India’s vulnerable political dynasty

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All hail Rahul of Houses Nehru and Gandhi, First of His Name, King of the Congress, Trueborn Heir to India’s Iron Throne. If Indian politics were a “Game of Thrones” episode, that’s how loyalists might have greeted the elevation of Rahul Gandhi to lead the Congress Party on Monday. Mr. Gandhi ran unopposed to succeed his mother, Sonia Gandhi, as party president.
The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has stayed close to or at the summit of Indian politics for nearly 100 years. But for the 47-year-old Mr. Gandhi—the son, grandson and great-grandson of prime ministers—the path to power appears increasingly steep.
Over the past seven years, battered by a series of electoral defeats, Mr. Gandhi has plunged in the public imagination from prime minister-in-waiting to shaky underdog. Each defeat amplifies questions about his inherited privilege, warmed-over policy agenda and lack of political skills.

In Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his well-oiled Bharatiya Janata Party, Mr. Gandhi faces a foe both popular and ruthless. As the 2019 general election approaches, Congress must grapple with arguably its greatest challenge since Indian independence seven decades ago. The big question about the party is no longer “will it reclaim power?” but “will it survive?” Mr. Modi makes no secret of his ambition to wipe Congress off India’s map permanently.

After college in Florida and a master’s degree from the University of Cambridge, Mr. Gandhi worked as a consultant with business guru Michael Porter’s Monitor Group. When he entered politics in 2004, he was widely expected to ascend to the prime ministership one day.
That year Mr. Gandhi’s mother, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, led the Congress Party to a come-from-behind victory over the BJP. For prime minister she handpicked Manmohan Singh, a respected technocrat with all the charisma of a doorknob. Many in the Congress rank and file viewed Mr. Singh as simply a seat warmer for the heir apparent.
Events haven’t followed that script. Since 2010, starting with a rout in the northern state of Bihar, the Nehru-Gandhi scion has fronted a series of spectacular election defeats leavened only by the occasional win.
Three years ago, beset by corruption scandals and doubts about Mr. Gandhi’s leadership, Congress managed to capture only 44 of 543 directly elected seats in Parliament, less than half its previous low. As Congress crashed, Mr. Modi led the BJP to India’s first single-party parliamentary majority in 30 years.

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In addition to the national government, the BJP and its allies now rule states that house two-thirds of India’s population and nearly 60% of its economic output. States run by Congress and its allies account for only 8% of India’s population and 12% of its economy. In March this year, the BJP won a crushing four-fifths majority in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state.
To recover such a vast amount of political acreage, Mr. Gandhi will need to overcome three big challenges.
For starters, he must convince sceptics that the idea of dynastic rule in India is not an anachronism. As education levels rise, many voters appear to have grown disenchanted with India’s anomalous position among major democracies. They can see that in the U.S., for instance, the surname Bush or Clinton may give you a leg up in politics, but it hardly guarantees a term in the Oval Office.
Mr. Gandhi also has to contend with the possibility that voters have outgrown his party’s traditional platform: left-of-centre policies that favour redistribution over growth, and a brand of secularism that has long relied on support from orthodox Islamic clerics. Three years ago, Mr. Modi won by promising economic development and appealing to majority Hindu sentiment.

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Finally, Mr. Gandhi has to prove that he takes politics seriously. His habit of disappearing frequently on unexplained foreign jaunts has created the image of a dilettante. Thanks to his less-than-soaring oratory and gaffe-prone manner with the media, many people have come to view Mr. Gandhi as a sort of Indian Dan Quayle, more a punch line than a potential prime minister.
Of course, nobody can rule out a Congress comeback. Thanks to decades of single-party rule, India is littered with airports, universities and government programs named after the Nehru-Gandhis. Let’s just say Mr. Gandhi will never struggle for name recognition. And even at its lowest ebb in 2014 Congress attracted almost one-fifth of the national vote.
Moreover, by pursuing rash economic policies like demonetisation—last year’s sudden scrapping of nearly 90% of India’s currency notes by value—Mr. Modi has lost some of his sheen as a messiah of development. His appointment of Yogi Adityanath, a rabid Muslim-baiter, as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh stokes fears that the prime minister is less interested in economic reform than in identity politics.
On Monday, state election results will come in from Gujarat, Mr. Modi’s home state. If Mr. Gandhi pulls off an upset victory, his flagging brand will receive a much-needed boost. But should he suffer yet another drubbing, his once strong claim to Delhi’s Iron Throne will fade even further.