Posted by: John Elliott | June 4, 2014

This should be the end of Rahul as the next Congress leader

It’s never wise to write off dynasties, but if ever a political family deserved to fade away, it is the Nehru Gandhi dynasty which two days ago appointed Mallikarjun Kharge, 71, a little known and relatively inexperienced and elderly member of parliament, to lead the Congress Party in the Lok Sabha because neither Sonia nor Rahul Gandhi are willing to take the post.

Rahul, along with his far-from-well mother, led the Congress to a shattering and personally humiliating general election defeat last month when the party won only 44 Lok Sabha seats, 162 less than in the outgoing parliament. This was the Congress’s worst-ever result. It was even below the minimum figure of 54 (10% of the total) needed under India’s constitution to be recognised as the official opposition it reduced Congress to the level of regional parties – the AIADMK from Tamil Nadu won 37 seats and the Trinamool Congress from West Bengal won 34.

Sonia and Rahul arrive for Narendra Modi's swearing in - Rediff photo

Sonia and Rahul arrive for Narendra Modi’s swearing in – Rediff photo

Since that defeat, there have been many criticisms of the family’s leadership, especially of Rahul’s autocratic style and that of his advisers led by the aloof Kanishka Singh, the son of a former foreign secretary, and including Jairam Ramesh, a self-confident and controversially outspoken though effective minister in the last government.

One senior party member suggested that Rahul’s experiments in democratising the choice of election candidates backfired, mainly because primary elections were manipulated by people with money who habitually bribe voters.

Both mother and son offered to resign as the party’s president and vice-president, but that was inevitably rejected by the party’s top working committee. In an attempt to stem a subsequent revolt, two critics who were too outspoken in their personal criticisms of Rahul were instantly suspended from party membership.

Loyalists then called for either Sonia or Rahul to become the official opposition leader in the Lok Sabha. Since Sonia is probably not well enough for the task and has always preferred to be visible but mostly silent in parliament, Rahul should, it could be logically argued, have taken the post since he was the party’s assumed (but undeclared) prime ministerial candidate in the election.

But there are snags. For years, he has regularly vanished from public view, often on unexplained trips abroad, and has shown no sign of having the stamina to sit day by day on the parliamentary front bench, or the leadership qualities to be effective if he was there. Given his lack of experience in parliament (he has only made two or three speeches in ten years as an MP), he would have also probably found it hard to win the respect and support of the AIADMK and the other opposition parties that Congress needs as allies in opposing the new BJP government.

How then, one might ask, if he could not or would not lead the opposition, could Rahul have become prime minister, if Congress had won – or would he and Sonia have appointed someone else in the same way that Sonia appointed Manmohan Singh in 2004? Perhaps he expected to be dynastically parachuted into the prime minister’s office so that he could preside from there, and in parliament, with the born-to-rule attitude that this shy and retiring man often displays.

Mallikarjun Kharge - photo The HIndu

Mallikarjun Kharge – photo The HIndu

Be that as it may, having decided that they would not lead in the Lok Sabha, it was surely the Gandhis’ duty to nominate a parliamentary leader who would command respect and provide robust opposition to Narendra Modi, the new prime minister.

There were at least two veteran experienced and able candidates available – Kamal Nath, 67, who has held many ministerial posts and is famed for his connections in India and abroad, and Veerappa Moily, 74, a former Karnataka state chief minister who held various senior posts in the last government. The ambitious Nath would have been opposed by many other Congress leaders, and is thought not to be trusted by Sonia, but it is unclear why Moily was not picked.

The most adventurous choice would have been Jyotiraditya Scindia, 43, a bright committed politician from a former royal maharajah’s family in Madhya Pradesh and the son of the late Madhavrao Scindia who was a leading Congress politician of Sonia’s generation. Jyotiraditya has won four elections as an MP and was a minister in the last government, but he has a fatal flaw – the Gandhis would not dare pick him because he would have immediately been seen, and might have become, an alternative leader challenging Rahul’s dynastic supremacy.

Kharge was presumably chosen because he has no further political ambitions, having briefly been railways minister in the last government. He made no secret of his obedience to the leadership. “I will seek the guidance of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi on what can be done and how to go about it. They will tell me,” he told journalists when asked how and what he intended to do.

This illustrates how political dynasties, and especially the Gandhis, fail their parties and the country by preferring to promote safe loyalists and not the best available people. It is difficult to see how Kharge, whose political career has mostly been spent in his home state of Karnataka, will gain respect in parliament, just as loyalists appointed to important ministries such as defence and home affairs in the last government failed to perform.

Sonia and Rahul Gandhi accept responsibiilty for the Congress defeat

Sonia and Rahul Gandhi accept responsibiilty for the Congress defeat

Rahul, who is 44 later this month, has been seen little since he stood with his mother on May 16, the day the results were results, smiling oddly (right) as she acknowledged defeat. People wondered – and tweeted – why he had such a grin on his (unusually) clean shaven face.

Was it relief that he would not have to decide whether to accept the prime ministership, to which he knew he was ill suited? More unkind tweets suggested he was looking forward to a five-year holiday and many vanishing trips abroad.

Three days earlier, he had horrified even well-wishers by failing to attend a farewell dinner thrown by Manmohan Singh, the retiring prime minister, (though he did attend Modi’s prime ministerial swearing in on May 26 – photo above – with the beard back again!). His absence from the dinner sparked gossip about why he was suddenly unable to attend such an important event just a few minutes drive from his Delhi home. New avenues of gossip developed when the Congress Party announced that he was making a quick but unexplained trip abroad, having apologised to Manmohan Singh for his absence two days earlier. Why in that case, people wondered, had it not been announced before the dinner – or was he not abroad at all?

Rahul’s personal failings have led to repeated calls in recent weeks for Priyanka, his 42-year old sister, to become active in national politics instead of confining her activities to Sonia’s and Rahul’s Uttar Pradesh constituencies. She mirrors, it is often said, the style of her grandmother Indira Gandhi, and she has far more charisma and is far more approachable than Rahul.

Like him however, she sometimes displays the family’s dynastic airs and behaves on visits to villages as a patron rather than someone desperate for votes. There have been calls for her to replace Rahul, but it seems more likely that she might be projected along with him as (together below) the ideal team to carry the party into the next general election.

priyanka rahul gamndhi amethiLogically, Rahul’s political career (if one can call it that) should now be over because he has led his party into defeats not only in this general election but two earlier state assembly polls. He has also refused to acknowledger whether he is a prime ministerial candidate and his attempts to reform the party have failed.

But this is dynastic politics that do not follow such logic and the Gandhi family is essential for the survival of the Congress Party, which could break up in to rival factions without the Gandhi glue. The desperation with which even leading politicians view the family’s survival was demonstrated by Salman Khurshid, who till recently was the foreign minister and earlier had other top posts. He has been quoted opposing independent criticisms of the Gandhi family, saying: “You cannot introspect about your leadership. The leader must help you introspect.”

With such loyalty, Rahul is probably safe, for now at least, with Sonia and Priyanka protecting him. But unless the family finds a way to reassert itself, this could be the beginning of the decline of the dynasty – and the beneficiary of all this of course is Narendra Modi who faces a rudderless and divided opposition as he starts the ten years that he wants to govern India. His supporters will welcome that, but others will say the family has again let the country down in order to protect its dynastic survival.

