers, cash transfers of 100,000 rupees ($1,200) to poor families and a minimum wage. of 400 rupees per day. He promised to conduct a national census of all groups in the Hindu caste system, strengthen an affirmative action program and reverse several measures. BJP policies he considers undemocratic.

It’s not just the economy

The manifesto also commits to creating millions of jobs in the manufacturing and mining sectors. But the emphasis on intervention and government aid (with few details on how to finance it) gave it a distinctly left-wing flavor. This partly reflects Mr Gandhi’s personal politics. According to his associates, he is less concerned with stimulating economic growth than with distributing its profits more equitably. “Most Indian politicians would accept that inequality is the price of rapid economic growth,” says Jairam Ramesh, a party spokesperson. “He refuses.”

There is a logic to Mr. Gandhi’s leftward tilt. To counter the BJPFaced with majoritarianism, it seeks to mobilize lower castes and minorities who represent around 80% of Indians. Yet it can be difficult to sell a product of wealth and privilege. Mr. Modi, on the other hand, is the son of a tea seller, from a relatively low caste. He won many votes among the poor by developing digital social protection (graph 2). And the BJP promised more aid in its own manifesto, released on April 14 (and denounced by Congress as “vain jugglery of words”).

Even more troubling for Congress is the apparent disconnect between voters’ daily concerns and their policy choices. Even though many worry about unemployment and want a caste census, they still support Mr. Modi. That suggests many voters don’t trust Congress to act, particularly on jobs, said Rahul Verma of the Center for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank. Nor can the party cite a state it has recently transformed, as Mr Modi could do with Gujarat before 2014. “The challenge is more difficult for the Congress because it has been in power for a very long time” , says Mr. Verma. “He comes with baggage.”

Mr. Gandhi’s second major challenge is organizational. THE BJPThe party’s recent electoral success rests in part on its ruthlessly effective management and messaging. Congress, by contrast, is plagued by slow, opaque, and sometimes erratic decision-making. He has often been reluctant to abandon candidates loyal to the Gandhi family, even after their electoral defeat.

His message discipline is also notoriously sloppy. Senior members of Congress often openly disagree or say things that upset alliance partners. Last year, the party reversed course in its response to Hamas’s attacks on Israel. In January, Congress leaders publicly split over whether to attend Mr. Modi’s inauguration of a controversial Hindu temple. And in March, a senior party official wrote an open letter challenging his support for caste census.

Two years ago, the party tried to recruit Prashant Kishor, a prominent election strategist who helped craft the bill. BJP2014 victory (and is now launching a new political party). He presented the Gandhis with a detailed plan to rethink the way the Congress organized itself, selected candidates and ran campaigns. They rejected it. “They are not yet ready to accept that there is a problem and that they need to change,” Mr. Kishor says. “They always believe that this is just a temporary phase, that it will stop and that sooner or later they will come back. »

The third challenge facing Mr. Gandhi is more personal. Although more energetic now, he still prefers the intellectual side of politics. While enjoying in-depth discussions on social issues, he dislikes the negotiations required to manage his party and its alliances. His enthusiasm for initiatives often diminishes when he encounters resistance. And he lacks administrative experience, having never led a state or a ministry. “The Gandhis are just prime ministers,” a former party member recalled of proposing that Mr. Gandhi join the cabinet when the Congress was in power.

Graphic: The Economist

A bigger concern is that Mr. Gandhi lacks the firmness needed to take control of his party. In the 2000s, he led a campaign to introduce new blood by holding open elections for youth and promising the same for the party leadership. This brought an influx of young talent. But over the next decade, they were repeatedly sidelined by Congressional elders, leading many rising stars to defect. Since 2019, at least 25 personalities have deserted Congress. The party’s inability to ignore party elders contributed to its defeat in three national elections last year.

Some party members worry that Mr. Gandhi is still in limbo, having neither full control of the Congress nor the willingness to let others take charge. After stepping down as party leader in 2019, he was replaced by his Italian-born mother, Sonia. In 2022, Congress veteran Mallikarjun Kharge replaced her. But Mr Kharge, now 81, is no match for Mr Modi and decision-making is still dominated by the Gandhis and a group of family loyalists. So far, the party has not nominated a candidate for prime minister, leaving Mr. Modi without a direct rival.

Congress leaders say Mr Kharge’s appointment proves the party’s commitment to meritocracy. Furthermore, they add, this is not a presidential race; prime ministers are normally chosen after an election. Even so, Mr Gandhi’s ambiguous role within the party leaves him vulnerable to suggestions that he is avoiding a head-on fight with Mr Modi. If the Congress is to reverse its decline in the coming years, Mr. Gandhi will have to make a choice: step up or step down.

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