Gandhi seeks to revive Congress fortunes

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi (centre) at a rally in Gujarat on Monday. He is traversing the western state where Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his name, to fire up his party workers.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi (centre) at a rally in Gujarat on Monday. He is traversing the western state where Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his name, to fire up his party workers.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Scion of India's fabled political dynasty set to be party leader, sets out to challenge PM Modi

NEW DELHI • Mr Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India's most fabled political dynasty, will within weeks be crowned leader of the Congress party, handing him a freer rein to prove if he can mount a credible challenge to the dominance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The great-grandson of India's founding prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru has struggled to convince voters and many in his party that he is leadership material, especially after a drubbing in the 2014 general election.

Mr Modi's depiction of Mr Gandhi as an undeserving "prince" has helped sideline the 47-year-old since the last national vote, during which time Congress has suffered some of its worst local polls results.

But this year the economy has stumbled, and Congress politicians hope a round of state elections, beginning in Mr Modi's home state of Gujarat, offer them and their leader a shot at revival ahead of the next national polls in 2019.

Mr Gandhi will take over as Congress president from his 70-year-old mother, Sonia Gandhi, a symbolic promotion that Congress officials said they hoped would free his hand to shift the narrative from a clash of personalities, which Mr Modi has so far resoundingly won, to a debate about policies.

Congress MP Jyotiraditya Scindia, who works closely with Mr Gandhi, said: "The right time has come to strike a chord with the masses against Modi's governance style, and we will not miss it."

Congress insiders acknowledge their leader has sometimes made it easy for Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to question his commitment to politics. "The key problem with Rahul Gandhi has been his lack of consistency," said a senior party figure, who declined to be identified. Bursts of political energy have been followed by lengthy absences. In 2015, he took nearly two months of leave, prompting the BJP to accuse him of "holidaying" while Parliament was in session.

Congress insiders acknowledge the party is unlikely to win the December election in Gujarat, but cutting into the BJP majority in the state would send a powerful signal that Congress under Mr Gandhi has a fighting chance.

But Congress officials say Mr Gandhi has recently been finding his stride, criticising Mr Modi for failing to create jobs, while the party has won a few by-elections.

Mr Gandhi is traversing Gujarat, the western state where Mr Modi made his name, to fire up his party workers. He has ditched some party rallies for one-on-one meetings with trade unions, dairy workers and small traders - a traditional Modi powerbase that has been hit hard by recent economic reforms championed by the Prime Minister.

And Mr Modi has taken notice; last week, he told workers from his Hindu nationalist BJP that the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty would "destroy Gujarat".

Mr Gandhi's father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all premiers in post-independence India. But critics deride him as a political lightweight who depends on his family name for power.

Congress now governs states home to less than 10 per cent of India's 1.3 billion population, its powerbase shrivelled under the onslaught of Mr Modi's popularity.

Congress insiders acknowledge the party is unlikely to win the December election in Gujarat, but cutting into the BJP majority in the state would send a powerful signal that Congress under Mr Gandhi has a fighting chance.

Mr Gandhi has set up a new social media team in New Delhi to work on his image, and officials say he has been forging better ties with regional parties that are often key powerbrokers in India politics.

"We have to show him as the face of the party before the Gujarat elections," said a close aide.

BJP leaders say they are untroubled, and Mr Modi has called the slowdown a blip. "What does his claim to fame rest on?" spokesman Nalin Kohli said. "Two months of campaigning does not make him an active politician."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2017, with the headline 'Gandhi seeks to revive Congress fortunes'. Print Edition | Subscribe