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Arun Jaitley is Finance Minister, Rajnath Singh at Home, Sushma Swaraj for Foreign Affairs – see full official list issued May27 at bottom of this article

 Fifty years after the death of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s greatest post-independence leader, the country today has a new charismatic prime minister whose strong and forceful nature has led to comparisons with Vladimir Putin and Margaret Thatcher.

photo 2-1Narendra Modi, who has this evening been been  sworn in at a ceremony attended by over 4,000 people in the vast forecourt of Rastrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace, can also seen as an almost Nehru-like figure who is expected by a vast proportion of the population to usher in a new era of a success for a nation that has failed in recent years to live up to its potential.

That is a dramatic change and challenge for a man who was pilloried for years for his association with Gujarat’s anti-Muslim riots in 2002 when he was chief minister, and was condemned as a divisive politician.

He has however already shown an ability to usher in a new era by inviting the leaders of the six surrounding South Asian countries to attend the swearing in ceremony. They have all come, including Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan who has welcomed a “new page” in the two countries’ relations.

Modi is also attempting to streamline the government with his cabinet appointments. He is planning the creation of new umbrella ministries covering what he calls clusters for areas of transport and energy, though that the details of that plan are only beginning to emerge.

Within minutes of being sworn in, his new website was launched with Modi asking for co-operation in scripting “a glorious future for India” –

Narendra Modi, Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley

Narendra Modi, Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley

The latest indications of members in the 23-member cabinet include:

Arun Jaitley, a top lawyer and the commerce minister in the last (1998-2004) Bharatiya Janata Party government, is the finance minister. He is also the minister for corporate affairs, which has been bracketed with finance before. Surprisingly, he is also the minister for defence though that may be a temporary arrangement.

Rajnath Singh, the BJP president and a chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, is home minister, and is believed to have been named as number two in the cabinet.

Sushma Swaraj, the BJP’s leader in the Lok Sabha, is the external affairs minister. She was a leading opponent of Modi’s rise to be prime minister, so this shows he is prepared to embrace opponents.

Nitin Gadkari, a former BJP president, is minister for road transport, highways and shipping (which have been merged before).

Other Cabinet appointments include Ravi Shankar Prasad as minister for law and telecoms (which were both held by the same minister for part of the last government) and information technology.

Smriti Irani, who heavily reduced Rahul Gandhi’s majority at Amethi in the general election and holds on to her existing Rajya Sabha seat, becomes human resources development minister. At 38, she looks like being the youngest cabinet member.

Maneka Gandhi, widow of Sanjay Gandhi and sister in law of Sonia Gandhi who has been estranged from the family for 30 years, becomes minister for women and child development.

photo 3-1Also being sworn in today are ten ministers of state who will have independent charge of their ministries, and eleven more who will report to cabinet ministers.

Further appointments are expected in about a month’s time. Some of those named today are first time MPs who will be reporting direct to the prime minister. The full list of those sworn in is here.

The sensitive post of environment has been given to Prakash Javadekar as minister of state with independent charge. He said this evening that he belongs to an international group trying to balance the often conflicting claims of environmental protection and economic growth. He has been the BJP’s spokesman and is also to be information and broadcasting minister of state and of parliamentary affairs.

Many of the ministers have substantial political experience, but the appointments are not especially notable in terms of potential effectiveness, apart from Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj. Though having no economic background apart from being a commerce minister earlier, he can be expected to take measures that will reform tax and other procedure and improve India’s image as an investment destination. He is also likely to drive urgently needed changes in defence procurement and manufacturing, which have been largely ignored by the outgoing government for most of the past ten years.

Many of the other appointments would not be specially impressive if it were not for the fact that Modi has a reputation as a strong leader and administrator, who personally ensures that ministers and top bureaucrats deliver on policy implementation. Results are therefore expected to stem more from his personal drive and attention to implementation than has happened with prime ministers in the past.

It is his determination to reform the way that India runs its economy and development that has led to comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, who knew exactly what she wanted to achieve and transformed the British economy 30 years ago.

The comparison with Putin stems from early fears – encouraged by his detractors – that Modi would be an autocrat whose tough policies would have little care for the interests of minorities and neighbouring countries. His totally unexpected invitation to the South Asian prime ministers to be in Delhi this evening confounds that comparison, at least for now. Tomorrow he will have meetings planned to last about half an hour with each of the visitors. Though this will not provide time for much substantive discussion, it will mean that he has established personal contact which will ease relations in the future.

The Congress Party is carping that his invitation to Sharif is a reversal of the BJP’s relentless criticism of the last government’s overtures to Pakistan at a time when cross-border infiltration of militants and terrorists is continuing. But Sharif is coming as part of the South Asian group and future contacts will depend on whether Pakistan takes tough measures.

The comparison with Nehru is partly based on the fact that India has not had such a strong and charismatic prime minister committed to building a successful nation since Nehru. Indira Gandhi pursued her own power-seeking agendas. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, had great potential but was not in power long enough to develop. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a great prime minister and statesman, but without Modi’s reforming zeal, while Manmohan Singh was hemmed in by Sonia Gandhi whose primary agenda was the survival of the Gandhi dynasty.

Modi’s challenge now is to run the cabinet and other ministers who he has appointed today so that he builds the strong nation he has promised with Thatcher-like effectiveness and does not become diverted by the BJP’s Hindu hardliners into Putin-like nationalism.

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Rajnath Singh – Home Minister
Arun Jaitley – Finance, Corporate Affairs and Defence
Sushma Swaraj – Ministry of External Affairs
Venkaiah Naidu – Urban Development, Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, Parliamentary Affairs
Nitin Jairam Gadkari – Road Transport and Highways, Shipping
DV Sadananda Gowda – Railways
Uma Bharti – Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation
Najma A. Heptulla – Minority Affairs
Gopinathrao Munde – Rural Development, Panchayati Raj, Drinking Water and Sanitation
Ramvilas Paswan – Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution
Kalraj Mishra – Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises
Maneka Sanjay Gandhi – Women and Child Development
Ananthkumar – Chemicals and Fertilizers
Ravi Shankar Prasad – Communications and Information Technology, Law and Justice
Ashok Gajapathi Raju Pusapati – Civil Aviation
Shri Anant Geete – Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises
Harsimrat Kaur Badal – Food Processing Industries
Narendra Singh Tomar – Mines, Steel, Labour and Employment
Jual Oram – Tribal Affairs
Radha Mohan Singh – Agriculture
Thaawar Chand Gehlot – Social Justice and Empowerment
Smriti Zubin Irani – Human Resource Development
Harsh Vardhan – Health and Family Welfare

Narendra Modi has five years till the next general election to show that he can get India moving but NaMo, as the Indian media call him, has said over the weekend that he needs ten years to transform the country – which he cloud well get if progress goes relatively well in the first period.

He will be elected parliamentary leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party today and will then meet President Pranab Mukherjee to stake his irrefutable claim to form India’s new government. He will be sworn in on Monday when senior cabinet appointments will probably be announced.

