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It's too early to write an obituary for the standard-bearer of India's most famous political dynasty.
Is Rahul Gandhi a liability for India’s ruling Congress Party? On the face of it, the 43-year-old Congress vice president and scion of the Nehru-Gandhi clan seems a hapless dilettante unsuited for the hurly-burly of politics. Multiple polls show Congress heading for a drubbing at the hands of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in national elections that must be held by May. But although Mr. Gandhi’s immediate electoral prospects look bleak, his long-term odds of becoming prime minister remain high.
Over the past two years, Mr. Gandhi’s increasingly visible role in Congress—still formally headed by his mother, Sonia Gandhi—has coincided with a string of crushing defeats in state elections. With Mr. Gandhi spearheading its campaigns, the party has been all but obliterated in the populous Hindi heartland, even as the BJP has strengthened its grip over parts of western India such as the prosperous state of Gujarat.
According to a poll from Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, the business-friendly Gujarat chief minister, is opening a commanding lead over Mr. Gandhi. At 34% of the electorate, more than twice as many Indians would pick Mr. Modi over Mr. Gandhi. At the same time, an upstart new force, the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party, threatens to hollow Congress’s traditional support among the poor by following a similar strategy of promising handouts, but with the added pledge of clean government.
Mr. Gandhi appears unable to connect with ordinary voters, only 15% of whom want to see him as prime minister. Up against dazzling natural orators, he prefers to read his speeches from prepared texts often littered with management-consulting jargon. In a long and rambling interview that aired Monday night—his first major television news outing after a decade in politics—Mr. Gandhi spoke earnestly about processes, structures and systems, but barely touched upon the grubby business of winning votes.
Despite being the son, grandson and great-grandson of prime ministers, he has tried to don the cloak of a rebel at odds with the muck of Indian politics. Hence his claiming credit for a recent anticorruption bill that actually grew out of antigovernment protests three years ago. In effect, the country’s ultimate insider wants voters to take him seriously as an outsider.
Perhaps most damagingly, Mr. Gandhi has failed to convince voters that he takes his job seriously. According to the think tank PRS Legislative Research, Mr. Gandhi’s attendance record in Parliament was a dismal 43%. In 10 years as a legislator, he has yet to distinguish himself with a landmark speech or piece of legislation. Nor has a ballyhooed effort to inject merit into the party borne obvious fruit. Virtually all of the party’s young ministers are princelings who owe their jobs as much to their famous last names as to any obvious talent.
In many countries, a politician approaching middle age with so slender a record, so uncertain a vocation, and such low poll numbers would struggle to plot a comeback. But this is India, where the Congress Party’s legacy and his family history give Mr. Gandhi advantages that his peers in other democracies can only dream of.
Simply put, Mr. Gandhi is the natural leader of India’s natural ruling party. Congress has governed India for most of its independent history, never attracting less than a quarter of the national vote. Its historic low is higher than BJP’s historic high. Moreover, unlike Mr. Modi, who faces powerful intra-party rivals, Mr. Gandhi presides over Congress unchallenged. Since the late 1960s, nobody in the party has mounted a serious challenge to Nehru-Gandhi supremacy.
Nor can Congress’s current unpopularity be traced entirely to Mr. Gandhi. This year the party is grappling with the legacy of a government that has allowed inflation to soar, growth to plummet, jobs to dry up and corruption to flourish. In future elections it won’t face this perfect storm of anti-incumbent sentiment.
In the long term, many of Mr. Gandhi’s most obvious deficiencies can be ameliorated. He appeared undercooked in his network news debut Monday, but he also showed a new willingness to face scrutiny. Over time, his legislative record and public-speaking skills may also inch upward. And in a country littered with airports, universities and government programs named for his family members, name recognition will never be an issue.
Don’t count on Rahul Gandhi to lead Congress to victory this year. But don’t count him out in the long haul either.
Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a columnist for WSJ.com. He tweets @dhume
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