‘This election is critical for Congress’: can India’s Gandhi dynasty survive?

<span>Indian National Congress (INC) party candidate Rahul Gandhi (C) shows his inked finger after casting his ballot at a polling station in New Delhi on 25 May.</span><span>Photograph: Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Indian National Congress (INC) party candidate Rahul Gandhi (C) shows his inked finger after casting his ballot at a polling station in New Delhi on 25 May.Photograph: Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images

The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty were once the giants of India’s politics – the family at the forefront of the independence battle, who built up the formidable Congress party and produced three prime ministers.

But now the family are fighting for their survival. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, and his Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government are seeking a third term in power in elections taking place over six weeks. Most analysts believe a BJP victory against Congress and its allies once again seems likely.

Ten years in opposition have left Congress and the Gandhi family in decline, accused of elitism, disorganisation and weak leadership. The party presence on the ground remains lacklustre, compared with the BJP’s well-organised electoral machine and its disciplined cadre.

Analysts say that a third consecutive loss to Modi in June would deal another crippling blow to the family and could throw the future of the party as a viable political force into question.

Rahul Verma, a fellow at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, said the Congress party was akin to a “large ship which has rusted for a very long period of time”. Verma said the problem was in part the Gandhi family leadership “but also the whole organisation of the party, which is very weak”.

Verma warned that if Congress faced another major election loss, it could find itself with state, or even national, rebellions on its hands, which could further diminish and even fracture the party to devastating effect. “This election is critical for Congress,” he said.

‘They don’t know how to behave in opposition’

It was in 1929 that Jawaharlal Nehru was made president of Congress, later becoming India’s first post-independence prime minister. Almost 100 years later, there is little doubt that the Gandhi family remains firmly in charge. In 2017, Rahul Gandhi took over as president of the party from his mother, Sonia Gandhi, who had ruled it for two decades.

Rahul resigned two years later after losing to Modi, but the family’s influence has not waned and the Gandhis have made little effort to find a long-term successor who is not within their dynastic ranks. Few believe the family will vacate the political arena voluntarily. After internal pressure, last year Congress voted in a new president, Mallikarjan Kharge, but he is 81 years old and seen as the choice of the Gandhis. For many within its ranks, Congress without the Gandhis still seems unfathomable and Rahul Gandhi remains the recognisable face of the party.

“Earlier there was a divinity associated with this dynasty: it was unstated but they very much felt they were destined to rule this country,” said Sugata Srinivasaraju, who authored a book on Rahul Gandhi. “They don’t know how to behave when they are in opposition.”

Nowhere has the battle for the Gandhi family legacy been more visible in this election than in Raebareli, a dusty, nondescript constituency in Uttar Pradesh. The state was once the stronghold of Congress but under Modi it slipped from its grip to become a bastion of the BJP. Raebareli is the only safe Congress seat left.

Raebareli already has undue importance for the Gandhis, who have kept the family business alive here for decades. It was the constituency of Indira Gandhi and later Sonia Gandhi. Now the baton has been passed on to Rahul Gandhi, with Priyanka Gandhi spearheading the campaign.

Among bustling markets of the city, the stature of the family was still evident. “We are proud to have the Gandhis represent us, they have done a lot of good here,” said Mohammad Riaz, 45, a rickshaw driver. “If the Gandhis were in charge of all of India, the country would be free again.”

Yet others accused them of neglect. “The Gandhis have taken our vote here for granted for too long, they only came here to win elections and then we didn’t see them again,” said Ranjana Singh, 24, a masters student. “But this time round Rahul Gandhi is present on the ground and he is talking about the terrible lack of jobs we are all facing. So I want to give him a chance.”

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Rahul Gandhi is still Congress’s most plausible candidate for prime minister, though the party insists this decision will only be made after the election. However, much of the blame for Congress’s entrenched failures has been laid at his feet. Rahul is accused of being a weak leader who did not reform the party’s undemocratic structure, and is perceived as ambivalent to power, having seen both his father, Rajiv, and his grandmother, Indira, assassinated while in office.

“Rahul often veers more towards the spiritual rather than being that hard-nosed Indian politician he really needs to be to win elections,” said Srinivasaraju.

Perceptions of Rahul Gandhi began to shift in 2023 when he embarked on a 2,200km pilgrimage from north to south India on foot. In the face of the muscular, rightwing Hindu nationalism of Modi and the BJP, he spoke of religious harmony, equality and social justice, and took on the mantle of a rugged, street-fighting statesman, complete with a greying bushy beard. However, the pervasive view among commentators is that he still lacks the common touch, strongman political charisma and oratory skills to go up against Modi.

Priyanka Gandhi – who plays an organisational role in the party but is often described as a more natural politician than her older brother – has described Rahul as the “ideological centre of the party today”. “Our family is one of the things that holds the Congress together,” she said. “But primarily it is our ideology: that there is a place for every religion, every caste, every creed in this country.”

She hit back at Modi’s criticisms of Congress being a party of nepotism and privilege. “I can give you a long list of so-called dynastic politicians who are flourishing in the BJP and nobody is saying anything about it.”

‘An out and out ideological fight’

In the last election, Congress won just 51 out of 546 seats in parliament and now controls only three state governments. Priyanka Gandhi denied Congress was in decline, even as an opposition force. “We are standing up to them, we are standing up to all their unprecedented pressure tactics,” she said. “This election is an out and out ideological fight.”

Over the past decade, Congress has been among dozens of opposition parties saying they have faced a sustained attack by the Modi government, which has been accused of using instruments and agencies of the state to systematically go after and weaken political opponents and critics.

In 2023, Rahul Gandhi was convicted and sentenced to two years in jail for defaming the name Modi, in a case that opponents and activists alleged was politically trumped up to prevent him contesting elections. He was expelled from parliament before his sentence was overturned by the court. Then, weeks before the general election began, the tax authorities froze Congress party accounts.

No longer the political heavyweight it once was, in this election Congress is contesting the lowest number of parliamentary seats in 75 years and in many constituences is fighting as part of an opposition coalition of about 25 parties, who came together under the acronym “INDIA” in a bid to oust Modi.

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Though the INDIA coalition was initially blighted by infighting and competing agendas, with Congress accused of trying to assert itself as a leader, it has proved more resilient than many analysts predicted. Opposition narratives around unemployment and growing inflation have gained momentum, and reports of low voter turnout have indicated that Modi and the BJP may lose some seats this time round, giving Congress and other opposition leaders renewed confidence.

“Modi’s rhetoric is getting progressively more and more shrill and that is generally the sign of someone who is in trouble or who is anxious or worried about something,” said Priyanka Gandhi.

Nonetheless, analysts said this confidence may be misplaced, with polls suggesting it remains unlikely Congress will make sizeable gains when results are counted on 4 June.

Srinivasaraju said a Modi third term was only likely to bring the family more grief. “When Modi came to power he spoke about creating an India without Congress. This didn’t mean wiping out the party, it meant wiping out the Gandhi dynasty.”

Aakash Hassan contributed reporting