The Fall of India’s First Family

May 20, 2014 at 8:07 AM ET

When Narendra Modi, the controversial Hindu nationalist, was elected prime minister last week, wild celebrations broke out across India, as millions of supporters danced in the streets. But the mood was far less jubilant for Rahul Gandhi, Modi’s opponent, and his Congress Party, which met brutal defeat in the country’s national elections, winning just 44 out of 545 seats in India’s lower house of parliament. 

After the rout, Gandhi looked grim as he made a terse public appearance, as did his mother, Sonia, the head of the Congress Party. A pall of gloom seemed to hover over many of their senior colleagues, as they reckoned with the party’s most humiliating loss in its 67-year history. 

Ever since 1947, when India declared independence from Great Britain, the Gandhi-Nehru family has dominated the country’s political scene with their unique brand of secular socialism. But with economic growth declining and critics decrying their party’s reputation for corruption, many have begun to wonder if Rahul’s defeat will spell the end of India’s first political dynasty, and the rise of Modi’s more adversarial blend of capitalism and religion. “We never expected such annihilation in this election,” says Kamal Nath, one of the few Congress Party leaders to keep his post. “This is disturbing.”

The Gandhi dynasty began with Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. He was the protégé of Mahatma Gandhi (unrelated), the renowned leader of India’s independence movement whose brand of nonviolent resistance has inspired leaders the world over. 

Nehru’s daughter, Indira, who took her husband’s surname of Gandhi, went on to serve as prime minister, as did her son, Rajiv. After they were both assassinated, in 1984 and 1991 respectively, Rajiv’s wife, Sonia, soon took over the Congress Party. Even when a Gandhi wasn’t the prime minister, behind the scenes, the family was still in charge. Beginning in the mid-2000s, Sonia began grooming the reluctant Rahul, hoping he could keep the dynasty alive.

On the surface, he seemed like an appealing candidate. He had Bollywood good looks and good intentions to match. He seemed sincere in his efforts to try and combat poverty in a country where an estimated one third of the world’s poorest people reside.

But his political rise came at an inopportune time. Since 2009, India’s once robust economic growth has fallen, and the party’s reputation for generous welfare policies has been tarnished by a spate of scandals. The growing number of young voters were frustrated by the lack of job opportunities and seemed to feel that corruption was maintaining a class of political cronies at their expense.

As the problems unfolded, Rahul, who had largely skated by on his name and family’s reputation, suddenly seemed aloof and unprepared to lead. He said all the right things—that he wanted to help the downtrodden and give a stronger voice to India’s untouchables. But the gulf between his words and his action seemed too vast for the electorate. He spent a considerable amount of time criticizing Modi and touting his family’s accomplishments, but could never effectively explain what he, as a veteran lawmaker, had ever done to improve peoples’ lives. “Somehow Rahul Gandhi always looked diffident or nervous,” says Dipankar Gupta, a New Delhi-based political analyst.

Sensing an opportunity, the charismatic Modi stepped into the race, promising that more capitalism and more Hinduism could help revive the country. The gambit paid off, as young voters especially seemed to tire of India’s corrupt and static status quo.

It’s still unclear how the Gandhi family will fare going forward. Some critics say the Congress Party needs to put a fresh face on its policies, to allow grassroots leader to rise and take charge of the future direction of the party. But a change of leadership is unlikely. There simply is no appealing leader outside the family fold because the Gandhis have never groomed one.

And yet writing off the family may be premature. As many observers have pointed out, it’s not the first time that the Gandhi dynasty has been on the ropes. In 1977, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was booted from office after instituting a two-year period of emergency rule. Three years later, the Congress Party roared back to life, winning a lion’s share of parliamentary seats in one of its best showings ever. Later, in 1999, critics again said the party was dead, before Sonia Gandhi took over the reigns.

The key to both revivals, however, had more to do with their opponents’s mistakes—their inability to recognize simmering discontent—than with the Gandhis’ successes. The Congress Party would be wise to recognize that a more substantial shift in leadership and its policies will be necessary to resume power. If they don’t, Rahul’s grim expression after his party’s historic defeat could be his family’s political epitaph.