The prospect of ten-years of Modi rule strikes fear among many people who are afraid that, alongside building up economic growth and development, that would give him and his supporters time to entrench Hindu nationalist policies in various ways, destroying India’s traditional secular base that caters for minorities such as Muslims and Christians.

Modi trustModi has tried to deal with that fear by making statements about inclusiveness. “To run the country we need to take everyone with us, all together and I seek your blessings to succeed in this endeavour,” he said at one of his massive triumphal celebration rallies. “Brothers, sisters, you have faith in me and I have faith in you…. The people of this country have given their verdict. This verdict says we have to make the dreams of 1.25bn people come true. I must work hard,”

The key here, as I wrote last Friday, is that his huge majority means that he cannot just work for BJP interests but will have to make building the economy his primary aim. The BJP’s success is the result of massive support from voters – especially the young – who want India to get moving and who regard their elders’ fears of Hindu chauvinism and violence as something that can be put aside.

The BJP alone without its allies won 282 seats, ten more than the 272 needed for a simple majority in the Lok Sabha. This is the first time that a party has won a majority without needing a coalition since Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress victory in 1984.

It has been widely assumed that coalitions involving smaller and regional parties would be inevitable in India for years to come because Congress has been losing its national role for over 20 years and the BJP did not have any chance of building countrywide appeal. Modi has reversed that trend and has made the BJP a party with national reach for the first time. In north India, he has notably defeated caste-based parties in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and has spread the BJP’s appeal in the south

Modi consults on his Cabinet 

While the Congress Party’s top working committee was yesterday shielding Sonia and Rahul Gandhi from blame for its devastating defeat, and rejected their notional offers of resignation, Modi was meeting his top leaders and allies to try to work out who to appoint to his cabinet.

He is expected to try to rationalise the functioning of government by setting up two new umbrella ministries for energy and infrastructure that would take in smaller currently  unco-ordinated ministries. This may also be done in other areas. This might take sometime to organise, and there are suggestions that only a small cabinet will be announced first.

He has a difficult job balancing various interests. Ideally he would like to appoint ministers who can deliver on his promises to ramp up the economy, revive investment, and speed up infrastructure construction. Top bureaucrats responding to the leadership of Modi’s Prime Minister’s Office can do some of that work, but effective ministers are also important.

He has to take into account the ambitions of the right wing of the Sangh Parivar, the umbrella organisation for which the BJP is the political arm. Here the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which Modi has belonged to since he was a teenager, is the key organisation. It lays down doctrine and, having played a large part in the election campaign by providing thousands of volunteers, will expect to have a role in the government.

Arun ShourieArun Jaitley, a prominent politician and lawyer who has been the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha (upper house), is being widely tipped to be foreign minister, though till yesterday he was expected to be finance minister. He is close to Modi but his stock has fallen because, in an attempt to build a political base, he stood for election in the Punjab city of Amritsar and was heavily defeated by the Congress candidate, Capt Amarindar Singh, a former Punjab chief minister and member of the old Patiala maharajah family. Jaitley remains a Rajya Sabha member so can take a ministerial job despite the defeat.

Arun Shourie (above), a former campaigning newspaper editor who was disinvestment and telecoms minister in the last BJP government, has also been mentioned for the finance job – Mumbai’s businessmen have been saying he is likely to be the finance minister for several weeks. He is favoured by Modi. Other possibilities are the defence ministry, which needs a strong reformist cabinet minister, or commerce and industry.

Rajnath Singh, who has been instrumental in paving the way for Modi’s ascendancy since he became BJP president in January last year, could be a candidate for a top cabinet post though reports suggest that he will remain party president and maybe become home minister later. If he does become home minister, his earlier experience as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh would be useful because he has experience of how states work, which could help him persuade them to co-operate in security and other issues.

Sushma Swaraj, who has been leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, would have been sure to get a top post if she had not opposed Modi becoming the party’s prime ministerial candidate – a role she had hoped for herself. It will be a test of Modi’s willingness to embrace opponents as well as friends to see what job she gets.

Amit ShahNitin Gadkari, a Maharashtra politician and businessman who was BJP president from 2010, is also in line for a key job, possibly on infrastructure, which he handled earlier in his home state. He resigned from the party president’s post in January 2013 after the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party made allegations of illicit deals concerning his Purti group of agricultural and power businesses.

Modi also needs to find a spot for Amit Shah (left), a tough political ally in Gujarat who managed the highly successful election campaign for him in Uttar Pradesh. He might become minister in the prime minister’s office so he could make sure Modi’s plans are implemented.

Finally Modi has somehow to accommodate L.K.Advani, the party’s top veteran leader, who had hoped to become prime minister even though he is 86. Also Murli Manohar Joshi, another veteran leader. One possibility mooted in the media is that Advani would become the speaker of the Lok Sabha.

One key post to watch will be whether an RSS activist is made the Human Resources Development Minister and thus be able to organise rewriting of textbooks and infiltration of university organisations. Some reports suggest Shushma Swaraj might be given this ministry.

These appointments are important because Modi needs to ensure that the quality and strength of his first cabinet, and the ministerial organisation, support his claim that he can cut through India’s problems and boost economic growth, and tackle other issues such as high inflation.

My new book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality, is on sale in India and other South Asian bookshops. E-books and hard covers are on, .com, and  For India delivery, also Flipkart     

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Narendra Modi acknowledging victory

Narendra Modi acknowledging victory

India is about to experience its biggest ever change of national politics and of government style and policies with the unprecedented country-wide landslide victory for Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition, and the decimation of the Congress Party that calls into question the leadership of the Gandhi dynasty.

The latest forecasts for the result of India’s general election, based on declared seats and who is leading in constituencies as counting takes place, show the BJP and its allies exceeding all forecasts with nearly 340 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha and a massive 39% of the total vote. The BJP on its own has an astonishing 280-plus seats.

Congress is falling to an almost unbelievably humiliating figure – maybe just 44 seats, which is below the minimum figure of 54 (10 per cent of the total) needed under the constitution to be recognised as the official opposition.

Virtually everything to do with government will now change, not just ministers and policies but how the people at the top react to events and even the language they speak – many of leading politicians, including Modi, prefer to use Hindi. Modi will bring in top bureaucrats from his home state of Gujarat and elsewhere and little known politicians will have important ministries. For business, as in other areas, a new era is about to begin, with new relationships and ways of working.

Modi elected for growth not Hindu nationalism

It is no use liberal Congress sympathisers bleating, as they have been for weeks and months in India and abroad, about a man with Modi’s questionable history in Gujarat’s 2002 riots, and his membership of the arch Hindu nationalist RSS organisation, becoming prime minister. He and his party have not been elected primarily by sympathisers with his rightist politics but by voters, especially the young, who are tired of the Congress Party’s wooly politics and self-serving dynastic leadership and want India to grow into an economic success. That success is surely also Modi’s primary aim, not Hindu nationalism.

The BJP has been elected to deliver economic growth, reduced inflation, and an efficient government that takes decisions and then implements them, streamlining procedures and developing new partnerships with the private sector. India does not need new policies to be introduced to achieve most of this. What is needed is implementation of existing policies in areas ranging from power generation and coal mining to defence production and procurement, plus the operation of the railways, construction of highways, and improvement in education and health services.

