It seemed downright Clintonian. Three months ago, Rahul Gandhi—scion of the powerful Nehru-Gandhi family and great hope of the Congress Party—decided to repackage himself as a man of the people by embarking on a "listening tour" of India's most remote, neglected corners. The trip was part of a deliberate strategy to build Gandhi's brand and revive his moribund party by reconnecting it to its roots among the poor. Whether that will work remains uncertain: though the tour enchanted locals, it has yet to deliver concrete results. Congress grandees, however, are betting that it will. Their party desperately needs help, and they're banking on the old Gandhi mystique to provide it.
Yet Rahul is actually working toward something much more radical than mere electioneering—a fundamental reform of this sclerotic party itself. His approach could well lead to deep-seated changes in one of India's most powerful institutions: the 123-year-old Congress Party, which has ruled India for 48 of its 60 years of independence.
There's no question that Congress needs the help. Though it has controlled the federal government since 2004, it is hemorrhaging its national and local popularity; just last week it lost a hotly contested race in the southern state of Karnataka to its archrival, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This came on the heels of two bad defeats last year in the crucial states of Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. With general elections less than a year away, Congress elders are growing increasingly desperate.
That's where Rahul comes in. For the moment he's just an M.P., but he is already being talked about as Congress' next candidate for prime minister. Though a child of great privilege and power—his father (Rajiv), grandmother (Indira) and great-grandfather (Jawaharlal Nehru) were all prime ministers, and his mother, Sonia, is currently head of the party—the younger Gandhi hopes to revive Congress by reattaching it to the poor and downtrodden masses. "Rahul is trying to reconnect to the historic base of the party," says Mahesh Rangarajan, professor of modern Indian history at Delhi University.
Gandhi has made impressive efforts to reach across caste and class barriers, especially in his home constituency in Uttar Pradesh. These days he regularly slips away from the media and his security detail to visit the hinterland, where he meets with local tribesmen and members of so-called lower castes in thatched huts, squats on their dirt floors and shares their humble meals. Such gestures have impressed residents. In March, his tour brought him to Muttugadde Podu, a hilly tribal village in Karnataka. Awestruck locals welcomed their visitor with traditional songs and dance and told him of their troubles. Madamma, one villager, came away deeply impressed. "No politician has ever visited our hamlet," she said. "He has, so I will vote for him." Such talk has rattled Dalit political leaders like Mayawati Kumari, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and a Dalit who claims to speak for the lower castes.
Rahul's strategy is a way to prove he deserves his role as Congress's heir apparent. "It is my duty to listen and learn," he told a group of journalists recently. "The voices of the poor are not being heard. We are unable to identify them. I intend to do this more and more."
His agenda involves more than just listening, however; Gandhi has also begun working hard to reform Congress from within. The party is currently dominated by fixers and power brokers who constantly jostle for perks and attention. The result is nontransparent and often corrupt. As Rahul himself put it recently, "India is a democratic country, but there is practically no internal democracy in any party."
To change that, Gandhi says he wants Congress to start holding elections for all party posts, which would allow advancement based on merit, not just connections. He also wants to increase the youth role in Congress—a smart move in a country where nearly 70 percent of the 1.1 billion people are under 40. Thus he's started opening doors for young, accomplished new candidates, many of whom he personally interviews. And he's campaigned to bring in many young rank-and-file members as well; after he paid a visit to Orissa in March, more than 40,000 new members signed up.
Gandhi also hopes to inspire a new culture of competence, public service and sacrifice. He frequently exhorts young Indians to help the poor, has denounced corruption and called for more accountability in public life, organizing village rallies to call authorities to task. He's also politely declined to join Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's cabinet, stressing that he would rather work at revitalizing the troops—an unusual move in a country where most politicians place personal advancement above all else.
Of course, to succeed, Congress must start winning elections and combat its reputation for aloofness. As for Rahul, he needs to combat perceptions that, as Mayawati has put it, he's a "crown prince who inherited power" and who doesn't truly understand the plight of the poor—despite his village visits, which she dismisses as mere "political drama."
Even if Gandhi's back-to-basics strategy doesn't pay off, he says he's in it for the long run; as he told a group of journalists recently, "I will continue this [process] for the rest of my life." Pundits have lately begun comparing him to his father, Rajiv—who became prime minister after his grandmother Indira was assassinated in 1984, and won plaudits for his humility, sincerity of purpose and charm. Yet it's important to remember that these attributes didn't help Rajiv in the end: after five unexceptional years in office, he was thrown out of power. That should serve as an important reminder that results mean more than intentions in Indian politics. "Rahul's impulse to do good cannot be faulted," says Rangarajan. Whether that impulse can translate into leadership, however, remains uncertain.