The bell tolls for India’s Congress Party
Posted Sunday, July 15 2012 at 19:34
Many people believe that India faces uncertain political prospects. In particular, there is widespread belief that one of the country’s two main political parties, the Indian National Congress, essentially run by Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul Gandhi, has now run its course and will sink into oblivion.
But the Congress has been written off before. Indeed, the uniform prediction prior to the 2004 election was that, after having lost three elections in a row, the Congress was heading for its fourth defeat and eventual dissolution. Yet it won that election, and then won a second parliamentary election in 2009.
Politics is, of course, full of reversals of fortune. But, unlike in 2004, it is unlikely, for several reasons, that the Congress can survive the dire predicament it now faces.
For starters, in 2004, the Congress was challenging an incumbent government that had served for six years.
This time, the Congress has formed the incumbent government for two consecutive terms, and its tenure has recently been marked by scandals that have made it look ineffectual, rudderless, and corrupt.
To make matters worse, India is experiencing a sharp economic slowdown, further undermining the Congress’s prospects in elections that must be held no later than June 2014.
Second, and more important, voter attitudes have shifted significantly during the past decade. Average annual economic growth of 8.5 per cent over the eight-year period from 2003 to 2011 has led to a revolution of perceived possibilities.
As the economists Poonam Gupta and Arvind Panagariya have shown, voters in most Indian states now support leaders and parties that deliver good economic outcomes, and turn out those who do not.
This marks a major shift from the fatalistic attitudes of the past, which generally helped incumbents, who benefited from voters’ belief that there was no real alternative to existing arrangements.
Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination over two decades ago created a wave of sympathy for his widow, Sonia, on whose sari-tails the Congress won in 2004.
Today, no such tragedy is likely to help the Congress. Sonia Gandhi is rumoured to have cancer, but, rather than capitalising on it, she has kept the details within the walls of the Gandhi family compound in New Delhi.
But the real problem is that brand-name politics is increasingly at a discount in India, much as it is in the United States. Like the Kennedy and Bush brands, the Nehru-Gandhi label has lost its lustre.
That is partly a function of rapidly changing demographics. Individuals born after 1975 now account for a very large proportion of the electorate.
For these voters, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi are merely historical figures, and are a distant memory even for many voters born before 1975.
It is common knowledge that, for the last eight years, Sonia has exercised virtually total control within the party. As a result, no rival to Rahul has emerged.
With Sonia Gandhi in ill health, Rahul unable to connect to the electorate even in his historically “safe” constituency, and the Nehru-Gandhi brand name having lost its appeal, the prospects for the Congress in 2014 look bleak. Only the outcome will tell whether it can survive.
Prof Jagdish Bhagwati teaches Economics and Law at Columbia University, while Prof Arvind Panagariya teaches Economics and Indian Political Economy at Columbia University. (c): Project Syndicate, 2012. www.project-syndicate.org.