If Modi can transfer to Delhi the government management skills he showed, albeit autocratically, in Gujarat, then much of that can be done. For the past ten years, India has lacked a strong political prime minister because Manmohan Singh was reluctant to flex his political muscles and Sonia Gandhi’s courtiers undermined his role. That will change the moment Modi walks into the prime minister’s office, maybe on Monday.

Sonia and Rahul Gandhi accept responsibiilty for the Congress defeat

In brief statements, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi accept responsibility for the Congress defeat-  with, as has been widely noted, Rahul smiling, oddly

Masses of people will be celebrating the election result. They range from top businessmen who have helped to facilitate the Modi victory to the young people in their early 20s who want the economy to grow as it was in the 2000s so that their prospects and life style improves.

Possible downsides

There are also those who fear the downsides of such an overwhelming Modi victory with concerns that include not just his Hindu nationalism but also  the risk that he and his ministers will be intolerant of criticism and will muzzle a cowed media.

Modi will almost certainly ensure that there are no major riots or high profile persecution of Muslims and other minorities, but he may have to let the fringes have some leeway. That leads to the risk that activists in the Sangh Parivar movement, of which the BJP is political wing, may incite communal clashes.

There is also a real fear that, with Modi as prime minister, the doctrine of Hindu nationalism will be extended, as happened when the party was last in power (1998-2004), for example by rewriting school textbooks and appointing sympathisers to top positions in universities and other similar institutions. How far Modi goes along with such an approach will become evident if he is pushed by the RSS, which lays down the Sangh Parivar’s doctrine, to appoint a hardline nationalist to be minister of human development.

Foreign policy

On foreign policy he might well be slow to improve relations with the US, which cancelled his visa in 2005 because of the 2002 riots. He might be tempted to taunt Washington by ostentatiously courting Beijing (though President Obama tried to pre-empt problems by congratulating Modi in a phone call after the results were clear, and inviting him to the US).

Modi will certainly give priority to relations with Japan, which wants to become a major partner in the financing and developing India’s infrastructure He will probably sound more aggressive than the outgoing government on Pakistan without actually changing the existing policy of gradually improving relations. There is a risk however that Islamic terrorists based there might try to provoke him into a military confrontation by staging major attacks in India.

Indira Gandhi’s introduction of a state of emergency in 1975 is probably the nearest example of the sort of dramatic change of government style that will begin next week. Indira and her son Sanjay then tried to get India moving, often cruelly and crassly.

Unlike that blot on India’s democratic history, the new government has been overwhelmingly elected in the world’s biggest general election, and Modi has the mandate to change the way that India is run. The test will be whether he can do that while keeping India as an open, broadly tolerant, and secular country.

My new book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality, is on sale in India and Pakistan and other South Asian bookshops. E-books and hard covers are also available in India and internationally on, .com, and  For India delivery, also buy on Flipkart     

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If the number of volunteers working for an election campaign is any measure of likely success, Narendra Modi is romping home today to a tumultuous victory in the Hindus’ sacred city of Varanasi, where voting is taking place amid tight security at the end of five weeks of polling across the country in India’s general election.

Narendra Modi after casting his vote earlier in Gujarat

Narendra Modi after casting his vote earlier in Gujarat – photo Amity Dave/Reuters

Currently the chief minister of Gujarat, and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s choice for prime ministerial, Modi is standing to become the BJP’s MP in Varanasi.

His large campaign headquarters was full when I went there on Saturday with literally hundreds of volunteers from all parts of India. Their aim was to make sure that Modi wins this symbolically significant constituency in the politically crucial state of `Uttar Pradesh when the election results are declared on Friday.

Earlier in the day I watched Rahul Gandhi being cheered and mobbed by huge crowds of supporters when he drove through the streets. His road show was suddenly arranged as a response to Modi breaking with convention and campaigning in Gandhi’s constituency of Amethi. Usually party leaders do not stage rallies on their rivals’ home turf, but Modi is out to break conventions.

If Modi wins Varanasi, Gandhi hopes to come second before two other strong rivals. The most prominent is Arvind Kejriwal, founder and leader of the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi (common man) party (AAP), and the other is the local candidate of the regional Samajwadi Party that packs punch because it is in power in the state.

It was the sheer scale of the Modi operation that was remarkable. The party’s headquarters were spread over several floors of a 14-story block of flats owned by a businessman supporter. The volunteers came from many parts of India as well as the US and elsewhere abroad, all convinced that Modi is the politician to make India perform better.

Praveen Thakur, a restaurant manager in his 30s from the Delhi area, had taken time off work to help the Modi campaign in four other constituencies before coming to Varanasi. He was a supporter because, he said, Modi had made the streets of Gujarat safe for women at night and because of work he had organised to improve river waters and generate solar energy.

Rahul Gandhi in Varanasi on Saturday - photo Neeru Dhall

Rahul Gandhi in Varanasi on Saturday – photo Neeru Dhall

Suresh Kochattil, who manages a charitable foundation in the southern city of Hyderabad, said Modi knew what the country needed in terms of getting things done.

He ran the BJP’s social media programme in Hyderabad and was helping the team in Varanasi, having paid his air fare (inflated because ticket prices rocketed up as Modi supporters flooded into the city). Govind Dharma, an elderly university lecturer from Rajasthan simply said, “Modi knows how to improve India”.

All three men – and three young architects I met elsewhere during the day – show how India’s growing middle class is clamouring for efficient responsible government, strong economic growth, and better infrastructure, which the Gandhi family’s outgoing Congress-led government has failed to provide.

Modi does not have to become the Varanasi MP in order be prime minister because, under a quirk of India’s election system, he is also standing in his traditional political home of Gujarat.

Varanasi however is symbolic as the spiritual heart of Hinduism on the banks of the sacred `Ganga river. The devout come here, as I saw soon after dawn yesterday morning, to cremate their dead on the ghats, or to bring ashes from elsewhere to scatter on the river.

This is therefore seen as a spiritual city of death and rebirth. That has led people to ask whether Modi does not just want to be the MP for such an important Hindu place, but also wants his election to symbolise the rebirth of pragmatic India as a economically successful Hindu nationalist country.

Frog or saviour?

Maybe he also seeks the rebirth of his own image so that he can shed the shadow of the 2002 anti-Muslim riots at Godhra in Gujarat, for which many people hold him responsible.

But his critics do not see it like that, as Salil Tripathi, a UK based Indian writer, demonstrated in an a recent newspaper article where he quoted the mystical poet Kabir (who uses the alternative name Benares for Varanasi):

   His death in Benares
   Won’t save the assassin
   From a certain hell
   Any more than a dip
   In the Ganges will send
   Frogs—or you—to paradise.


We will know whether Modi has won the seat on Friday. It will take much longer, if the BJP wins the general election and he becomes prime minister, to discover whether he is the Modi of Godhra destined symbolically to be unsaveable like the Ganges frogs, or the man India needs to lead it into a new era of economic growth and development.

John Elliott’s new book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality is on sale in India and Pakistan bookshops and internationally (including e-book) on  .com  and

The quality of India’s general election campaigning, which ends on Saturday, has deteriorated into a slanging match between rival politicians. It began weeks ago as a relatively constructive debate between the growth policies of the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi, and the sops and entitlement approach of the Congress Party espoused by Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia. This rapidly became an almost presidential tussle between Modi and Rahul, with Modi in particular dominating his party’s campaign.

