The Indian Congress Party is losing its trust amongst the population, suggesting that it may be time for a change in leadership.
Triggering a storm in Indian political circles, Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of Congress President Sonia Gandhi, faces allegations of having received undeserved favors from realty major Delhi Land & Finance (DLF). Bureaucrat turned anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal has accused Vadra of amassing properties worth over Rs 300 crore through corrupt land deals. While several union ministers have rushed to defend Robert Vadra, he himself has refused to provide a detailed defense of his actions, only issuing a statement calling the charges baseless and defamatory.
The controversy emerges at a time when the Congress and its coalition government, United Progressive Alliance (UPA), face a credibility crisis due to rampant corruption, faltering governance, and a tottering economy. These fresh allegations against a member of the influential Gandhi family give more ammunition to the opposition. Many commentators say only a miracle at this point could revive the party’s chances of regaining power in 2014. Congress must find ways to contain the fallout from these allegations and drastically improve its image; otherwise, the UPA’s long-term electoral prospects are slim.
In politics, perception is key. On that front, the party’s fortunes are dwindling. Since 2010, a series of scandals have shaken the foundation of the Manmohan government and dealt a heavy blow to the Congress party: the unearthing of the commonwealth games scam, the 2G spectrum scam, the coal scam, and many others. To better understand the eroding popularity of Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, and the party in general, the UPA government’s recent past should be revisited.
Successive Congress victories in the 2004 and 2009 general elections reaffirmed the party’s belief that its declared commitment to “Aam Aadmi” (common man) and social welfare and populist policies were the winning recipe for gaining national power. Drawing lessons from experience, the UPA government followed a diarchy model: PM Singh was projected as a reformer, while Congress President Sonia Gandhi became India's lady bountiful.
As long as the Indian economy continued to perform adequately, this model worked well. The government had enough cash to fund its ambitious social welfare programs. Despite the need and occasional calls for economic and administrative reform, the UPA was never under pressure to introduce changes because India maintained an impressive growth rate. This unique model did not last long, in part due to the steady increase in corruption scandals over the past two years. As the UPA hesitates to act against corruption by high-level officials, a new civil society-led anti-corruption movement has emerged.
Aside from corruption, Indians are increasingly confronted with rising fiscal deficit and inflation, soaring subsidy bills, a falling growth rate, and widespread policy paralysis in the face of scams. People were perplexed by the government’s inability to put the economy in order, and by the silence of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi at a time when India’s success story seemed to be going horribly wrong.
Rahul Gandhi, widely viewed as the party’s future leader, has also failed miserably in leading the party away from crisis. Like his mother, Rahul Gandhi has hardly interacted with media or expressed views on critical national issues, raising questions about his leadership capacity. This reticence may have worked for Congress in good times, when the family was credited for successes and shielded from failures. Now, people are disenchanted with the party. Its perceived failure occurs when India most needs decisiveness, accountability, agility, and vision. Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi have instead become objects of ridicule, and the party and government appear to have lost their sense of direction.
The lack of a strong, well-communicated government plan for policy reform reflects internal divisions in the party. After a flurry of scathing reports in domestic and foreign media, and sensing the impending disaster on the economic front, Manmohan Singh has responded by introducing new measures to woo foreign investors. These steps are largely signs of desperation rather than a commitment to serious reform; even the party is uncertain that these measures can win back supporters, disillusioned following months of inaction.
The charisma of the Gandhi family is on the decline, and the party has yet to produce quality leaders with a strong support base. Over the course of Sonia Gandhi’s presidency, the party gradually lost its capacity to generate effective state and regional leaders. Rahul Gandhi’s much-hyped claims of reorganizing the party and infusing it with young blood have not yet materialized. Meanwhile, the culture of sycophancy, of rewarding those loyal to the Gandhi family and banishing those challenging top leadership, blocks efforts aiming to rejuvenate the party.
In the coming weeks and months, the Congress party must not forget that Indian electorates increasingly demand good governance and a high level of transparency from administrators. Without good performance, incumbent governments will not be voted back in power. To overcome political paralysis and regain the people’s trust, Congress urgently requires a fresh set of competent and energetic leaders committed to corruption-free governance. The failure to achieve these goals may well push the party into political oblivion.
Sachin Gaur is a second year Master's candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Before Fletcher, he worked with the BBC World Service and Deutsche Welle. This past summer he interned with the UNHCR at Regional Office in Cairo.
Photo courtesy of Liji Jinaraj via Flickr.