Rahul Gandhi’s admission this week into the inner circles of India’s ruling Congress Party puts the 37-year-old within striking distance of becoming prime minister, as his father, grandmother and great-grandfather were before him.
The significance of Rahul’s appointment as a general secretary of the 122-year-old party, of which his mother Sonia Gandhi is president, wasn’t lost on anyone. Congress party supporters set off firecrackers and danced on the streets of New Delhi. The main opposition party said nothing else could be expected from a party wedded to “dynastic rule”.
Rahul’s elevation to the top job is a certainty. In a parliamentary system such as India’s, voters elect lawmakers. And the party that wins enough seats to form the government selects its leader as prime minister. As long as the Congress is in power, and a Gandhi is available and willing to lead it, it is not the party’s custom to give the job to an outsider.
Even then, the transition will not happen tomorrow. Rahul’s father, Rajiv Gandhi, had an apprenticeship as general secretary that lasted about 21 months and would have gone on longer had he not been unexpectedly hurled into the prime minister’s office, at age 40, after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984.
In Rahul’s case, the likely scenario is that the former management consultant will replace Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at least a couple of years after the latter has led the party to another election victory. A ballot is scheduled for 2009, but may be called as early as 2008.
A recent opinion poll suggested the Congress Party would boost its tally of parliament seats if an election were held now.
So, what does Rahul bring to the table, besides his famous last name?
He hasn’t exactly distinguished himself as a lawmaker, especially when his performance is compared with that of other young, first-time parliamentarians such as Naveen Jindal and Milind Deora.
In the past three years, he has largely shied away from joining important debates, asked few questions, and made just one major speech.
Nor has he shown exceptional organizational skills. Rahul’s efforts to revive his party’s sagging fortunes in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh came a cropper during local elections in March and April.
Investors have no idea what they should expect from Rahul. He has yet to articulate his political convictions and economic strategy.
That must change now, and quickly.
His father, for all his follies, had a vision.
Rajiv had said he wanted to take India into the 21st century—a process that he intuitively equated with economic openness and technological advancement. Immediately after coming to power, Rajiv announced a computer policy, following which Dallas-based Texas Instruments Inc. set up a unit in Bangalore in 1986 to do code-writing work. That “offshoring” model, supported by a satellite link between India and the US, would later be exploited by Indian entrepreneurs to fashion a hugely successful software industry.
Similarly, Rajiv made telecommunications a priority by separating it from postal services. By developing low-cost exchanges and switches locally, his government began the arduous task of bringing telephony to rural India.
India added eight million mobile phone customers last month, taking the total number of subscribers to 201 million.
Rajiv didn’t live to see his efforts come to fruition. A suicide bomber sent to India by Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam killed him in 1991, while he was campaigning to come back to power.
Unlike his father, who enjoyed a two-thirds majority in Parliament, Rahul will, in all likelihood, head a coalition government which will be pulled in different directions by pressure groups masquerading as political parties.
Still, with Rahul as prime minister, the Congress party may be more inclined to promote the current crop of young leaders as ministers.
If the team succeeds, one could even expect to see a repeat of the youthful energy and optimism of the early years of his father’s administration, before it got bogged down by corruption charges and tried to muzzle press freedom.
As long as Rahul doesn’t share the current prime minister’s misfortune of being hemmed in by Left-wing parties, and if he can resist giving in to the socialists within his own party, there’s no dearth of worthy causes he can take up.
Higher education is crying out to be freed from state control and meddling. The judiciary needs to be modernized to clear a backlog of 20 million pending cases and speed up justice. A booming economy is leading to serious income inequalities, highlighting the need for using tax collections to boost poor people’s access to basic amenities such as water, sanitation, health care, education and physical security.
Even where government services are adequate on paper, their quality is abysmal. In his first address to the nation after becoming prime minister, Rajiv had talked about “a new work ethic”, in which the government is “result-bound”.
Two decades later, that work ethic is still nowhere to be seen. Rahul will have his job cut out.
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