Rahul Gandhi: The thorn in the side of Modi

The scion of a famous dynasty leads an opposition alliance into the 2024 elections. Today, he is both dismissed and feared by rivals. As Indians prepare to vote, he has honed his appeal.

Rahul Gandhi (L) has been a thorn in the side of Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R), who is nevertheless expected to win the country's 2024 general election
Marco Lawrence
Rahul Gandhi (L) has been a thorn in the side of Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R), who is nevertheless expected to win the country's 2024 general election

Rahul Gandhi: The thorn in the side of Modi

It is fair to say that Rahul Gandhi, India’s opposition leader, comes from a fairly impressive political dynasty.

His great-grandfather was India’s first prime minister, his grandmother was India’s third prime minister, and his father was India’s sixth. His name resonates throughout Indian politics because it is so closely tied to India’s history and identity.

Yet names alone do not win elections. As Indians go to the polls, few expect him to unseat the incumbent, Narendra Modi.

Still, the 53-year-old Gandhi, who leads the Congress party, is an important figure in Indian politics and a thorn in Modi’s side. He has attacked the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its divisive Hindu nationalist agenda and policies without sparing Modi himself.

Who is Rahul Gandhi? Indian political royalty, his life has been touched by violence and defeat. Today, he is both dismissed and feared by rivals. As Indians prepare to vote, he has honed his appeal.

Gandhi's name resonates throughout Indian politics because it is so closely tied to India's history and identity.

Born into politics

Rahul is the great-grandson of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. An English-educated lawyer, Nehru led the Indian nationalist movement in the 1930s and 40s. Mahatma Gandhi designated Nehru as his political heir.

Rahul's grandmother, Indira Gandhi, was Nehru's daughter and India's third prime minister.

She had four terms in office, totalling 15 years. During her tenure, she led India in war against China in 1967 and Pakistan in 1971. In both, India was victorious.

In 1984, she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards after ordering an Indian military operation to remove a Sikh militant from a temple in Punjab, which is the holiest site in Sikhism.

After her killing, four days of mob violence throughout the country left up to 16,000 Sikhs killed.

Indira's son Rajiv was India's sixth prime minister, serving from 1984-89. He, too, was assassinated in 1991 by a suicide bomber from the Tamil Tigers, four years after he sent Indian troops to Sri Lanka, where the Tamils were fighting the government.

Both events profoundly impacted Rajiv's son, Rahul, and his younger sister, Priyanka, who were raised by their Italian-born mother, Sonia.

Senior leaders of India's main opposition Congress Party Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi attend the party's manifesto release event ahead of the general election, in New Delhi, India, April 5, 2024.

The turmoil drew Sonia into Indian politics, and she proved capable of treading carefully with loyalists to keep the Congress party stable and united.

Yet she was always a reluctant politician and health issues meant that she had taken a back seat in recent years.

Congress presidency

Having become Congress's president in 1998, Sonia is its longest-serving party chief, stepping aside in 2017 for Rahul to become president.

As he stepped up, Rahul Gandhi set out his vision: "Politics belongs to the people. It is their greatest weapon in dismantling the structures that oppress, silence, and disempower them."

Yet today, he added, "Politics is not being used in the service of the people; it is being used to crush them, not to lift them up". This theme has been a constant in his speeches.

He leads an old political party, whose official name is the Indian National Congress. Formed in 1885, it has a venerable history, governing 54 of India's 76 post-independence years since 1947.

However, since Modi's rise to power in 2014 at the helm of the rival BJP, Congress has not been the force it once was. Its organisation, finances, and ability to mobilise people have all been much reduced, helping to keep the BJP in power.

These feel like make-or-break elections for Congress. In 2019, the BJP won 303 seats while Congress secured only 52.

Defeat and resignation

The extent of its decline was made clear in the 2019 general election. Amid a wider rout, Rahul lost what was previously a safe seat for Congress in Amethi in India's Hindi heartlands, also known as the Cow Belt.

Amethi was a prestigious political prize in the wider state of Uttar Pradesh, which has a population of 240 million and sends 80 of the 543 members to the Lok Sabha—the lower house of India's two-chamber parliament.

Amethi had been in the Ghandi family since Rajiv held it in 1984. It was Sonia's first parliamentary seat in 1999, and Rahul was first elected to parliament there in 2004 before winning again in 2009 and 2014.

Despite defeat in 2019, he stayed in parliament thanks to India's system of holding phased elections. He later won Wayanad in the southern state of Kerala.

Rahul Gandhi will stand again in this year's parliamentary elections, which will be held in stages between 19 April and 1 June.

These feel like make-or-break elections for Congress. In 2019, the BJP won 303 seats while Congress secured only 52, below the 10% threshold needed to claim the title of Leader of the Opposition.

