Man of the People

Article excerpt

Byline: Sudip Mazumdar

A Gandhi tries to recast his image--and reform his party in the process.

It seemed downright Clintonian. Three months ago, Rahul Gandhi--scion of the powerful Nehru-Gandhi family and great hope of the Congress Party--decided to repackage himself as a man of the people by embarking on a "listening tour" of India's most remote, neglected corners. The trip was part of a deliberate strategy to build Gandhi's brand and revive his moribund party by reconnecting it to its roots among the poor. Whether that will work remains uncertain: though the tour enchanted locals, it has yet to deliver concrete results. Congress grandees, however, are betting that it will. Their party desperately needs help, and they're banking on the old Gandhi mystique to provide it.

Yet Rahul is actually working toward something much more radical than mere electioneering--a fundamental reform of this sclerotic party itself. His approach could well lead to deep-seated changes in one of India's most powerful institutions: the 123-year-old Congress Party, which has ruled India for 48 of its 60 years of independence.

There's no question that Congress needs the help. Though it has controlled the federal government since 2004, it is hemorrhaging its national and local popularity; just last week it lost a hotly contested race in the southern state of Karnataka to its archrival, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This came on the heels of two bad defeats last year in the crucial states of Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. With general elections less than a year away, Congress elders are growing increasingly desperate.

That's where Rahul comes in. For the moment he's just an M.P., but he is already being talked about as Congress' next candidate for prime minister. Though a child of great privilege and power--his father (Rajiv), grandmother (Indira) and great-grandfather (Jawaharlal Nehru) were all prime ministers, and his mother, Sonia, is currently head of the party--the younger Gandhi hopes to revive Congress by reattaching it to the poor and downtrodden masses. "Rahul is trying to reconnect to the historic base of the party," says Mahesh Rangarajan, professor of modern Indian history at Delhi University.

Gandhi has made impressive efforts to reach across caste and class barriers, especially in his home constituency in Uttar Pradesh. These days he regularly slips away from the media and his security detail to visit the hinterland, where he meets with local tribesmen and members of so-called lower castes in thatched huts, squats on their dirt floors and shares their humble meals. Such gestures have impressed residents. In March, his tour brought him to Muttugadde Podu, a hilly tribal village in Karnataka. Awestruck locals welcomed their visitor with traditional songs and dance and told him of their troubles. Madamma, one villager, came away deeply impressed. "No politician has ever visited our hamlet," she said. "He has, so I will vote for him." Such talk has rattled Dalit political leaders like Mayawati Kumari, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and a Dalit who claims to speak for the lower castes. …