India’s presidential race is entering its final stages and the weaknesses of the ruling Congress party are on full display —both in the choice of candidate and within its coalition.
Consider first how long it took Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi to choose Pratibha Patil, a little known, 72-year-old former governor of the state of Rajasthan. Indians don’t vote directly for President, which is a largely ceremonial post. In a typical presidential election year, the ruling coalition nominates its preferred candidate and that would be that. The electoral college, composed of both houses of Parliament and state assemblies, does the rest.
Not this time around. Over a series of weeks, Gandhi floated a clutch of names, none of whom appealed across the coalition. Foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee, perhaps the strongest candidate, was taken out of the running because of the dearth of strong replacements for him. Home minister Shivraj Patil wasn’t liked by the Congress’ Leftist coalition partners. It was such a muddle that current President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam even considered running for a second term—an unprecedented move.
Enter Patil, a businesswoman and (before becoming governor of Rajasthan) a long-time member of Maharashtra’s state assembly. In the 1970s, Patil backed Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. In the 1980s, she was rewarded with the deputy chairmanship of the upper house of Parliament for a year under Rajiv Gandhi, until she was quietly eased out.
Now she’s being resurrected out of necessity—and the Congress party leadership isn’t even bothering to pretend that Patil is the best candidate for the job. In a letter to a party publication earlier this month, Gandhi called her nomination a “historical milestone” not because of her qualifications, but because of her gender. India has never had a female President.
Such weak logic has stirred up a storm from the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and India’s chattering classes. The BJP accuses Patil of questionable business practices at a bank she set up in the 1970s, a charge she denies. She claimed late last month that she was divinely informed of her candidacy, among other gaffes. But none of this is likely to matter if she has Gandhi’s backing.
It may be counter-intuitive to think that in a country so large there’s such a dearth of talent within the ranks of the ruling political party. But the lack of depth and breadth of the Congress party bench is clearly correlated to its leadership.
Like her family predecessors, Gandhi exerts such a tight grip over the Congress’ top jobs that it’s hard—if not impossible—for an up-and-coming outsider to break in. Most current cabinet members, for instance, owe their jobs to her, rather than to a grass-roots base. So there’s little incentive for India’s best and brightest to try to climb up the party ranks. There are few signs that these perverse incentives will be reversed anytime soon. The Opposition remains in disarray after its surprise 2004 defeat, unable to broaden its support base beyond its Hindu nationalist roots. It, too, has an ageing leadership and unreliable coalition partners. While the BJP is fielding a solid candidate for President against Patil —Bhairon Singh Shekhawat—he has little chance of victory.
In the short run, the Congress party coalition will likely limp on. The Congress party’s political platform is filled with symbolism, not substance—hence the emphasis on Patil’s gender, rather than her qualifications. India’s citizens may not be able to vote for their President, but they can vote in state elections later this year. How the Congress party fares will say much about its future.
Edited excerpts from The Wall Street Journal. Comments are welcome at email@example.com