On a visit to the rural constituency that has sent him or his relatives to Parliament for decades, Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India’s most powerful political dynasty, was asked a simple question: Can you name five party workers from the area?
The question, asked in a pre-election review meeting two years ago by a party worker unhappy with Gandhi’s attitude toward politics, led Gandhi to shrug and admit that he could not name anyone, said a flabbergasted Shakeel Ahmad, 60, a second-generation Indian National Congress party leader in the politically vital state of Uttar Pradesh who was at the meeting.
Gandhi has represented the area since 2004, “and he does not know a single name?” Ahmad asked. Politics is the Gandhi family’s business. The clan has produced three prime ministers, including India’s first, Jawaharlal Nehru. Gandhi, long groomed for high office, seems to have inherited few of the political skills for which his forebears were renowned, Ahmad said.
“Can you teach a fish to swim?” he asked.
The question is being asked with increasing urgency among members of the Indian National Congress, the political party that Gandhi’s family has led since India’s independence in 1947. The party is staring down what recent polls have predicted will be a landslide for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi, one of the most controversial political figures in Indian history.
The results of the six-week election process are scheduled to be announced on May 16. The odds of Gandhi’s becoming the next prime minister have dropped so low that Mumbai bookies have stopped taking bets on him.
Gandhi appears poised to preside over the most devastating defeat in the history of the Congress party, which has governed India for much of the past six decades. Analysts who have watched Gandhi struggle against a vast political tide as well as his own seeming ambivalence find themselves comparing him to characters in works by Shakespeare and Vyasa, the great Hindu sage.
“It is a tragic drama just like Hamlet,” said Inder Malhotra, a political columnist. “It is the end of a dynasty because this fellow cannot make up his mind. He can’t even decide whether to be clean-shaven or have a beard.”
Gandhi, 43, was for years India’s absentee crown prince, a member of Parliament who rarely spoke in public, disappeared from public view for long stretches and had a reputation for partying. He was expected to replace Manmohan Singh as prime minister, but his own ennui and poor political skills led to repeated delays in his elevation, said Sanjaya Baru, a former media adviser to Singh, echoing the comments of many others.
In a recent memoir, Baru said that Singh ultimately failed as a prime minister because he allowed himself to be viewed as a seat warmer for Gandhi, even though Gandhi played almost no role in the government. “I was at the centre of power for four and a half years, and Rahul was a no-show,” Baru said in an interview. “He was not a presence.”
Then last year, Gandhi became the vice president and official prime ministerial candidate of the Congress party. His mother, Sonia Gandhi, has said at rallies that she offered up her son to the nation’s service.
But Gandhi has appeared reluctant to embrace political life. He refused to call himself a candidate for prime minister, and when pressed he suggested that the reason was the assassinations of his father and grandmother. “In my life I have seen my grandmother die, I have seen my father die, I have seen my grandmother go to jail, and I have actually been through a tremendous amount of pain as a child,” he said in a televised interview.
Those sympathetic to Gandhi say that he will not be unhappy if his party loses the election. Rasheed Kidwai, who wrote a biography of Sonia Gandhi, said that Gandhi believed that his own father, Rajiv, became prime minister too early in life and made terrible mistakes as a result. “From Rahul’s point of view, he is not in a great deal of hurry to become prime minister,” Kidwai said. “I think in the back of his mind, the example of his father is always there.”