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Democratic Blow to India’s Ruling Dynasty

Sujoy Dhar Mar 11, 2012

India's premier political dynasty – the Nehru Gandhi clan – has failed to charm voters in elections held across five states in the country, including the key Hindi heartland state of Uttar Pradesh.

Rahul Gandhi, the 42-year-old poster boy of India’s ruling Congress party cradled by the famous dynasty for over six decades, was media’s favourite child for months during the rough and tumble of the election campaign.

But this week when the results were counted finally, the scion of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty and one of the biggest crowd-pullers faced a stark reality – rejection of the voters.

While political analysts say the results were influenced by various factors, they agreed that the voters were indifferent to the glam quotient of the Gandhis this time.

The electorate voted with expectations of development and clean governance.

"People were indifferent to the Gandhi family magic. This is not the complete rejection of dynasty, but voters proved that the magic of Rahul Gandhi can work only if it is backed by a strong organisation," says analyst Sabyasachi Basu Roy Chowdhury.

The elections in five states – Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur – also showed multi- polar trends in Indian politics as against the bipolar trends manifested in the 2009 general polls.

Centre-left Congress and Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are the two big national parties in India that have ruled the country alternately for the past decades, but increasingly in alliance with regional parties.

"This election indicates that the regional parties will rise further," says Basu Roy Chowdhury.

For the Gandhis, most heart-breaking was the loss of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in a nation of 1.21 billion plus.

Amethi and Rae Bareli regions in this state, bastions of the Gandhi family since the days of India’s most powerful prime minister Indira Gandhi, saw a rout of the Congress party. The paarty could win only two seats out of the ten here. Congress supremo Sonia Gandhi along and her daughter Priyanka Vadra (Gandhi) had joined the campaign trail of Sonia Gandhi’s son Rahul Gandhi.

Rahul Gandhi is the son of Rajiv Gandhi and grandson of Indira Gandhi, both of whom were prime ministers assassinated by terrorists.

Dependent on the Gandhi dynasty for unity, Congress leaders chose Sonia Gandhi, widow of Rajiv, to spearhead the party after he was killed in 1991.

Ameeta Singh, a Congress candidate who lost in the region that had seemed like a pocket borough of the Gandhis, admitted on a television channel that times are changing and family legacy alone cannot win seats.

The big winner in Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party (SP) too is a family-run political party founded by former wrestler Mulayam Singh Yadav. The credit for the party’s victory was given to his son Akhilesh Yadav’s meticulous poll campaign and grounded ideas.

"Rahul Gandhi despite his dynastic aura failed because he seemed like an outsider in Uttar Pradesh compared to Akhilesh Yadav. The Gandhis, after all, do not live here," says Basu Roy Chowdhury.

Regional political parties will now rule the two most politically important northern states in India – Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.

Punjab saw the return of the Akalis, who are ideologically inspired by the state’s predominant Sikh religion.

Manipur in the northeastern part of India is the only state where Congress won decisively. It got a wafer thin edge over the BJP in another northern state Uttarakhand.

In Goa, once a Portuguese colony, Congress was trounced by the Hindu nationalist BJP which again fought the polls in alliance with the regional Mahrashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP).

Many political analysts say dynastic politics is not the deciding factor any more, but it is not deliberately rejected either. This verdict is the coming of age of Indian voters, they say.

Alka Pande, a political commentator from Uttar Pradesh, says: "Rahul Gandhi's magic failed because of his disconnect with the masses. The illiterate people of Uttar Pradesh, which is one of the most backward states of India, could not relate to Rahul's sophistication and high ideology.

"On the other hand there was instant rapport between the crowds and Akhilesh Yadav, who the masses could relate with and who appeared one of them. People looked alienated at Rahul's rallies whereas the crowd appeared involved at Akilesh's rallies."

Political analyst Paranjoy Guha Thakurta says while Rahul Gandhi was seen as an outsider, the elections also showed a trend of multi-polarism in Indian politics.

"After the 2009 general elections it had appeared that politics is again bipolar in India – with the two big outfits Congress and BJP on either sides challenging each other. But now we see the emergence of a multi- polar democracy. The big issue now is the issue of governance and not any dynasty.

Akhilesh Yadav, he says, "also belongs to a political family, but he won the polls for his political maturity. He rid his party of the rowdy elements and came across as a young modern politician. He is all for i-pads and computers unlike the past when the same party had opposed such technologies and gadgets."

The issues of caste and religion appear to have taken a backseat in this election. So in Uttar Pradesh, outgoing chief minister Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a party of the lower castes, was not voted back since it got mired in countless corruption scandals and instances of bad governance.

Rahul Gandhi, who had put his reputation at stake over a good show in Uttar Pradesh, accepted the defeat. "Fundamentals of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh are weak," he told reporters. "I take it in my stride."

Eyes are now on the 2014 general elections when the rise of the regional parties and the dynastic aura would be put to the test again.

This article was originally published by IPS News.

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