Return of the Gandhis

In the new India, everything is moving a mile a minute. Except politics.

NEW DELHI — I am on my seventh trip to India since I first came in 1976. Nothing is the same. The essential Indian narrative has gone from timelessness to disruption; the national icon from the lumbering elephant to the call center to the high-tech entrepreneur. The Delhi that I first knew was the gracious city of white bungalows, trimmed lawns, and broad boulevards laid out by Edwin Lutyens in 1911; now Old New Delhi, as I think of it, recalls a quaint colonial past in a city of 16 million. Everything has changed -- except India's politics, which feel utterly familiar. You can't help wondering when -- or if -- India's politics will catch up with its society.

The big political news in recent months has been the return of the Gandhis. Not that they ever really went away. The 42-year-old Rahul Gandhi, son of Rajiv, grandson of Indira, great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, great-great grandson of Motilal Nehru, has taken a senior position in the family business, known as the Indian National Congress party. With parliamentary elections scheduled for next year, India's vast tribe of pundits (derived from pandit, the Hindi word for "sage") and political junkies are waiting with bated breath for an epic battle for the premiership between a coalition led by Gandhi and another led by Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat state, a figure equally known for his business-first mentality and his hard-line Hindu nationalism; many Indians believe that he encouraged Hindu rioters who killed around 800 Muslims in 2002 riots.

India has a parliamentary rather than a presidential system, so in any case the two will not be running directly against one another. And Rahul (members of the Gandhi family, who are thought of as every Indian's son, brother, mother, etc., are almost always referred to by first name) has said that he has no wish to serve as prime minister in 2014, even if the Congress party wins. He may even mean what he says, but neither the public nor his own party, desperate for a new infusion of Gandhi-family charisma, is prepared to hear it.

The family-run political party is hardly unique to India. It is in fact the norm in South Asia. In Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto begat Benazir Bhutto, who married Asif Ali Zardari, the current president. (And both begat Bilawal Zardari, waiting in the wings at age 24.) Similar lineages have governed Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Dynasties can confer stability and predictability on otherwise chaotic democracies, especially during moments of crisis, but they do tend to devolve toward the fin de race (witness Pakistan's oafish president). What's more, these quasi-monarchies have trouble standing for anything beyond the family and the country's historical connection to the family. The Nehru-Gandhi family ushered India into freedom and in the first generation preserved it from innumerable shocks; since then, nothing so great.

India's romance with the Gandhis, like America's with the Kennedys, has been cemented by tragedy. Indira was assassinated in 1984; Rajiv in 1991. The willingness to pay this awful price has given the family a special kind of legitimacy -- almost an intrinsic right to rule. At the same time, this culling of the ranks has forced India to wait for a new generation of Gandhis to come along. They may be needed, but they're also in very limited supply. Rajiv replaced Indira as prime minister, but he was in turn replaced by a veteran Congressman, P.V. Narasimha Rao. Only under Rao -- along with Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, now prime minister -- did the Congress party, and India, break from Nehru's socialist faith, which had given the state a stranglehold over the economy. The new India of entrepreneurship, innovation, and dynamic growth dates from this moment.

The rise of a non-Gandhi-centric Congress party would have constituted another phase of India's maturation. But it was not to be. The party fell from power and broke into factions, some aligning themselves with Rajiv's widow, Sonia, who had long shunned politics. Sonia agreed to become the party president in 1998 and has remained in that post ever since. When the Congress party returned to power in 2004, Sonia shocked the country by declining to become prime minister. But Singh, whom she asked to take the post, has always deferred to her, and no one doubts who is the most powerful person in the country. The populist economic initiatives that Singh has pursued since taking over -- which have proved highly popular -- come from the party, not the government.

Now, the Sonia interregnum having runs its course, the new generation is ready to take over. Rahul's younger sister, Priyanka, proved to be a deft campaigner with a common touch, but she's married with children and retired from politics, at least temporarily. In 2004, Rahul won the family seat in the "Hindi heartland" state of Uttar Pradesh and then quite consciously disappeared into the long-term business of rebuilding the party at the grassroots. He has sought to instill a new spirit of meritocracy and transparency in the Indian Youth Congress, which had come to be viewed as a nest of young (and not-so-young) louts and timeservers.

