NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Rahul Gandhi slept under the stars in rural India, he shared simple meals of lentil curry and bread with poor villagers, and he was even arrested for joining farmers in a land protest.
The scion of India’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty tried over the past year to project himself as a man of the people. He dressed down and grew a beard to look more rugged as he campaigned tirelessly for the ruling Congress party in Uttar Pradesh, a vast state straddling the River Ganges that with 200 million people is more populous than Brazil.
“I want the mosquitoes to bite me like they bite you so that I can understand your pain,” the 41-year-old Gandhi told villagers at one of more than 200 election rallies in the state.
The strategy flopped.
Vote tallies last week gave Congress just 28 of the 403 seats at stake for the state’s legislative assembly, a miserable fourth place.
Gandhi’s performance was seen as a test of his fitness to take the reins of the party from his ailing Italian-born mother Sonia and eventually to become prime minister if Congress and its allies retain power in national elections due in 2014.
That made the result a stinging slap for India’s first family in the very state from which it rose as the beacon of freedom before independence from Britain in 1947.
It was also another jolt to a party that has come to define itself by the Gandhi family rather than ideology or political conviction.
The winner was the Samajwadi (Socialist) Party, a grouping founded by a former wrestler whose appeal does not extend much beyond Uttar Pradesh.
Congress has been humbled before by regional parties that are often more in touch with local issues, but Gandhi’s handling of the Uttar Pradesh campaign and his inability to even make a fight of it spells deep trouble for the party.
“The Congress party is in decline,” said Rashid Kidwai, who wrote a biography of Sonia Gandhi. “The problem with Congress is that they haven’t looked for leaders beyond the Gandhis. There is no think tank in the party, there are no big ideas anymore.”
For all the talk of the need for change, the party’s Pavlovian response has been to close ranks behind the Gandhis and insist there is nothing wrong with its strategy.
“Politically, he (Rahul) has taken responsibility for the poor performance of the party because he led from the front. That’s what leaders do,” said Sachin Pilot, junior federal minister for communications and a member of the Gandhi family’s inner circle.
“He is obviously disappointed but I don’t think he is dejected,” he added. “We are all looking to working with Rahul Gandhi in the future so there’s no change on that front. It doesn’t change the agenda of the party or what we stand for. It’s a setback, but it’s not a defeat.”
For decades after Jawaharlal Nehru, Rahul’s great-grandfather, delivered his stirring “tryst with destiny” speech on the eve of independence from Britain 65 years ago, the Gandhi family has dominated politics in the world’s biggest democracy.
The succession of prime ministers and Congress party leaders from the family echoed the right to rule of an English monarchy. And the assassinations of Nehru’s daughter Indira when she was prime minister in 1984 and grandson Rajiv as he campaigned for elections in 1991 brought an air of tragic glamour akin to that of America’s Kennedy clan.
Now, reverence for the secretive Gandhis and their party is ebbing away in a country where, after a decade of stellar economic growth, aspirations have shifted.
“Family, in these egalitarian times, is an inadequate rationale for office,” wrote M.J. Akbar, a former Congress parliamentarian and once a trusted Gandhi family insider, in the India Today weekly. “It (the Congress) can either be a national trust or family property, not both.”
Promises made by increasingly powerful regional parties now carry more weight for many voters than those of Congress, which is seen as out of touch, aloof and stuck in a past where candidates did little more than show up at election rallies, bandy about the Gandhi name and offer handouts for the poor.
The humiliating defeat in Uttar Pradesh - and in two of four other states that went to the polls - will further weaken the struggling coalition government led by Congress as the country heads toward general elections due in two years.
The trouncing has triggered speculation in New Delhi that Congress will be forced into early elections but, with peculiar logic, opposition parties may prefer to bide their time.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, architect of reforms launched in 1991 that delivered India’s economic boom, was already a lame duck before this latest blow. His government has been buffeted by corruption scandals and - saddled with mercurial allies whose support it desperately needs - takes few policy risks, shying away from reforms that could give the economy a shot in the arm.
“The government may not fall immediately, but all allies are turning the knife harder and harder into Congress,” said a leader of the main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who declined to be named. “A weak Congress suits not just the opposition but all its allies and supporting parties.”
Meanwhile, Congress is likely to revert back to its decades-old vision of democratic socialism to appeal to the rural masses.
Reforms in land acquisition and foreign investment rules and of costly fuel subsidies are crucial to lift an economy headed for its slowest growth in three years. However, Congress is more likely to tilt towards populism in the run-up to the 2014 poll, which will mean more spending on social programmes such as a pledge to provide universal food security.
The state election debacle may also raise fresh questions about the assumption that Rahul will take over as leader of the party from his 65-year-old mother, who underwent surgery last year for an undisclosed condition widely suspected to be cancer.
If Rahul could not deliver for the party in Uttar Pradesh, many will ask, what hope will there be with six times as many voters in 2014?
“This is a huge, huge setback, particularly for Rahul Gandhi,” said a political insider who has worked closely with Prime Minister Singh. “There were already murmurs in the party about his style of leadership and his ability to deliver votes.”
When TV news anchorman Rajdeep Sardesai jeered at one Congress official as the election results came in “Your only face is the family”, he was highlighting the party’s biggest flaw: apart from Rahul, there are few potential leaders among the younger ranks of the party.
Indeed, the most radical change some party insiders talk of is Rahul being replaced or joined by his sister, Priyanka, 40.
Married with two children, Rahul’s younger sibling has shown no inclination to enter politics full time, though many believe that with her outgoing personality and striking resemblance to her grandmother, Indira Gandhi, she holds more promise for the party than her brother.
“Congress will rally around Rahul,” said Saeed Naqvi, an Observer Research Foundation fellow and veteran journalist. “This is a party that doesn’t easily abandon its leader.”
But Naqvi mocked Rahul’s political track record, noting that in nearly eight years as a lawmaker his most notable contribution in the lower house of parliament was a two-page statement on corruption that he read out. “It’s a complete and deliberate fraud on the nation,” Naqvi said.
Rahul did mature as a public speaker on the campaign trail, building the confidence to deliver lengthy and forceful off-the-cuff speeches. He looked increasingly comfortable in the dusty plains of Uttar Pradesh, addressing tens of thousands in the colloquial Hindi of the region, and clambering down from rickety stages to mix with the people.
However, it was another young man who stole the limelight.
Akhilesh Yadav, the 38-year-old son of the one-time wrestler whose party won the Uttar Pradesh election, out-maneuvered Gandhi as a grassroots campaigner, projecting a rustic, homespun image that resonated with voters as he rode around the state on a bicycle.
The lesson for Congress is that it needs to reinvent and rebuild itself with credible regional leaders in a country where power is shifting to the states.
It will also need to rethink its strategy of courting Hindu caste groups and Muslims as votebanks, which worked for decades but cuts less ice these days among citizens who care more about empowerment and development than communal interests.
The more optimistic within Congress say Rahul’s campaigning will bear fruit in the national election.
“Issues are different in state elections,” said Pilot, the minister. “This is a cyclical thing. The Congress party is not a one-election party or a one-state party, we have to keep looking ahead.”
Rahul made just one public appearance after the Uttar Pradesh results were announced, on the lawn of his New Delhi bungalow, where he took responsibility for the washout.
“I expect to have victories along the way and I expect to have defeats,” he said. “I take it in my stride. I think it is a very good lesson for me.”
Then he walked back indoors, one hand on the shoulder of his sister Priyanka, who put an arm around his waist.
Additional reporting by Satarupa Bhattacharjya; Editing by Dean Yates