The Gandhi Dynasty Helped Found India. It Is Now in Demise.

The Congress Party’s humiliating loss in parliamentary elections might mean an end for a family that has dominated national politics since the 19th century.

Rahul and Sonia Gandhi attend a press conference in New Delhi in 2014.
Rahul and Sonia Gandhi attend a press conference in New Delhi in 2014. (Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters)

Amid the Bharatiya Janata Party’s landslide victory in India’s parliamentary elections, one result stood out, in the town of Amethi, near the border with Nepal.

There, the family that has dominated Indian politics since the country’s independence more than 70 years ago suffered a humiliating blow: Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the opposition Congress Party, lost his seat. The BJP’s overall victory was hardly unexpected (though few predicted the margin of its win), but Gandhi’s loss is an earthquake. Either he or someone from, or linked to, his family has occupied the Amethi constituency almost without interruption since 1980 (it was briefly held by the BJP in 1998). In India’s last national elections, in 2014, Gandhi managed to hold on to the seat convincingly even as his party crumbled across the country.

Yet this time around, he too was swept aside in Amethi as the BJP won even more seats than in its 2014 victory. (Under Indian law, a candidate can run for election in more than one parliamentary constituency at the same time, so Gandhi will in any case return to Parliament from a seat in the southern state of Kerala.)

As the great-grandson, grandson, and son of Indian prime ministers, Gandhi’s political pedigree is not in question. Nor does his loss in Amethi mean that dynastic politics are over in India, where a new generation of politicians can trace their positions directly to their parents and grandparents. (Indeed, his mother easily won her seat.) But the electoral humiliation of a scion of the Gandhi family, indeed the leader of the party that led India to independence from Britain, is striking in a region where dynastic politics have dominated the landscape for decades: The Gandhis in India, the Bhuttos and the Sharifs in Pakistan, the Bandarnaikes in Sri Lanka, and the descendants of Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman in Bangladesh have all been integral parts of their countries’ modern history. This parliamentary election, and Gandhi’s loss in a constituency whose past is closely intertwined with his family’s, is the most compelling sign yet that India has moved into a new era.

This shift was under way long before the recent election. There has been no prime minister with the name Gandhi since 1989, when then–Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul’s father, lost an election. When the Congress did return to power in 1991, following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, it was under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, whose government is credited with ushering in economic reforms. The party was out of power from 1996 to 2004, and when it returned, the finance minister in Rao’s government, Manmohan Singh, was named prime minister. Singh had the strong backing of Sonia Gandhi, Rahul’s mother and Rajiv’s Italian-born widow, and headed the government for the next decade. His party introduced several reforms, but was hamstrung in its second term by corruption, cronyism, and a perceived lack of economic progress. When elections came around in 2014, the question wasn’t whether the BJP would win, but by how much. In the end it wasn’t even close: The BJP and its allies won an absolute majority in Parliament. The Congress was decimated at the polls.

In the run-up to these latest polls, Gandhi—who had long been ridiculed in the press and on social media as inept—had begun to garner notice for his apparent ability to connect with voters, his quick repartees, and his positive messaging. The Congress and its allies easily defeated the BJP in several state elections, leading to predictions that the 2019 parliamentary elections would be different for the Congress. The result, however, was almost the same as it was five years ago.

One possible reason for this is that while the Congress Party has inexorably linked itself to the Gandhi family, Indian voters have moved on. This is a young country where half the 1.3 billion people are under the age of 27. The overwhelming majority of them are from modest backgrounds. In such circumstances, the story of Modi, the son of a tea vendor who, with no political godfather, became the most powerful Indian prime minister in decades, is a far more compelling narrative than that of Rahul Gandhi, a man who has seemingly had success hand-delivered to him.

Another possible reason is that Indian voters prioritize performance, rather than the lineage of a candidate—in fact, several regional political families won resounding victories in these elections. For whatever reason, the Congress Party, which has ruled India for 51 out of 71 years of independence, and the Gandhis, who have ruled for 36 of those years, no longer seem to fit the bill.

Either way, the BJP cemented its hold on power, Gandhi proved unable to challenge Modi, and his party couldn’t make inroads in states it had been expected to. Gandhi offered to quit, but his party refused to accept his resignation. Seven decades after the nation’s independence, the Congress seems unable to break its ties to the Gandhi family—even if the rest of the country has no such problem.