Limits of dynastic politics seen in polls

INDIA'S just-concluded parliamentary elections have shown up the limits of dynastic politics to the country's ruling Congress party, dominated by the Gandhi family that has produced three prime ministers.

The party's likely response to the crisis: More of the same.

"We do not place much trust in the exit polls since they have been pretty wrong in the past," said a serving Cabinet minister and senior Congress party source.

"But if there is going to be a debacle, it will be the responsibility of the entire party, not one or two individuals."

Exit polls that followed the end of voting on Monday project Congress, the party of independence, to crash to its worst showing.

All but one poll suggested that Congress will finish with fewer than 100 seats in the 543-seat powerful Lower House of Parliament, down from 206.

Some pollsters believe the Congress tally could fall to as low as 72 while the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could win three times that number.

Indian media reports suggested that Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi will accept moral responsibility for the poor showing, when results are officially announced on Friday.

The attempt, apparently, is to ring-fence her son, Congress vice-president and two-time MP Rahul Gandhi, from the electoral fallout.

While Congress has not officially named Mr Gandhi as its candidate for prime minister, he has fronted the party's campaign.

The 43-year-old politician, whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather were Indian prime ministers, has campaigned across the nation.

But in contrast to his rival, his rhetoric has been uninspiring, and except for a last-minute surge in Varanasi, one of the two constituencies from where opposition front runner Narendra Modi contested the elections, the crowds at his rallies have been thin.

At the same time, Mr Modi repeatedly attacked the "mother- son government" for the ills facing India.

"Congress should understand that dynasty will not deliver victory," said BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad.

"The politics of dynasty, inheritance and arrogance is being rejected in favour of good governance. India's people have responded substantively to the need for a stable, good government."

Observers speak of Congress' missed opportunities.

For instance, some 100 million of the 814 million eligible to vote this time were first-timers, not surprising in a nation where the median age is less than 27. Yet, Mr Gandhi, who is 20 years Mr Modi's junior, failed to attract them.

Among the reasons cited is an unwillingness to hold ministerial office, in spite of a standing invitation from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to take on a Cabinet role.

"Rahul had everything to offer a young person but his gestation period was too long," said noted political anthropologist Shiv Viswanathan.

"It created a 'Prince Charles effect'. He was seen as a pupa that refuses to fly."

Fear of upsetting or upstaging the Gandhi family also prevented several capable young Congress ministers, such as Mr Jyoti Scindia, Mr Sachin Pilot, Mr Shashi Tharoor and Mr Milind Deora, from being better projected by the party.

"There was an internal division between the old type of party bosses like Sonia's adviser Ahmed Patel and Rahul's need to internally reform the party," adds Professor Viswanathan.

"The new generation needs a new kind of leadership. The family has to be sacrificed for the party."