A joke doing the rounds several months ago was that the “i” in Brics stood for Indonesia. Recent events lend credence to that witticism. Indian growth rates are closer to 6 per cent than 8 per cent. Inflation rates exceed 10 per cent.
The rupee is at its lowest-ever level against the US dollar. Long-promised reforms such as the opening of the retail sector and the promotion of a countrywide goods and services tax have been abandoned.
The Indian economy is slowing and spluttering, and will continue to do so for some time. Behind this economic stagnation is a deeper story of political degradation. The country’s greatest political party is in steady decline. Founded in 1885, the Indian National Congress led a successful mass movement against colonial rule.
After independence, it gave the country a democratic and secular constitution, nurtured an industrial and technological base, and, most crucially, constructed a unified nation out of many divided parts.
Congress is in power in New Delhi, as it has been for all but 13 years since India’s independence in 1947. Yet this government is without energy and purpose. Even the weakest of minority governments were not so hopeless and apathetic.
The apathy is linked to the beleaguered status of the party’s main leaders. Last year, Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president, spent several weeks abroad because of an unspecified illness. Since her return, she has made few public appearances.
Rahul Gandhi, the party’s general secretary and presumed heir-apparent, is sulking after a humiliating election defeat suffered in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, where he led the campaign.
Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, is visibly weakened, both physically and politically. With a history of cardiac problems, and just four months shy of his 80th birthday, he faces the additional burden of presiding over a government beset by a series of corruption scandals.
The crises of the Congress, in party and in government, are connected to the declining charisma of its first family. When Ms Gandhi entered politics in 1998, she was admired for honouring the martyrdom of her husband and mother-in-law, Rajiv and Indira Gandhi, and for seeking to serve the nation. Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, is seen by many Indians as at best well-meaning and at worst as a spoilt child of privilege. His views on economics, governance and foreign affairs are largely unrecorded.
The urban middle class observes that in eight years in parliament he has not made a single important speech. Rural people note that Rahul Gandhi’s periodic visits to ask for their votes are interspersed with far longer stretches in New Delhi or overseas. He lacks, for the former, the intelligence and stature to be a statesman, and for the latter, the commitment and zeal to be a grassroots leader.
That is to say, and to put it very politely, Rahul Gandhi is no Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi.
Despite its weaknesses, the Congress remains the only national party, with a presence in all 28 states of the republic. It was the mother party of Indian freedom and it remains, in theory, above sectarian divides of caste and religion. Its cosmopolitanism should appeal to the now very large middle class, while its welfarist orientation should attract large sections of the poor. That it doesn’t appeal to either class, as recent state elections show, has much do with the quality of the party’s leadership.
In two years the country will face a general election. The prospects for the Congress appear dismal. Presently, Indians of talent and ambition are inhibited from joining or even voting for the Congress owing to its prevailing culture of deference and sycophancy.
A revival can come about only through a radical act, such as the replacement of the incompetent prime minister with a younger, more focused Congress leader whose surname is not Gandhi. The message this would send is that competence is valued above genes or loyalty.
Realists or cynics will say the measure I propose is too radical for Ms Gandhi to contemplate. Yet it may be the only way to rescue India’s oldest party from irrelevance and extinction.
The writer is the Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs at the London School of Economics
Congress party must get over the Gandhis
The Financial Times
published on 21st May 2012