Schoolteacher Arun Singh says he’ll vote once again for Rahul Gandhi as his member of parliament in India’s elections, but more out of loyalty than conviction.
“The roads are bad, water is scarce and power fluctuates—not much has changed in the last 10 years,” Singh says. “Despite that everybody, including myself, will vote for the Gandhi family, not particularly because of Rahul.”
For more than 30 years, the people of Amethi, a poor wheat-growing region dotted with hamlets, have turned out to elect different members of India’s most famous clan. Would-be prime minister Rahul Gandhi followed in his uncle, mother and father’s footsteps in becoming the area’s member of parliament, winning thumping victories there in 2004 and 2009. But even here, in the most partisan of spots in Uttar Pradesh state, echoes of the doubts raised in the capital about the 43-year-old’s leadership can be heard.
Many say the mild-mannered bachelor is inaccessible and a rare visitor. Others wonder what he has achieved over 10 years of representing his 1.2 million constituents. With some surveys predicting the worst-ever result for the ruling Congress party in elections that begin on Monday, its vice-president and unofficial prime ministerial candidate faces unprecedented pressure.
Few would predict the demise of a family that has rebounded from defeats before, yet there are warning signs for a bloodline that has run India for most of its 67 years since independence. In Uttar Pradesh state elections in 2012, Congress lost three out of five assembly seats in Amethi, and all five in neighboring Rae Bareli, represented by Rahul’s mother Sonia, president of the party since 1998.
A recent poll found only 50 percent had a favorable view of Rahul compared with 78 percent for election frontrunner Narendra Modi, a hardline Hindu nationalist from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). And as he seeks a third term in parliament, Rahul faces a challenge from a new anti-corruption party whose candidate has been touring Amethi with a yellow truck fitted with loud-speakers.
“I am against the dynasty rule,” said Aam Aadmi Party candidate Kumar Vishwas, a well-known poet. “I am against the imposition of that man who has done nothing for his constituency as well as for the country.”
The BJP has named its candidate in Amethi as Smriti Irani, a popular former TV personality who made her name playing a righteous housewife in an award-winning soap opera.
Despite the competition, Rahul’s campaign manager is confident of victory. “The Gandhi family has a relationship with this constituency for 40 years,” said Chandrakant Dubey. “They have a very close bond and the people of Amethi understand this.”
From Bollywood to business and politics, families dominate India’s public and private spheres and Rahul has put himself in the awkward position of being both a critic and beneficiary of this system. He told an interviewer in January he was “absolutely against the concept of dynasty” but that “power is an instrument that can be used for certain things.”
Though the family name appears to weigh heavily on his shoulders—for years many doubted his ambition—party colleagues have little inclination to imagine a future without the Gandhi-Nehru imprimatur. Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s first prime minister, his daughter Indira Gandhi ruled for four terms before she was succeeded by her son Rajiv, Rahul’s father. Both Indira and Rajiv were assassinated. None has any relation to Mohandas Gandhi, the famed independence leader considered the father of the nation.
As the only national and secular party that contains great ideological diversity, cabinet minister and author on the family Shashi Tharoor argues that Congress needs the Gandhis as a figurehead. “The Congress is such a big tent that it needs a strong, unifying leadership figure from behind whom everyone can make common cause,” he said, adding that the Nehru-Gandhi family has a “mystique” which remained in tact. “Rahul Gandhi tends to come across as all inclusive, all embracing and wide reaching,” he said. What he is not, however, is well-tested or battle-hardened.
The reclusive former management consultant has declined numerous invitations to join the cabinet over the last decade of Congress’ rule, latterly marked by corruption scandals and slowing economic growth. He has shunned the press and rarely speaks in parliament. Despite leading campaigning in recent state polls, Congress has suffered repeated setbacks. One theory is that Rahul would see a crushing election defeat as an opportunity to clean the decks and purge the party of older leaders.
But even in Amethi, people like 20-year-old student Durgesh Tiwari question why he should be given such an opportunity with power “served on a silver platter.”
“He should have at least become chief minister or a cabinet minister to show that he can do something, but he didn’t,” said Tiwari. “He has got custom-made support because of his family name. How easy.”