Modi Priyanka - tvdailyworld.comNow the electioneering has now sunk into a noisy battle primarily between Modi and both Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul’s gutsy sister, and regional party leaders.  At the same time, politicians have diverted from the growth debate and have been chasing vote banks on the traditional issues of caste and religion as they struggle for their national goals – Modi to win the BJP a big enough majority to ensure he becomes prime minister, and the Gandhis to avoid a crushing Congress defeat that could endanger the future of their dynasty.

The first indications of the results will begin to be known next Tuesday, the 13th, when findings of exit polls are broadcast. This will be followed by the official vote count two days later when the fate of the extraordinary Modi offensive will be known, maybe as early as Thursday afternoon.

Modi’s supporters see him restoring India’s growth with a new dynamic and assertive central government, while his detractors fear the end of independent India’s gradualist, tolerant and protective policies associated in people’s minds by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Modi has made few attempts on the hustings to soften his abrasive and controversial image, which stems from him presiding in Gujarat as its chief minister during the Godhra riots in 2002. In the past week or so, he has attacked political leaders who did not need to be attacked, including Mamata Banerjee, the West Bengal chief minister whose support he might need to form a coalition government at the end of next week.

Modi’s policies

He has however shown a calmer more prime ministerial style in a carefully crafted series of interviews in newspapers and on television programmes where has shown he has thought through major policy areas. He has also tried to rebut claims that he is not a team player by talking about how he has delegated authority to officials and ministers in Gujarat. He covered a range of policies in a two-page question-and-answer session spread over two pages of the Times of India two days ago. These included a foreign policy that was not confrontational with India’s neighbours and others, a revived agricultural sector, reformed defence equipment procurement procedures, and a new focus on infrastructure construction and manufacturing industries.

Alongside this, Modi has fought a high decibel battle of sound-bites with Priyanka Gandhi which has opened up questions about the future of the dynasty should Congress do seriously badly and win under 100 seats in the new Lok Sabha. The row has centred on Gandhi criticising Modi for “neech rajniti” or low-level politics, which he intentionally misinterpreted as a Nehru-Gandhi comment on his low-caste background.

Priyanka then invoked the memory of her assassinated father, Rajiv Gandhi, declaring angrily that she was his daughter after Modi teasingly suggested she was like a daughter.

priyanka rahul gamndhi amethiThe behaviour of Priyanka and Rahul on the election trail suggests, according to reports, a continuation of the family’s feeling that it has a right to rule, behaving as patrons rather than politicians desperate for votes. Priyanka, who is famed for being more approachable and friendly than her brother, displays the same airs mirroring it is often said, the style of her grandmother Indira Gandhi.

Tired of reporting the campaigns of Rahul Gandhi and their mother, Sonia, the media focused on Priyanka’s fighting talk and, having created hype around what she was saying, wondered whether this was eclipsing her brother’s campaign.

If that was supposed to suggest rivalry between the two, it seemed to be the wrong interpretation when the two appeared together earlier this week in Rahul’s Uttar Pradesh constituency of Amethi (see above). Rahul’s popularity has been fading because he has largely ignored the place during ten years as the local MP and it is likely that, though he will probably win, his majority will be far smaller than in 2009.

So has Priyanka’s high profile in the last week or so been an intentional publicity stunt, or merely the inevitable result of a confrontational election? As usual with the dynasty, only the inner circle knows, but it certainly did no harm to the family which next week might have to come to terms with a crushing Congress defeat that underlines Rahul Gandhi’s limited appeal.

If opinion inside Congress then swings against Rahul at a time when his mother’s health is far from good, supporters can now point to the support than a capable Priyanka can give – and point to the picture above to argue that they would make a great team to carry the Nehru-Gandhis into the next general election.

Surely it is time to put aside the debate about Narendra Modi and his accountability for the 2002 Godhra riots and focus on the more immediate issue of whether he is capable of being a competent prime minister. Could he rebuild an effective government machine and deliver economic growth, or is he too autocratic and abrasive to be the politically competent prime minister that India needs? That is the real issue that matters now, but 2002 hogs the headlines and the minds of campaigners.

I’m in the UK for a few days where there’s an angry debate between members of the Indian intelligentsia, focussed in The Guardian, over Modi and 2002. On one side is Priyamvada Gopal, an academic at Cambridge who condemns Modi for links with the RSS as well as Godhra. On the other side is Lord (Meghnad) Desai more rationally arguing that Modi is not the first political leader to have presided at a time of riots, but that others have not hounded for years.

Modi - Econ cover April 5 '14The Economist magazine was also blinded by 2002 when it ran one of its more irrational editorials two weeks ago and, because of Godhra, opted for Rahul Gandhi, the unsuitable dynastic heir to Congress Party leadership, as the “less disturbing option” for prime minister without examining Modi’s prime ministerial abilities. My old newspaper, The Financial Times, tied itself up in knots on the subject a day or two later, but at least did not come to such a weak conclusion. Both allowed post-Godhra emotions to colour their usually more savvy judgements.

The real issue now is whether Modi could run a government in three key ways – picking top people to run the Prime Minister’s Office with him, picking and working with senior ministers and bureaucrats to run major departments, and working with chief ministers in the states so that policies can be implemented.

India suffers today not from a lack of new laws, policies or ideas, but from appalling implementation of government decisions. That is caused by cumbersome outdated laws and regulations, bloated bureaucracies, political infighting, and endemic corruption. It is unlikely that Modi will do much to curb crony capitalism, but what he does need to be able to do is to make the PMO, the major government departments, and the states work in unison.

His autocratic record in Gujarat does not indicate he has the ability to do this. Nor, to be fair, does it show that he cannot because he has not needed to do so as chief minister. No-one therefore knows how he perform as prime minister and that is the issue that should be debated now, not whether or not he was guilty at Godhra.

The problem is that most people – including the liberal media – have been in denial for the past decade or so about his potential rise. They have never believed he would get so far and are now reacting with shock and horror when it is almost certainly too late to dislodge him over 2002. Even last year many were dismissing the idea of him becoming the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate as being beyond belief.

I saw Modi in 2002 and 2008 as a future national leader

I first wrote 12 years ago in July 2002 that Modi was a potential national leader. I suggested in a column for India’s Business Standard that, unlike most politicians, he was arguing as Gujarat chief minister passionately for what he believed in, not for some short-term personal gain far removed from policy, but out of conviction. He was a strong public speaker and was standing his ground and presenting his case with rare confidence and élan – and, whether one liked it or not, he had a commanding presence (some called it ego). This was not an endorsement but, to a bystander, he looked like a logical heir for L.K.Advani.

“Friends and contacts told me that I was wrong and asked how a man who had presided in the state as chief minister during such ghastly bloody carnage could ever win popular respect and a wide following,” I wrote. “Weren’t Gujarat’s people tiring of the violence, and wasn’t he in fact already finished, just waiting to be edged out of his job? The BJP, I was told, could not survive as a national party of government if he became one of its top leaders because it would be shunned by coalition partners”.

I returned to the subject on this blog in 2008 when, after the horror of the Mumbai terrorist attacks on the Taj and Oberoi hotels and other targets, people questioned how India could recover from appalling governance and inefficient security services. I wrote that I had heard two extreme ideas. One was to have a state of emergency or even military rule, which was surely unthinkable. The other was that the country needed tough rule by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by its highly controversial Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi. “I wonder how long it will be before the failings of more acceptable politicians leads to Modi becoming prime minister?”, I asked.

Mumbai vote for NModiA couple of days later, an opinion poll published by Mumbai’s DNA daily newspaper (left) showed a majority of respondents in the city favoured Modi as most likely “to provide the kind of leadership required to bring about real change” following the terror attacks. Modi led with a dramatic 47% while Advani, Singh, and Gandhi got 10-13% each.  That was significant because, since then Mumbai’s business community has promoted Modi as the leader needed to restore leadership and effective government.

These points are worth reiterating because the time to stop Modi’s rise was up to about two years ago, but all that most people did was to refuse to believe he could succeed. Congress leaders similarly thought that they had a good chance of winning this year’s general election – first because the BJP was leaderless, and then because they would be able to frighten voters into rejecting such an abrasive, controversial, dictatorial and potentially socially dangerous politician such as Modi once he became the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate last September.

All those adjectives are correct. He is abrasive, controversial and dictatorial. With him as prime minister, the more extremist wings of the BJP-RSS movement known as the Sangh Parivar would potentially become socially dangerous. Activists would feel free to stir up communal unrest, as Pravin Togadia, president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an arch-Hindu nationalist organisation within Sangh, has just been accused of doing with an alleged hate speech against Muslims.

But I would argue that there is little point now in returning constantly to the Godhra and other extremist issues, though rabble rousers like Togadia do of course need to be restrained. Some people might be frightened at the last minute into voting against the BJP, but opinion polls have been indicating a continuing slide by the Congress Party and support for the BJP in most parts of the country.

This shows that Modi’s record at Godhra in 2002 is not stopping people swinging to him and the BJP, hoping they would be electing a strong effective prime minister. The question that needs to be examined in the final weeks of polling that ends on May 12 is surely whether he has the character and capacity to fulfil that role.

My new book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality is now available internationally in hard cover and as an e-book – from the US , from the UK , in India , and Pakistan

As the Congress Party stumbles towards what looks like a massive general election defeat, one candidate is performing with the conviction of a potential winner who believes he can help implement change in the way that India works. Nandan Nilekani, the Congress Party candidate in Bangalore South is well aware that he has only a 50-50, or maybe 60-40 chance, of defeating the sitting Bharatiya Janata Party MP, Ananth Kumar, but there is no doubt that he is bringing a practical approach and confidence that his party leadership lacks.

A founder and former chairman of Infosys, the iconic information technology company where he worked for 27 years till 2009, Nilekani recently headed the government’s Unique Identification Authority of India that is setting up a countrywide biometric database with personal identity numbers called aadhaar (foundation stone). Bureaucratic and political hassles that hit him building that database have led him to want to enter active politics as an elected MP.

Three evenings ago, I stood with Nilekani on a jeep driving through his constituency’s lower middle class crowded lanes and streets at the head of a motorcade of 200 or so cheering flag-waving scooter and motorbike riders. Nilekani waved and namasted to the crowds, nudged occasionally by the local Congress legislative assembly member to acknowledge those eager for eye contact.

photo 3-001The most enthusiastic leapt up on the jeep to garland Nilekani and the MLA and anyone else within arms reach (including me, twice). He had been out and about since 5.30am when he canvassed early-morning walkers in parks, and he said during a tv interview on the jeep that he found his new role tough and exhausting.

What is this 58-year old IT tycoon, who has officially declared his and his wife’s wealth at Rs7,700 crore ($1.28bn), doing seeking mass votes alongside old-style Congress power brokers in street-level politics when doors are open for him in boardrooms, universities and think-tanks across the world?

When I first heard he was becoming a candidate some months ago, I said that I thought he was crazy, firstly to want to become a Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) MP, and then to choose to do so with the discredited Congress Party. I had just written about him and his identity scheme in my book “IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality” to show how India’s projects can be executed effectively when one person is put in charge and is given top-level political backing.

I thought he ought to be looking to apply his IT knowledge, administrative acumen and personal team-leading skills to other poorly performing areas such as health and education services, food distribution, and urban planning. Surely becoming an MP would take him away from the front line of such implementation.

I put the question to him again as we drove in his car way from the canvassing area late in the evening, and he admitted that becoming an MP was not his first preference for tackling the areas I had mentioned. “If I had a choice, I would stay a technocrat and take sophisticated challenges – that’s what I’d like to do,” he said. “Solutions have to be found with out-of-the-box thinking and I would have faced blockages…..Changing any system is difficult, so I need political legitimacy to drive the change that is needed”. Only membership of the Lok Sabha would give that legitimacy.



He is reluctant to discuss the future, but I pressed him because I still could not understand why he was so sure being an MP was the answer – though, if he was determined to do so, it was clearly right for him to go for the Lok Sabha rather than the more honorific Rajya Sabha, the upper house, where tycoons seeking prestige and government contacts have paid crores of rupees in political bribes to obtain a seat.

He prefers only to say his first task is to win the election. His constituency votes on the 17th. His chances have been boosted by massive corruption when the BJP was in power in the state till May last year, and by his opponent Ananth Kumar’s declining reputation. The Congress Party has better prospects in the state of Karnataka, where Bangalore is the capital, than most other areas of the country. It is putting a lot of effort into Nilekani’s constituency and has united the party machine behind him

He then opened up a little, carefully avoiding saying he wanted to become a government minister. “If Congress forms part of the next government, I hope to play a role in that government”. If Congress was not part of he government, he would try to create a coalition of MPs from about 100 predominantly urban constituencies to look at reforming urbanisation. Overall, his aim would be to tackle “anything where there’s a problem to be solved…taking charge of something and seeing it through”, driving change and finding people who could manage and implement what was needed.

Businessmen rarely succeed when brought in at a top level as ministers in countries with the Indian (and British) sort of parliamentary system, so maybe Nilekani is right to want to begin just as an MP. Another technocrat, US-based Sam Pitroda was a high-level technology adviser to Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s, especially on rural telecommunications, and he continued to advise the current Congress government. Nilekani presumably wants to be a more effective Pitroda with a base in parliament to strengthen top-level political patronage. Some people in Bangalore gossip that he will perform, for Rahul Gandhi, the prime ministerial role that Manmohan Singh has done for Sonia Gandhi. Unsurprisingly he denies that – and it is scarcely a relationship to be emulated  (as Sanjaya Baru shows in his new book Accidental Prime Minister).

If he wants to make a difference quickly, joining Congress seems illogical just as it is probably about to go into opposition, but Nilekani says he does not choose his politics according to who is going to win, adding that he was brought up and remains rooted in Nehruvian politics. The BJP clearly would not be the home for him, and he dismisses the Aam Aadmi Party as “incoherent on strategy, policy and ideology”. He acknowledges it has played a role in attacking corruption and says its “ideas will outlive the party”.