Rahul is afflicted by an acute awareness of the pathological elements of the Congress party's relationship to his family, even as he tries to exploit that special relationship to change a culture of nepotism, sycophancy, and gross favoritism. It's a very delicate, and possibly paradoxical, enterprise. "I am a symptom of this problem," he admitted bluntly in a 2008 speech. He has turned down a slot in Singh's cabinet and possibly also the chief ministership of Uttar Pradesh and his mother's job. He wants to be a humble worker in the Congress vineyards -- at least until he is ready to fully emerge on the national scene. But the party may not allow him to be, such is the force of that Gandhi cult of personality.

When I think of Rahul's predicament, I'm reminded of a mass audience with J. Krishnamurti, a revered philosopher-guru, then 85, which I attended in Bombay in 1980.

A bright light shone down on a tiny white-haired man on a stage. He said, with an asperity that bordered on bitterness, "You must not seek gurus. You must have the courage to listen to your own voice." And the crowd roared back in unison, "Yes, master! We will follow our own voice!" Followership is a very hard habit to break.

Modi, Rahul's rival for the premiership, suffers from no such ambivalence about authority. He is a fiery orator who knows very well how to hold and keep a crowd. Modi's father sold tea from a cart at a railway station -- as did Modi. Modi is himself the incarnation of the meritocratic principles of which Rahul speaks. He has said, "I am a fish in the sea, while that fellow" -- and everyone knows which fellow -- "is a fish in the aquarium." A son of the soil against a Gandhi scion, a classic strongman against a mild-mannered democrat, a nationalist who plays with fire against a committed secularist: It really would be fun to watch.

Politics in India is a tamasha -- a big, noisy spectacle. But you have to wonder whether voters will begin to tire of it. The small-scale if endemic corruption of yesteryear has inflated to grotesque proportions as national wealth and the national budget have mushroomed. All parties have been tainted; even the currency of the Gandhi family may have been devalued. Changing this culture may be well beyond Rahul's reach. After all, the Congress party has an election to win, and elections require bottomless sums of cash, often ferried in bags and suitcases. India even has a new anti-corruption party -- the Common Man's Party -- but it can't win elections either without black money. Politics in India must change -- but not tomorrow, or anytime soon.

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Terms of Engagement

The Terrible Twos

Can Washington prevent the turbulent Arab Spring countries from going the way of the post-Soviet states?

We have reached the second anniversary of the Arab Spring, but no one is celebrating; the divisions inside the "post-revolutionary" countries of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have become so pronounced, and have provoked so much turbulence and violence, that a sense of grim foreboding has almost entirely eclipsed the giddy atmosphere of 2011. Optimism says that we are witnessing the inevitable birth pangs of democracy; pessimism says that the joyous scenes of two years ago will degenerate into yet deeper political and sectarian strife.

I have been trying to think about analogies that could offer some guidance for what the future holds. The obvious one is Eastern Europe after 1989 -- there, too, millions of people flooded the streets to demand freedom, overwhelming the benumbed autocracies which had ruled over them. But the two situations resemble one another only in their birth: Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and the like had long traditions of liberal and even democratic rule, and shucked off communism as an alien and despised ideology. Moreover, Eastern Europe was pretty rich by global standards. A slightly closer analogy is Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s; but nations like Brazil and Argentina left behind military rule through "pacted" transitions in which political elites agreed to surrender their power, easing social tensions and creating consensus around democratic rule.

Larry Diamond, the democracy theorist at Stanford University, suggested to me that the most useful analogy is the post-Soviet space, where a dozen new nations with no prior experience of democratic rule left behind a hated system and struggled to create something new. This is not a particularly encouraging comparison. As Diamond points out in his 2008 book, The Spirit of Democracy, nine of those states are authoritarian while the other three -- Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova -- are "illiberal, even questionably democratic, and unstable."

Guarded optimism on the Arab Spring -- if one can still use that inspirational term --consists of the recognition that societies deeply damaged by autocratic rule and economic failure take a generation to heal. It is still very early days. This is still my view. But the Soviet Union passed into history in 1991, and there's precious little democratic light at the end of the Russian tunnel. Steven Sestanovich, a Russia scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, points out that the crowds that filled the streets of Moscow in 1991 were every bit as large, passionate, and as filled with a sense of destiny as those in Tahrir Square. The old system felt just as discredited. But the democratic order created under Boris Yeltsin was simply too weak to curb the energies unleashed by the colossal scramble for wealth as Russia privatized its state-owned resources. Into the ensuing vacuum stepped a strongman, Vladimir Putin.

