Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born president of India’s Congress Party, and arguably the most powerful person in the world’s largest democracy, has blocked a move that would allow her son, Rahul, to run as the party’s Prime Ministerial candidate in this year’s election, presenting a potential interruption in a dynasty that stretches back to Jawaharlal Nehru. Sonia, the widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and ex-daughter-in-law of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, reportedly claimed that promoting her 43-year-old son for the top job would violate the party’s “tradition.” Speculation ran amok that Rahul would be formally named the candidate for PM at a party conference in New Delhi on Friday, but Sonia apparently has other ideas.
Agence France Presse reported that Janardan Dwivedi, a spokesman for Congress, said Sonia steadfastly opposes her son’s candidacy, despite his open lobbying for the position. "All the members of the CWC [Congress Working Committee] wanted [Rahul] to be announced as the PM [Prime Minister] candidate but the Congress president intervened," Dwivedi told reporters. "She [Sonia] said: 'This is not the party's tradition [to announce its PM candidate before elections]. Just because some party has declared the PM candidate, does not mean that Congress will do the same'."
Some Indian media figures have speculated that one reason for not naming Rahul as the Congress PM candidate lies with fears that he cannot beat Narendra Modi, the fiery chief minister of Gujarat who has been named the PM candidate for the opposition, right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). By excluding Rahul from the candidacy, he (and his family) would be spared the embarrassment of a crushing national defeat. Indeed, polls have shown that the Hindu nationalist BJP is likely to defeat Congress in the May elections, as the electorate has tired of endless corruption scandals within the incumbent party and its perceived failure to re-accelerate the economy. Although Rahul has not been directly tainted by any corruption accusations, another poll by the Times of India indicated that only 14 percent of the electorate think he would make a good Prime Minister, while a whopping 58 percent favored Modi (anti-corruption champion Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi and a member of the upstart Aam Aadmi party, finished second with 25 percent).
Al Jazeera reported that on Friday, Rahul himself conceded that Congress Party members of parliament should select the next PM candidate. But even if Rahul does not acquire the mantle of PM, he will remain as the “face” of the Congress Party as its deputy president and chief strategist during the national elections. "Rahul Gandhi said that: 'I have said before also. I am a dedicated worker of party, whatever responsibility party gives me, I will carry it out'," added spokesman Dwivedi.
Meanwhile, the BJP has delivered a backhanded compliment to Congress by crossing out Rahul has a potential PM. Arun Jaitley, a senior BJP official, said Congress has been excessively dominated by the Gandhi-Nehru political dynasty for the past 65 years. "It is only in a personality and family-dominated set-up like the Congress that he [Rahul] can be nominated as the unquestioned supremo,” he sneered.
Michael Kugelman, Senior Program Associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, commented in an interview that he thinks this is purely a political decision. “Sonia Gandhi likely thinks Rahul's unpopularity could imperil the party's chances in the [national] election,” he said. But Kugelman adds that Congress may not have a better alternative to Rahul. “The problem is that there's arguably no better alternative--and certainly no one with Rahul's name recognition,” he said. “Indian politics being what it is, let's not rule out the possibility of the Congress Party leadership eventually changing its mind and selecting Rahul Gandhi as the PM candidate.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.