With his wealth and Congress connections, he’s an easy target for critics, and there are plenty of those in Bangalore and elsewhere. Many carp about the identity scheme’s record and its achievements, though Nilekani proudly states that he reached his target of enrolling 600m people with identity cards before he left to campaign in the election, and he rejects ideas that the cards will not be widely used. Critics persist however, saying he should have set the scheme on a firmer base and even questioning lack of vocal support from old Infosys colleagues.

Beyond all this, Nilekani’s entry into politics is significant at a time when India’s middle class increasingly wants to change the way the country is run. That was evident on the streets of Delhi and elsewhere with mass protests over corruption, rape, and the behaviour of the police that began three years ago with what was known as the Hazare movement and later by the AAP led by Arvind Kejriwal.

91-V-BalakrishnanThe street protests have faded away, and I have been asked in recent weeks (when discussing my book) whether I think that middle class demand for change will fade away once economic growth returns to near the 8% levels of a few years ago and a feel-good factor returns. There may be something in that, but Nilekani’s wish for “transformative” (as he puts it) policies shows how the mood can be carried forward – as do other initiatives in Bangalore.

V.Balakrishnan (left), another former Infosys director, is standing as an AAP candidate and told me, when I walked with him in his Bangalore Central constituency, that he is backed by the middle class who “want an honest system”. Observers give him little chance of winning, but he says the AAP gets support from “people on the ground while businessmen want the BJP”.

There are also voluntary organisations trying to lead to change. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, founder chairman of Biocon, a leading biotech company, and Mohandas Pai, another former Infosys director, have set up B.PAC that works with bureaucrats to improve road schemes and other infrastructure projects and has staged debates for general election candidates.

It is fashionable in Indian election campaigns to focus not on urban issue but on rural areas where 65% of India’s population live, often in desperate poverty and lacking health education and other services.

In this election however, urban areas are significant because it is here that India’s aspirational youth live. The urban young do not relate to the sops and entitlement politics of Congress’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that are aimed at winning rural votes, but instead go for those who offer positive opportunities. Many will vote BJP for quick growth, and some will back the AAP for anti-corruption and other longer-term reforms. Nilekani’s challenge is to buck that trend and win support on the basis that he offers not sops but both growth and improvements in the way the country is run.

Posted by: John Elliott | April 6, 2014

The mystery of Rahul Gandhi’s unpredictable beard

This article appears in the current issue of Newsweek magazine

RAHUL_GANDHI_with_beardHow much does it tell you about a man if he cannot decide whether he wants to have a beard or not? What does it indicate if he appears clean shaven for a few days, then sports a stubble, then is clean shaven again, then appears with a full black beard till it vanishes again?

This is not a youngster hanging out with buddies or backpacking across America but instead a top member of India’s leading political dynasty who is nearing his 44th birthday and is photographed and filmed every time he appears in public.

He is Rahul Gandhi, the 43-year-old heir apparent to the prime ministership of India—or so it seemed until it became apparent he did not want the job but then seemed to be working toward it, though he would never confirm his ultimate ambitions or intentions.

Confused? So are the people of India.

Although Gandhi is being promoted by his mother and lauded by supporters, Indian voters do not seem to want him, and he and the dynasty are facing a massive defeat when the results of a general election are announced in May.

Rahul manifestoThe vanishing beard is significant. It illustrates the quandary that this obviously reluctant politician has in terms of what he is and what he wants to be and do, having been born into the dynasty that has headed India’s Congress Party for all but nine years since the country’s independence in 1947.

The party has been out of power for only about 13 of those years, and the family has provided three prime ministers: Jawaharlal Nehru, who led India into independence; his daughter, Indira Gandhi, who was shot by her Sikh security guards in 1984; and her son Rajiv, who was assassinated by a Sri Lankan Tamil suicide bomber in 1991. Adding to the family’s tragedies, Rajiv’s younger brother Sanjay, who played a leading role in Indira Gandhi’s undemocratic and sometimes brutal 1975-77 state of emergency, died when a light plane he was piloting crashed in 1980.

The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has remained at the top since Rajiv’s death. After a few years in the shadows, his widow, Italian-born Sonia, became the chairperson of Congress in 1998 and led the party to election victories in 2004 and 2009. The daughter of a builder from northern Italy, she met Rajiv at a Cambridge, England, restaurant where she was working while studying at one of the city’s language schools and had no interest in politics until after he died.

Now she is recognized as a top politician, although respect is tempered with wariness among Indians because she is a foreigner. In 2011 she was believed to have had a cancer operation at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, though the nature of her illness has not been confirmed.

For the past 10 years, she has headed India’s United Progressive Alliance coalition, having cleverly handed the prime minister’s job, at the head of the government, to an aging bureaucrat-economist-turned-politician, Manmohan Singh, now 81, who has failed to wield real power because of her dominance and the Machiavellian maneuverings of her courtiers and sycophants.

Rahul stubbleThe government they headed became increasingly ineffective, plagued by corruption scandals and coalition problems. Economic growth plummeted from around 9 percent to under 5 percent. This has paved the way for Narendra Modi, a controversial and egotistical politician, to win what is becoming a presidential-style election at the head of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

The Indian subcontinent is swamped with dynasties that have rarely contributed much to their country’s well-being or development. More than a third of the Congress Party’s members of parliament in the 2009 government came into politics through a family link, as did more than two-thirds of the MPs from all parties.

Political parties gain from dynasties because, as with film stars and sports stars, family candidates are instantly recognizable and so have less difficulty selling themselves in huge political arenas like India. Brand Gandhi generates instant recognition, and there is also the convenient association with Mahatma Gandhi, leader of India’s independence campaign of peaceful protest, who was no relation.

Indira Gandhi, born a Nehru, married Feroze Gandhy who changed the spelling of his main name, thus giving the family an association with the stronger Mahatma brand, which still causes helpful confusion today. No one knows how many of the poor, who have instinctively voted for the Congress Party in past general elections, believe the Gandhis are descendants of the nation’s founding father, but there must be many. (Foreigners who do not know India well also assume there are direct family links.)

This is the world in which Rahul Gandhi is trying to find his way. He has been unable to escape his legacy and has been put on a public pedestal that he would rather avoid. He has talked publicly about the trauma of assassination. At a Congress Party convention where he became the party’s vice president in January last year, he explained how two of his grandmother’s police security guards had taught him how to play badminton. “They were my friends. Then one day they killed my grandmother…. I felt pain like I had never felt before. My father was in Bengal, and he came back. The hospital was dark, green and dirty. There was a huge screaming crowd outside as I entered. It was the first time in my life that I saw my father crying. He was the bravest person I knew.” Rahul was then 14.

His mother, Sonia, has seen herself as a dynastic bridge between her late husband and their son, just as Manmohan Singh has always said he would step aside as soon as Rahul decided to become prime minister. When he was first elected an MP in 2004, Rahul seemed to have some of the promise of his father, who was dragged into politics by his mother from a career as an airline pilot after Sanjay died. Though an inexperienced politician, Rajiv launched India on a path of long-term economic reforms in the 1980s.

