A well-known Indian fashion designer, who had recently flown home from New York, said to me at a dinner in Delhi: “For the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel like coming back. I felt like it used to be in the old days, when we would go abroad and didn’t want to come back.”
The designer was referring to the malaise that has settled over this once hopeful country. People in India will give you many reasons for it. They will cite the growth rate — once nearing 10 percent, now barely 5 — they will talk of the corruption, in every sector from telecom to land to coal, that has totally discredited Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government; they will mention the reforms that never happened. And they are not wrong to talk of these things. But these are only symptoms. Not the cause of the gloom, but emanations from it.
What really ails the world’s largest democracy, and what has caused it to lose its footing at this crucial moment in its development, is that its oldest party, its ruling party, the party that invented dynastic democracy, the Congress Party, has found, in the person of Rahul Gandhi, an abysmal mediocrity for an heir. It makes for such sad reading, this tale of the failed crown prince, that it hardly bears telling, were it not for the fact that it has derailed the aspirations of a billion people.
The story began in 2009, when the Congress Party was re-elected at the head of an alliance of parties. At that point, Mr. Singh, the distinguished architect of India’s economic reforms, had been prime minister for five years. Although there are no term limits on the post, he was already in his late 70s. And his party, which had for so long sought legitimacy in the cult of the Gandhi family, felt it was time to put in place a succession plan: a restoration, after a gap of some two decades, of a Gandhi to the office of prime minister. Mr. Singh was set up as the able regent, Rahul Gandhi — grandson of Indira Gandhi — as the 42-year-old prince in waiting.
Of course — this being a democracy — the heir had to prove himself at the polls. The party, though careful to protect him from having to take full responsibility for an election, wanted him, at the very least, to increase the party’s showing in a major state election or two. They wanted him to display some of that old Gandhi charisma, so that a media only too keen to anoint him anyway would be able to report that the people of India were keener still.
Mr. Gandhi has always come across as a diffident politician. He has turned down the prime minister’s repeated pleas to join the cabinet; he has shied away from projecting himself as his party’s choice for prime minister in 2014; as its general secretary, he has spoken out against dynasty and tried to make his party fairer, less sycophantic. He has, at times, even seemed like a crusader against the very power structure that has bestowed such tremendous unelected power upon him.
All this noblesse oblige would have served as a charming and tasteful backdrop to his rise — an unwilling heir accepting his heavy mantle with a heavy heart. But there was one small problem. In dress rehearsal after dress rehearsal, it became clear that, if anyone was more reluctant to see Rahul Gandhi become prime minister than Rahul Gandhi himself, it was the Indian electorate.
THE party machinery slaved away in state after state. But they could not find a single major election in which Rahul Gandhi was, on the back of his own effort, granted anything resembling a face-saving success. Everywhere he went and, unluckily for him, he went everywhere, he managed to leave the political fortunes of his party either damaged or unchanged.
In Bihar, a state with almost three times the population of California, he succeeded in 2010 in reducing the party’s toehold in an assembly of 243 from 9 seats to 4. Two years later, in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state, the result was even worse. He toured many of the state’s 400 or so seats, making excited speeches in labored Hindi (never his strong suit) and lavishly promising more handouts, more populist schemes. And yet the Congress Party finished last among the big parties. It lost even in places like Amethi and Rae Bareli, Gandhi family strongholds for decades.
The prince was decent; he was hardworking; he was sincere. But he was, as far as the ballot box went, an unmitigated and un-photo-shoppable disaster.
Everyone had known after that second Congress victory in 2009 that there was a succession plan. What people had not perhaps counted on, even in clubbish and nepotistic India, was that the succession plan was the only plan. As time went on, it became evident that the party had no long-term goal beyond installing its heir; no policy solutions; no political talent that had survived its obsession with dynasty. And what we began to realize, as a perfectly competent government sputtered, stalled and drifted, was that the aspirations of a billon people had been ransomed upon the electability of one man.
In a country like India — at this moment in its history, with its level of inequality, with millions of young people whose hopes have been awakened and must be answered — it is not simply sad to lose a generation; it is dangerous, a recipe for vast social disturbance.
India’s problems, many economists agree, are not the natural consequence of the global slowdown, but very much of its own making. Once the succession plan was in jeopardy, Mr. Singh, under pressure from the party, withdrew and left the country to run on autopilot. The reform agenda — privatizing industry, passing sensible labor laws, reducing red tape and generally creating a friendlier environment for investors — was abandoned. Rogue ministers ran amok; corruption became grotesque, and major infrastructure and development projects stalled. The country’s rise was subordinated to the rise of the heir.
Just this month, in another attempt to put Mr. Gandhi before the people while shielding him from any further electoral embarrassment, the party declared him the head of its campaign in 2014, but not necessarily its prime ministerial choice. As the ruling party — without ideas, without vision, with no narrative other than dynasty — flogs this deadest of dead horses, the story of India’s reinvention, just two decades old, begins to meander. And this diminuendo, for coming just when the music had been loudest, and when there was so much still to be done, could not be more depressing. It feels, as the designer said, like a return to old times.
Aatish Taseer, the author of the memoir Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands.