It is one of the most storied names in political history, a party synonymous with modern India and an inspiration for revolutionary movements led by the likes of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh.
But a disastrous performance in the recent national elections has many wondering whether this is the end for the Indian National Congress party.
The party that has led India for most of its 67 years as an independent nation was thumped out of power, winning a paltry 44 of 543 parliamentary seats — its lowest tally by far — and prompting serious questions about the leadership of the Gandhis, the first family of Indian politics.
The descendants of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s erudite first prime minister, and his strong-willed daughter, Indira Gandhi, have proved less adept at governing a fast-changing India. With the party’s last several years in power subsumed by corruption scandals and economic calamities, the once-revered family name increasingly reeks of a stale dynasty that has even longtime supporters clamoring for the Gandhis to step aside.
An editorial in the Hindustan Times, a national newspaper run by former Congress party lawmaker Shobhana Bhartia, said the party is “seemingly in terminal decline” and needs to find a new generation of leaders.
“It has to undergo a drastic mind-set change and reevaluate many of its core principles, among them the relevance of dynastic rule,” the newspaper said.
Some critics are writing the party’s obituary. “They are not going to come back,” said Mohan Guruswamy, a prominent economist who has advised Congress’ rival, the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party.
The party faithful counter that Congress has lost before and come back strong. “Congress has always fought back, and there is no reason it can’t fight back again,” said Eknath Gaikwad, a Congress lawmaker from south-central Mumbai.
Congress’ decline represents an epochal change for a fractious nation long held together by the party’s big-tent liberalism. It comes as India appears to be turning rightward after overwhelmingly electing the BJP, whose leader, new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, rails against Congress’ signature welfare and affirmative action programs aimed at historically disadvantaged lower castes and the rural poor.
Gandhi allies criticize the BJP as Hindu chauvinists, noting that none of its 282 Parliament members are from the Muslim community, which accounts for about 14% of India’s 1.2 billion people. But as much as it sees pluralism as a founding principle, Congress has not embraced that ethos at the very top of its hierarchy, which is strictly a family affair.
Days after the election embarrassment, the mother-son team that leads Congress, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, met with advisors in New Delhi and reportedly offered their resignations. According to news accounts in Indian media, the advisors spent more than half of the three-hour meeting imploring them not to go. The meeting ended with a unanimous statement of faith in the Gandhis’ leadership.
“Not much time was left for any introspection,” the Times of India reported dryly.
Longtime party officials say they have failed in campaigning, not in governing. Beginning in 2004, the party ushered in near-universal education, expanded food subsidies and introduced a landmark government transparency law. It also embarked on one of the largest welfare programs of its kind in the world, a rural employment system that guaranteed every household 100 days of wage-earning work a year. Officials say it has provided jobs to about 50 million of the poorest Indian households.
But after Congress won reelection in 2009, a parade of corruption scandals came to light. The welfare programs and economic liberalization increased incomes, which in turn pushed up prices of basic goods and contributed to inflation, one of the main complaints among working-class voters.
Scholarly Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was seen as a puppet of Sonia Gandhi and too weak to confront errant party bosses.
“The accomplishments were not well articulated, and they got lost in the hullabaloo of the election campaign,” lawmaker Gaikwad said.
A 75-year-old party stalwart who joined Congress because he was inspired by Nehru, Gaikwad rejects any suggestion that the Gandhis find new blood to lead the party. Referring to the assassinations of Indira Gandhi in 1984 and Sonia Gandhi’s husband, Rajiv, in 1991, he said that no family has sacrificed as much for India’s democracy.
“It’s because of the Gandhi family that I am in Congress,” Gaikwad said. “They’re the glue that keeps the Congress together, and Congress has laid the foundations of this country.”
A younger group of party officials has begun to show hints of frustration with the family’s stewardship, particularly that of the 43-year-old party vice president, Rahul. Square-jawed and Cambridge-educated, he had been billed as the party’s leader of the future, but his diffident and distracted performances on the campaign trail have made him a national punch line., He eked out a narrow victory for his parliamentary seat in Amethi, a Gandhi family bastion for decades.
Some party insiders are said to want a bigger role for Rahul’s sister, Priyanka, a political neophyte who nevertheless drew enthusiastic crowds in her few appearances on the campaign trail. The spitting image of her grandmother Indira, she carries political baggage: Her real-estate tycoon husband, Robert Vadra, is a fixture in Indian newspapers amid allegations of corrupt land deals.
“Everyone in India makes money the way the son-in-law makes money — it’s the crony capitalist system — but the family is expected to be above all this,” Guruswamy said.
Analysts see real danger for Congress because it suffered major election setbacks in its longtime strongholds in the so-called Hindi heartland of north and central India. With more Indians living in urban areas, Congress’ rural base has softened. So, too, has its appeal as India’s founding party, with a growing number of young voters more interested in private sector jobs and clean government.
Party stalwarts point out that Congress has been down before: in 1977, when it was drubbed at the polls after Indira Gandhi instituted emergency rule, and in 2004, when a BJP-led government swept into power for the first time. Both times, the party recovered to win the next national election.
“People have written our obituary before,” Gaikwad said. “In five years the people will be disillusioned by Mr. Modi and they will come back to us.”
Special correspondent Parth M.N. contributed to this report.