Long revered amongst the founders of modern India, the Gandhi family is now facing the most delicate political moment in memory as its INC party risks losing national elections.
AMETHI — The small assembly of villagers gathered in the tent can’t wait much longer in this stifling heat of this district in northeastern India. All are wiping their foreheads, slumped in their plastic chairs — except for Munna, beads of sweat running down her face as she stands in front of a small stage surrounded by flowers. The farm worker put on her best sari and walked three kilometers in the hope of meeting Priyanka Gandhi, the great-granddaughter of the legendary Jawharlal Nehru, to hand her some written requests.
“We need water pumps in the village,” Munna says. “Party officials don’t listen to the poor anymore. We only have the Gandhis left.”
Here, the Gandhis are regarded as gods. Of course, this is their kingdom. Nehru, who served as India's first Prime Minister (1947-1964), had chosen this place — in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, just a few miles away from Allahabad, the birthplace of the Indian independence movement — to place son-in-law Feroze Gandhi during the first Indian general election in 1952.
The district was then divided into two, Amethi et Raebareli, and since then it has been passed on from generation to generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family. During a reign of 60 years, there have been few defeats.
But this year, leaders of the leading political party, the Indian National Congress (INC), are restless. The party has been discredited by corruption scandals, rising inflation and sluggish growth, and could well suffer a national defeat.
Outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is linked to the INC, may see Indian People’s Party rival Narendra Modi succeed him once the results of the general election, which ended this week, are tallied.
The Amethi and Raebareli districts voted May 7. Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia, respectively Nehru’s great-grandson and wife of his grandson, and the leaders of the INC, are here. They must keep their heartland at all costs. A defeat would represent a terrible symbol.
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Rahul Gandhi — Photo: Hibi Eden
Arrival of the “princess”
On the horizon, a cloud of dust rises. A dozen Jeeps suddenly appear, driving down a small dirt track with wailing sirens.
Priyanka Gandhi is arriving. She is not a parliament member and is not running for anything, but she is a politician nevertheless who came to don a crown of flowers and give a 10-minute speech on stage. “Think about all we did for you: roads, hospitals, factories,” she says. In response, an electrician putting away cables under the blazing sun grumbles, “We’ve also done a lot for the Gandhis.”
He has been working without pay for the past few days. The party promised him a job in a nearby factory. Munna, the farm worker, has given her small scribbled pieces of paper to the person she calls “Princess Gandhi.” She bursts into tears. “It’s my last chance for the water pumps.”
Here, the INC works like a parallel administration. At the local branch, a “facilitation office” is in charge of collecting grievances from the people. “And, if necessary, we send one of our members to help solve a problem with the administration of the police,” the director says.
But the party is now only the shadow of what is once was. During the 2012 regional election, no INC candidate was elected in Raebareli.
Here, people no longer vote for the party. They vote for the Gandhis, whom they love for good reason. Only they can use their influence to bring public companies and supply thousands of jobs, so why not make the most of them? These public companies are called “gifts.”
Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1966-1977 and 1980-1984) gave many gifts, as did her son Rajiv, who succeeded to her (1984-1989), and her daughter-in-law Sonia, who just had a railway equipment factory built. The gift of Rahul Gandhi, vice president of the INC, is an industrial park still under construction that is dedicated to food processing.
Some gifts do not age well, like the telephone-producing ITI factory, which was built in Raebareli at the time when phones were, like rockets, symbols of modernity. Today, the site is an almost deserted complex where, at the reception desk, an employee is furiously banging a phone on his desk, trying to make it work.
The ITI employees spend more time at home than at work because of an almost empty order book. SP Singh, an engineer who lives sparingly in his company apartment, is waiting for the day when he will receive redundancy benefits to return to his village. “At my age, no one will want me.” Singh says he will not vote for the Gandhis.
Bribery eating away at the party
The Gandhi fiefdom is also home to many gas stations alongside smooth roads that, on the eve of the election, smell of fresh tar. A contract, decided in Delhi by the ministry of petroleum, can reward loyalty or make a political rival change his mind.
With strong growth over the last few years, new opportunities have arisen, such as awarding of public contracts. Manoj Dwivedi swears he owes his fortune only to his “work” and to his “admiration for the Gandhis.”
This is quite convenient. His company, Infratech, specializes in infrastructure construction in regions where the INC is powerful. The self-made man has also invested in a television station, Shri News, and a daily newspaper, Shri Times. These days, he has the privilege of being part of Priyanka Gandhi’s cortege.
This dishonest system of rewarding political supporters with business is eating away at the INC away like cancer. “Ideas or the program don’t really matter,” says Ram Tripathi, a former regional BBC correspondent. “The party has become a thriving company that serves anyone’s interests.”
The system, where loyalty trumps ideas and where only the top of the hierarchy matters, has abandoned its ideology and, most importantly, disconnecting from the voters.
“Take their money — but don’t vote for them”
The most serious criticism, in fact, comes from the inside. OP Srivastava, INC secretary general in the Uttar Pradesh state, is a veteran of politics who wears white sneakers, a white tunic and travels about in a white chauffeured SUV. Since his political ascension, he has also acquired some land and private schools. “The party is weak and completely disconnected from its base,” Srivastava says from his living room, which is covered with photos of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi.
Since he started in politics 52 years ago, Srivastava has seen plenty of change, but what saddens him the most is the growing influence business sectors have in party decisions. Srivastava draws this disappointed conclusion: “When Indira Gandhi said she was fighting against hunger, she took the necessary measures. Today, the Congress says it is fighting against poverty, but inequality has only grown. There is no longer any consistency between what is said and what is done.”
In the land of the Gandhis, there is at least one candidate who has been traveling the district for months and who believes in his chances to knock down the almighty dynasty. Kumar Vishwas, a regional native, speaks the local dialect perfectly, unlike his opponent, the English-speaking Rahul Gandhi. Most importantly, he is a poet idolized by the Indian youth, reciting his work from Tokyo to London.
The poet decided to join the Common Man Party (AAP) and to abandon his luxury clothes. He says he tries to follow the example of Mahatma Gandhi. “I tell the voters: take the money the Congress will give you before the election, but don’t vote for them,” he says. “We’re tired of politicians driving Mercedes while children are dying of malnutrition.” Wherever he goes, people are surprised to see a candidate listening to them.
Rajesh Prabhat Verma, a young sympathizer of the Common Man Party candidate, asks, “Why would people vote for Rahul Gandhi when he’s never in Parliament? We need better governance in our district, to know where the money is going, which is possible thanks to the Internet,” he says. Verma was schooled in institutes built by the Gandhis but is now jobless. And yet these claims are like water off a duck’s back to the INC.
Reforms will be difficult
The Congress, which has survived other crises, never dies: It is reincarnated. After 10 years in power, it needs reform. A few changes already have been launched to democratize it — for example, primary elections in 15 districts across the country. “And you no longer find a job in a factory by calling the local MP, but by sending an email directly to the company,” a shoe manufacturer at the Raebareli market adds.
The unavoidable reform program will probably be difficult to execute. “It’s an umbrella party that draws its richness from its many schools of thought,” a close relation of Rahul Gandhi explains. “It must overall democratize itself and open up to society without shrinking its ideological base.” Inside, every change is being considered, except for withdrawal of the Gandhi family. The Congress would risk imploding, like in the 1990s.
And therein lies the problem. The destiny of the old independence party relies on a 43-year-old man, Rahul Gandhi, who is criticized for his lack of authority and personality. The optimists say he is young and still has much to learn. “The crises and the blockages have at least one benefit: they force us to think,” Nehru used to say.
The defeat of the INC could indeed give it time to think.