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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Rahul Gandhi nomination highlights India's dynasty politics 

The Congress party's vice-president is expected to be announced a sits new president next week, following in not only his mother's footsteps, but those of his father, grandmother and great-grandfather also

Senior Congress party leaders welcome their vice-president, Rahul Gandhi (second left) with flowers as he arrives to file his nomination papers at party headquarters in New Delhi on December 4, 2017. Manish Swarup / AP
Senior Congress party leaders welcome their vice-president, Rahul Gandhi (second left) with flowers as he arrives to file his nomination papers at party headquarters in New Delhi on December 4, 2017. Manish Swarup / AP

As the process to determine the next president of India's Congress party got underway, 89 nominations -from party members in every state — made their way to Congress headquarters in New Delhi. But when party officials checked the nomination papers on Tuesday, they were all found to contain one name: Rahul Gandhi.

Mr Gandhi, Congress's 45-year-old vice-president and the son of the party's current president, Sonia Gandhi, is thus running unopposed in the internal election. If Mr Gandhi has not withdrawn his nomination by Monday, the last date for doing so, there will be no need for voting at all and he will be announced as the new Congress president.

“Rahul-ji has been the darling of the Congress,” Manmohan Singh, the ordinarily reserved former Indian prime minister, said on Monday, affixing a honorific to Mr Gandhi’s first name. “He will carry on the great tradition of the Congress party.”

The manner of Mr Gandhi’s elevation will confirm the criticism levelled most often at India’s oldest political party: that it has become a dynastic enterprise, incapable of true internal democracy and dedicated only to the Gandhi family’s hold on power.

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The party, founded in 1885, had a series of presidents drawn from every Indian community up until Indian independence in 1947. Since then, however, members of three generations of the family have occupied the presidency for long periods: Jawaharlal Nehru; his daughter Indira Gandhi; her son Rajiv; and his wife, Sonia.

Congress presidents from outside the family have tended to hold their posts only briefly. In the 27 years since 1947 that the Congress has had neither a Nehru nor a Gandhi at its head, nine men occupied the role. Even then, in all but three cases, a Nehru or a Gandhi was prime minister — and thus the family was still the power centre of the party.

Within the party, dissent is usually mild to non-existent. On this occasion, only one Congress member, Shehzad Poonawalla, the party secretary in the state of Maharashtra, has spoken up against what he says is Mr Gandhi’s “Mughal-style coronation”.

On Monday, in a lengthy statement, Mr Poonawalla decried the nomination process as “a black day in [the] history of my party,” saying it was “unconstitutional and illegal”.

Last week, even as nominations were still open, he called the internal election “rigged”. He released letters he had written to Mr Gandhi earlier this month, urging him to find “concrete solutions to curb dynasty politics in our party”.

But Mr Poonawalla found himself singing solo. Even his elder brother Tehseen, another Congress party member, disowned him. “Me, my wife and my mother are no longer associated with this gentleman,” Tehseen Poonawalla said on Monday of his brother.

“I would like to clarify that me and my family are completely with Rahul Gandhi and the Congress Party,” he added. ”We want Rahul Gandhi to take over as the leader of the party.”

Mr Gandhi himself has only rarely addressed the question of his dynastic privilege. “Most of the country runs like this,” he said during a speech at the University of California, Berkeley, in September.

“It’s a problem in all political parties in India,” he added, naming other leaders who had followed their parents to lead their national or state-level parties. “So don’t go after me … That’s what happens in India.”

Ever since Sonia Gandhi took over the Congress presidency in 1998 — seven years after her husband, Rajiv, was assassinated — it seemed a foregone conclusion that one of her two children would follow her into the post.

Mr Gandhi’s younger sister Priyanka has also thrown herself into campaigning for Congress, but has never taken on a bigger role within the party.

“She has a young family to nurture, and we must remember that this family has lost two prime ministers to assassinations,” one high-ranking Congress official told The National.

Ms Gandhi has, however, shown an instinctual grasp of politics, the official said.

“She gets the rhetoric right.” Her brother “does not come across as a natural … or trigger the insane, passionate loyalty that’s needed in politics”, he said. “But he’s smart, very analytical, and works hard.”

For years, Mr Gandhi came across as a reluctant leader-in-waiting, but his enthusiasm palpably grew after Congress suffered a drubbing in the 2014 general election, winning only 44 out of 545 parliamentary seats — its lowest tally ever.

His immediate duties are formidable. His party has continued to fare poorly in state elections since 2014, inevitably losing to prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Now, if he does indeed become party president, Mr Gandhi will have just a year and a half to revitalise Congress before the next general election in 2019.