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The heir apparent of India's ruling party will find that reforms help politically.
Will Rahul Gandhi become the next prime minister of India? Earlier this month, the ruling Congress Party’s 42-year-old heir apparent took a symbolic step toward that goal. Cheered on by delirious supporters at a conclave in the northern city of Jaipur, he ascended to the party’s vice presidency. With this he formally assumes the second-in-command position that has been his in all but name since he joined his mother, Congress President Sonia Gandhi, in politics in 2004.
No other democratic country displays as deep an attachment to a dynasty as India, and devotees seem to regard the prime minister’s office as Mr. Gandhi’s divine birthright. His father (Rajiv Gandhi), grandmother (Indira Gandhi), and great grandfather (Jawaharlal Nehru) all served as prime minister.
Despite the famous pedigree, Mr. Gandhi’s political prospects are far from certain. After a lackluster decade in politics, he faces a likely adversary in the charismatic Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). With parliamentary elections barely 15 months away, Mr. Gandhi must transcend his identity as a political scion and embrace one as an economic reformer
Unless Mr. Gandhi presents a clear economic vision that privileges opportunity over handouts, he risks being tarred by his government’s growing unpopularity and reputation for mishandling the economy. The International Monetary Fund estimates growth in 2012 to have slowed to 4.5%, less than half of its peak of 9.8% six years ago.
He also risks being labeled a do-nothing politician, a dilettante who lacks focus and sharp political instincts. Pundits routinely decry Mr. Gandhi’s spotty attendance of Parliament and his failure to grapple seriously with India’s most pressing issues. When thousands took to Delhi’s streets last month to protest a gang rape that left a 23-year-old physiotherapy student dead, the man his party touts as a “youth icon” was nowhere to be seen. In 2011, Mr. Gandhi similarly sidestepped massive anti-corruption protests led by social activist Anna Hazare.
Moreover, Mr. Gandhi’s electoral record is mixed at best. In the 2009 parliamentary elections, he helped his mother lead Congress to its best performance since Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination two decades earlier. But since then the party has suffered an embarrassing string of state election defeats. Mr. Gandhi led the charge last year in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, but his party came in a dismal fourth..
In contrast, despite anti-Muslim riots on his watch in 2002, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has won broad admiration among the middle class for his administrative acumen. Under him Gujarat has become a byword for business-friendliness and efficient government. Though polls in India ought to be taken with a grain of salt, two recent surveys by leading national magazines show Mr. Gandhi trailing Mr. Modi among urban voters.
Meanwhile, Congress’s emphasis on wooing rural voters with handouts such as make-work jobs and subsidized grain has begun to alienate educated urban India. Mr. Gandhi’s attempt to position himself as the voice of India’s dispossessed doesn’t help. He has claimed to be “a soldier in Delhi” for an obscure group of tribals, ostentatiously spent a night in the hut of a Dalit (former Untouchable) in Uttar Pradesh, and stumped about “two Indias”-one rich and one poor. But if voters are buying this message, they’ve done a marvelous job of keeping it secret in recent state polls.
The middle class-anywhere between 60 to 300 million people, depending on who’s counting-may lack the numbers to determine an election on its own. But it plays an outsized role in shaping public opinion. As long as India’s economy was growing at nearly 10%, middle-class voters had no reason to fret about their step-motherly treatment. But with slow growth drying up jobs and souring the national mood, the landscape has suddenly changed. Middle class protesters were at the forefront of recent anticorruption and anti-rape demonstrations.
To his credit, Mr. Gandhi appears to have belatedly grasped the need to appeal to this increasingly angry constituency. “There is a young and impatient India and it is demanding a greater voice in the country’s future,” he declared in Jaipur. But this diagnosis hasn’t been followed up with a plan to win over urban voters come next year’s general election.
That plan should involve economic reform. In the run-up to the 2014 polls, Mr. Gandhi could test the waters by supporting privatizing a loss-making state firm such as Air India. Or he could call for relaxing India’s onerous labor laws that impede growth in manufacturing.
On a tactical note, such a pro-reform agenda would help Congress weaken the opposition. It would not only blunt Mr. Modi’s big weapon as an economic modernizer, but also exploit a fissure in the BJP between the likes of Mr. Modi and those who dream of returning to power simply by battling everything proposed by Congress. If the BJP reflexively opposes ideas like privatization-as it foolishly opposed foreign investment in retail last year-it ends up looking churlish and backward.
But first Mr. Gandhi has to realize he cannot coast on a famous last name or rural populism anymore. The old Congress script isn’t working. It’s time to try something new.
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© 2016 American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research