Rahul took responsibility and resigned as party president in July 2019. He was first replaced by his mum and then, in 2022, by party veteran Mallikarjun Kharge, who is 81.

Reflecting on his 2019 defeat by the BJP, Rahul said: "We didn't fight a political party… Rather, we fought the entire machinery of the Indian state, every institution of which was marshalled against the opposition."

A long journey

Since 2019, Modi has grown considerably more powerful, but that does not yet mean that Congress is a spent force. It retains a substantial national vote share of 19.5%, compared with the BJP's 37.4%.

This election, Rahul is leading Congress in an alliance with about two dozen other parties, collectively called the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA).

They hope to capitalise on the BJP's unfulfilled promises and signs of disenchantment with the government in certain parts of the population.

Kharge has proved to be a safe pair of hands at the party's helm, capably steering its affairs, allowing Rahul to focus on winning new voters by emphasising inclusive politics over the populist and nationalistic alternative of the BJP.

Between September 2022 and January 2023, Rahul undertook the 3,500km Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March) from Kanyakumari in southern India to Srinagar, the Kashmir region's main city.

It took him through a dozen states, where he appealed for unity among Indians and criticised the BJP for religious polarisation and violence.

Rahul Gandhi, a senior leader of India's main opposition Congress party, addresses the media during a manifesto release event ahead of the general election, in New Delhi, India, April 5, 2024.

Between January and March this year, Rahul travelled 6,700km by bus through 14 states on the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra (Unite India Justice March).

He began in Manipur, the remote northeastern state torn by ethnic violence in May 2023, and ended in India's financial capital, Mumbai.

Taking on Modi

Addressing a big rally attended by INDIA alliance leaders, Rahul implied that Modi had been manipulating India's electronic voting machines (EVMs), saying Modi "cannot win the elections without EVMs."

He told crowds that Congress "requested that the Election Commission show us the EVMs and allow our experts to examine them, but they refused".

Rahul knows his target audience and tries to appeal to the young, women, and the marginalised sections of society.

He often rails against India's stark wealth inequality, saying that 73% of India's population does not have an adequate share in the economy, jobs, or political power.

He has attacked the government's "crony capitalism" and accused Modi of serving the rich, particularly billionaires Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani.

Facing attacks

His rhetoric has landed Gandhi in court. Last year, he was found guilty of a defamation case in Gujarat.  The comments in question were at a 2019 election rally, where Gandhi asked: "Why do all thieves have Modi as their surname?"

He referred to the prime minister, fugitive diamond tycoon Nirav Modi, and former Indian Premier League annual cricket event boss Lalit Modi.

The court sentenced him to two years in prison and barred him from parliament, but the Supreme Court suspended the conviction. It was one of several big battles between Gandhi and Modi.

The BJP, its senior figures, and Modi's supporters are dismissive of Gandhi as a politician, saying he is the reason for Congress's poor showing in elections.

Gandhi often rails against India's stark wealth inequality. His target audience is women, the young, and the marginalised.

However, the vitriol also reveals the BJP's concern that Gandhi can take on Modi at the ballot box. Meanwhile, Gandhi has directed some of his harshest criticism at the media, accusing them of being the ruling party's lapdogs.

In a country where politicians are not known for their scruples, Gandhi frequently talks about principles and values, which opens him up to mudslinging.

For instance, he enjoys foreign holidays and motorbikes, while his continued status as a single man has also been questioned.

Former Bihar state chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav once joked with Rahul, saying it was "still not too late" to get married, adding that "we shall all join in" his marriage celebrations.

An embarrassed Rahul listened as Yadav said his mother, Sonia, had told them to persuade her son to get married because he would not listen to her.

Maturing politically

Political observers once thought Rahul's sister Priyanka, who married a businessman, was the more charismatic of the two, with a temperament better suited to India's rough-and-tumble politics. Yet, with age, Rahul has matured as a politician.

India's Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi (R) and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra (C) greet their supporters during a roadshow in Wayanad on April 3, 2024, before filing their nomination papers for the upcoming general elections.

Priyanka remains a leading election campaigner for the party, but in the last ten years, Rahul has been at the centre of opposition politics.

His political convictions have formed, and speeches have improved, as has his grasp of the issues India faces, from corruption and inflation to unemployment and social justice.

His cross-country tours have given him exposure and brought him closer to the problems that continue to define much of India: poverty, caste and communal divisions, depravations, and the rural-urban divide.

If Congress improves its parliamentary tally significantly, Gandhi is likely to become a potential prime ministerial candidate.

He will be hoping for more in this election, but if the BJP wins again, as expected, Gandhi will remain a thorn in Modi's side.

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