I travelled with him in 2004

Rahul Gandhi is good at mixing informally when he is on tour. “I come as a son and as a brother, and as a friend. Elections come and go, but I’ll stay,” he said while I was with him on the 2004 election trail in the family’s traditional constituency of Amethi, a scruffy, underdeveloped town in the vast north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

He relaxed with crowds of desperately poor villagers, listening attentively, and they seemed to believe he cared and would help them. This was not just because he looked young and honest and sounded sincere, but because he looked and sounded like his father, who had been Amethi’s MP.

For them, Rajiv had returned, 13 years after he was assassinated, and life might be good again. Like the villagers, I was struck by the similarities with his father. It wasn’t just his looks—tallish, open-faced, good-looking, with short cropped hair and dressed in a traditional white kurta pajama that got crumpled as the day’s heat wore on. It wasn’t just that he spoke in the same quiet way, making brief remarks at election meetings because he had yet to master the rabble-rousing speeches that he now delivers. Like his father, he seemed to have the same passion to be of service to the country (a rare trait among modern politicians) and the same simple wish to try to help India change for the better.

Confirming that he was in politics for life, he told me, “What drives me in a big way is the need to tackle bigotry in India, bigotry that divides one caste and class from another…. I would like one day for everyone to perceive themselves as equal, not just upper castes seeing lower castes as equal but lower castes feeling that too…. I don’t understand how we can talk about democracy when people don’t see each other as equal.”

Little progress

That was 10 years ago, and he has not really progressed, though he has tried to reform some of the Congress Party’s organization. The villagers in Amethi do not feel that he has stayed to help them. He is still their member of parliament, but he did little in the years after 2004, and his more astute and approachable sister, Priyanka, is now managing the constituency. He has spoken in similar terms in villages he has visited across the country, but he rarely if ever returns to check progress.

Rahul dropped in on the remote tribal people in the hills of Orissa, in eastern India; they were threatened by a bauxite mining project, and he promised to support their case. The project was stopped, but not because of his visit. A year later, he jumped on a motorbike at 3:30 one morning and rode to Delhi’s satellite city of Greater Noida to join villagers in a “sit-in” protest against real estate land acquisition. There, he got some of his facts wrong and was briefly arrested, but achieved nothing.

He has never married, though there have been girlfriends, and for years he has frequently disappeared from public view—sometimes, it is believed, with friends in India, often abroad and always shrouded in secrecy. He has failed to lead his party to victory in state election campaigns and shirked taking a top job until last year, when he became the party vice president.

Since then, he has applied himself more consistently to politics, but he continues to refuse to acknowledge that he will be prime minister if the Congress Party were to confound the forecasters and opinion polls and win the election. His face is the most prominent on the party’s election manifesto, though, significantly, Sonia stepped in to lead at the launch press conference to try to add more strength and credibility to the party’s message than her son would have managed.

In the past year, Rahul has been airing all the right ideas about the changes that India needs, but he does not add nuts and bolts of policy to give his words credibility. His aim, he said in a recent TV interview (his first since 2004), was to change the way the political system was structured, end rule by dynasties, introduce real democracy in the Congress Party, empower women and youth, punish the corrupt and build an internationally significant manufacturing industry. No one could write a better shopping list. But Rahul failed to add substance. When pushed by the TV interviewer, he merely repeated the list.

He has indicated before that he wants to end dynastic rule. This logically means he could be the last in the Nehru Gandhi dynasty’s line, though he has never spelled that out. He has, however, woken up too late to save his party from what looks like a crushing defeat.

My book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality is now available internationally in hard cover and as an e-book – from the US , from the UK , in India , and Pakistan

Posted by: John Elliott | March 30, 2014

Democracy a fig leaf that obscures India’s failures

This column appeared today on the Edit Page of the Times of India Sunday edition.

India has been in a state of denial for years. It is rightly proud of its vibrant and chaotic democracy which is on show in the current general election and has survived and been accepted almost without question since Independence. But it is in denial because it has not been prepared to recognize that the vagaries of democracy are providing smokescreens that obfuscate many of the negative aspects of how the country works.

Consequently, democracy has become an unchallengeable fig leaf covering what is not achieved. It allows the negative and under-performing aspects of Indian life to flourish. It blocks change and acts as an excuse for ineffective government.

This helps to explain why India punches below its weight, failing to achieve what it could and should be doing with the vast potential of a billion-plus people and abundant natural resources. It constantly disappoints admirers and validates the views of critics. Most recently, with declining economic performance, poor governance and endemic corruption, people have begun to ask, ‘Why is India proving such a failure?’

Modi lotusNarendra Modi’s (left) answer to that question is of course to vote for him to lead the country to growth and glory. Progress, he implies, will automatically follow.

The Gandhis offer repetitive sops and promises, which show that the Congress, and the family, need a time in opposition.

Arvind Kejriwal and his collection of broom-wielding Aam Aadmi volunteers (below) offer the basic political upheaval that India surely needs if it is to shake itself free of widespread corruption, crony capitalism, and poor governance – but that is a long-term play with all the risks inherent in necessary but unpredictable disruption.

Modi does not have anywhere near all the answers, and in particular will not dig deep into crony capitalism and political and bureaucratic corruption, though he will presumably have a “cleaner” cabinet than Sonia Gandhi has allowed Manmohan Singh to appoint. He will also do more to project an incorruptible image.

After a time, however, Modi too will no doubt follow the general line and blame democracy for India’s shortcomings. Manmohan Singh has attempted to pass off prime ministerial vacillation in policy and questionable decision-making as the inevitable result of the democratic compulsions of coalition government, and has allowed opposition from other parties to become an excuse for years of policy delays. A strong prime minister, supported by adept top ministers and a powerful and persuasive PMO, would do better but coalitions are here to stay.

AAP_broom_launch_295Democracy has also provided an excuse and a cover for the gradual criminalization of politics that has been allowed to grow for decades to such an extent that election campaigns are distorted, large bribes are paid when coalitions are being formed, and many members of parliament and state assemblies have criminal charges pending against them.

Democracy is also a drag on development because, while it has rightly opened the way for dissent and opposition to changes in land use and environmental concerns, no effort has been made to curb its misuse by vested interests who corruptly manipulate not only policies but their implementation. This has contributed to India becoming an increasingly unpredictable, unreliable, uncompetitive and difficult place to live and do business.

Because of all that, India has given up trying to compete with China’s far faster economic development, shrugging its metaphorical shoulders and saying that of course China is ahead, it is not a democracy! The excuse allows lessons that could be learned about China’s administrative systems, technological abilities and other pluses to be ignored.

Democracy also creates an environment where jugaad fixes are easy, and where the failures of the system in terms of poor governance and weakened institutions make the fatalism of chalta hai a welcome safe haven. A system that relies on an ability to fix things and then assumes that all will be eventually well whatever is or is not done, surely cannot be a success.

This is not an argument for doing away with democracy, but to recognize and change the negative way in which it operates. Democracy has helped to hold India together since Independence, providing an outlet for people’s frustrations and anger, ousting prime ministers, chief ministers and their governments. Though far from perfect, it has given the great mass of the electorate the feeling that they have a say in how the country is run, however faint and rare that may be, and however much they are cheated and maltreated by those they elect.

It is not democracy that is at fault but a lack of leadership and a failure to shape clean transparent systems and procedures that operate effectively without being manipulated and hijacked by vested interests and those who resist change. That is the challenge for the next government.

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