It was 1999 when, in the midst of a heated election campaign, the granddaughter of India’s beloved late prime minister Indira Gandhi told international media, “I am very clear in my mind. Politics is not a strong pull. I have said it a thousand times: I am not interested in joining politics.” At the time, Priyanka Gandhi was adamant her presence on the campaign trail was not an introduction to political life. She simply wanted to help the Indian National Congress, then run by her mother, Sonia, regain control of the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament.
Congress, one of the world’s largest and oldest political parties, had lost the house to its rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party, in the 1998 election. It was a chaotic period in Indian politics: from 1996 to 1999, the nation had gone through three general elections and three unstable governments characterized by fractious coalitions and alliances of convenience. For Congress, the 1999 vote was a chance to reclaim its political dominance: since India’s independence from British rule in 1947, it had governed the nation more or less uncontested for three decades. Priyanka Gandhi, then 27, was Congress’s secret weapon, seen as the future of the Gandhi political dynasty. But the strategy didn’t work. Congress lost and the BJP gained a near majority in a defeat that was a sign of things to come. Congress regained control, but only as part of a shaky alliance. Priyanka Gandhi left the public arena, opting instead to work behind the scenes.
Recent crises, though, have brought her back into the spotlight. During last month’s state assembly elections, she took to the campaign trail, joining her brother Rahul in key states like Uttar Pradesh. (Their mother, Sonia, is now chairman of Congress.) Priyanka’s return prompted frenzied speculation among India’s political pundits. Was this a sign of desperation? Internal tensions within Congress inspired talk of impending collapse and a last-ditch effort to bring unity to a party that had previously been the defining symbol of Indian democracy.
The strategy failed again. Among the five states where voters went to the polls, Congress managed a majority in only one—Manipur. In Uttar Pradesh, considered a litmus test for India’s national elections, scheduled for 2014, Congress won a dismal 28 of 403 assembly seats, garnering a meager 11.6 per cent of the vote.
So what went wrong? Congress strategists were lambasted by political observers for relying too heavily on the Gandhi mystique to garner votes. Rather than inspiring people, the return of Priyanka left many quizzically unimpressed. “They tried everything,” says Salma Mirza, a 25-year-old resident of Mumbai. “Priyanka looks like Indira, she talks like Indira, and this time, on the campaign trail, she even dressed like Indira.” But an Indira doppelganger wasn’t what the Indian electorate was looking for. “It was too funny for us,” says Ravindra Patel, a voter in Uttar Pradesh. “We wanted to hear what plans politicians had for improving our lives. Instead, we got Priyanka telling us about how great Congress is.”
Congress’s history may have served the party—and the Gandhis—well at one time, but not today. India is a country of more than 700 million voters, with real GDP growth of around eight per cent annually for the past 10 years and an increasingly robust role in the global economic market. All that has contributed to a more subtle and perceptive electorate. “Change was inevitable,” says Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president and chief executive of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. “India’s political parties are now operating in an increasingly vibrant democratic environment. But party structures remain closed and reliant on opaque internal decision making.” Mehta faults Congress for not adapting to the new reality. At a time of “India Rising,” the catchphrase for the last decade, a reliance on dynastic nostalgia simply won’t work anymore, he adds.
However, Tom Vadakkan, a spokesperson for Congress, defends the party’s dynastic inclinations, pointing out that state-level elections are not the same as national elections. “People will think about their immediate needs when they vote for the state assembly,” he says. “But when it comes to national elections, they will vote for the party that has a long track record in governance.” Dynasties, he adds, are a natural phenomenon in India. “It’s a system that runs throughout the country,” he says. “A doctor’s son will become a doctor himself. This is the way Indians think.”
Recent studies on the career aspirations of Indian youth tell a different story. “Earlier, there were limited career options available for Indian youth,” says a 2011 report looking at the growth of the Indian IT sector. “Those fell in government/semi-government organizations like civil services, engineering, medical, management, etc.” But during the course of India’s economic surge, “many new career avenues have emerged which are more promising, challenging and rewarding,” the report notes.
India’s youth are increasingly thinking for themselves, weighing their options and deciding on careers best suited for them. That thought process also extends to political choices, adds Mehta. “When choices are available and there are no barriers, these transitions happen,” he says. “Economic diversification opens up options to people; it gives them economic capital, which then translates into political capital.”
But India still has some way to go before its democracy reaches full maturity, he says. Political families will remain a force in Indian politics for the foreseeable future: they have the contacts and the wealth to maintain their positions. Until political parties themselves are democratized, Indian democracy will struggle. Moreover, corruption remains a major problem. In the recent state assembly elections, one-third of the politicians elected to office have pending criminal cases against them, while two-thirds are millionaires, according to a joint analysis by the Association for Democratic Reforms and National Election Watch.
Nonetheless, Mehta, for one, is hopeful. A variety of Indian institutions, from the family to the bulwarks of a democratic system—judicial, political, and economic—are undergoing rapid change. The political parties cannot ignore this trend, he says. They do so at their peril.