Egypt's revolutionaries have begun to think of President Mohammed Morsy as their Putin, consolidating power and crushing dissent. But it's much more likely, as Sestanovich observes, that Morsy will prove to be Egypt's Yeltsin, presiding fecklessly over weak institutions and an increasingly fragmented polity. Yeltsin's Russia resisted demands for market reform from the United States and the International Monetary Fund (IMF); Morsy's government has spent months putting off an agreement with the IMF even as foreign exchange reserves dwindle down to a three-month supply. Morsy has been unable or unwilling to curb the hated security forces directed by the Interior Ministry, deepening the outrage at his high-handed political tactics. We should remember that Yeltsin was first seen as a bully, and only later as a weakling. Morsy's own position is hardly secure; he may react to his growing unpopularity by becoming more autocratic, which will in turn provoke more protest.

Still, the post-Soviet space offers many different models. Kazakhstan's oil wealth allows it to buy off protest, as the Gulf states have largely done. The Baltic nations have become fully incorporated into the West, as many Tunisians aspire to be. Ukraine and Georgia, for all their problems, have conducted fair elections in which the incumbent lost, and accepted his defeat. It's not unreasonable to feel hopeful about them.

But here the analogy falters. The people of Ukraine and Georgia, and even more of the Baltics, and still more Eastern Europe, saw in the West -- and in democracy -- the salvation they sought from Soviet rule; nationalism predisposed them to democracy even where historical experience did not. Many people in the Arab world, by contrast, see Islam as the salvation from secular authoritarianism. Not only does nationalism not dictate democracy, but religious identity offers a powerful rival ideology to it, even if the two are not intrinsically incompatible. Even in Tunisia, a nation with one foot in the Mediterranean, the hardline Islamists known as Salafists have derailed what had appeared to be a rough social consensus around liberal constitutionalism. There are still good reasons to feel hopeful about Tunisia. But the question of identity will vex Arab societies much as the question of property did Russia; and only a deep commitment to pluralism will prevent resurgent Islam from splitting these countries apart.

My colleague Marc Lynch has recently challenged academics and policy experts to explain what the United States can actually do to strengthen democratic forces in Egypt. The post-Soviet experience may offer some useful lessons here. First, the United States can only be an anxious spectator on the most primal issues. In Power and Purpose, an analysis of American policy towards Russia after 1991, James Goldgeier and Michael McFaul (now ambassador in Moscow) conclude that, despite concerted efforts by President Bill Clinton,  Washington was able to do very little to influence Yeltsin. Even had Clinton been more willing to speak out in the face of Yeltsin's democratic backsliding, they conclude, the United States probably lacked the leverage to move Russian policy. On the other hand, they add, "words do matter," and Clinton was far too constrained by the fear of losing Yeltsin as a partner on global or regional issues.

That is very much where President Barack Obama stands today with Egypt and Morsy. There's nothing Obama can do to affect the likely Islamic cast of Egypt's new constitution. But the White House's reluctance to criticize Morsy after he played a very useful role brokering a truce between Israel and Hezbollah has made it that much easier for Egypt's leader to follow his worst impulses. Obama seems to have pushed all his chips on Morsy, as Clinton did on Yeltsin -- though the Egyptian leader's secular rivals seem so feckless that it's easy to understand Obama's logic. The Clinton administration pushed a giant $22.8 billion package through the IMF for Russia, which Moscow promptly misused. That won't happen with Egypt, which is now balking at the IMF's conditions. But the Obama administration must adopt a less Morsy-centric policy. "You don't try to pick winners," Larry Diamond says. "You defend the process." And Washington can't issue blank checks, even though Egypt urgently needs financial help. At the very least, U.S. aid should be directed away from the military and towards security sector reform, as Congress is now considering.

The post-Soviet case reminds us that the long term really is long. The United States, Europe, and private actors made a real difference at the climactic moments of democratic upheaval in Georgia and Ukraine almost a decade ago, but now they have to engage in the slow and unglamorous process of training political parties, nurturing civil society, and giving economic advice as well as assistance. Defending the democratic process is an enterprise for the patient. It's way, way too early to despair about the direction of Egypt or Libya, much less Tunisia. (It may not be too early in the case of Iraq.) It's unlikely that any of them will wind up like Estonia -- or, for that matter, Turkmenistan. But they've got a decent shot at Ukraine.