NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has defined Indian politics for nearly a century faces more than humiliating election defeat when results come out on Friday.
An expected triumph for opposition leader Narendra Modi could condemn the family to political oblivion.
Often described as a mixture of a royal family with the tragic glamour of the Kennedys, the dynasty gave India its first prime minister, the empire-beating barrister Jawaharlal Nehru.
His daughter, Indira Gandhi, and grandson, Rajiv, both held the post subsequently, and both were assassinated.
By some measures, the family was in decline long before the parliamentary election; it has not won a majority in decades.
Shy scion Rahul Gandhi’s bid to stay in power for a third consecutive term was called lackluster even by allies, and his speeches at rallies up and down the country in recent months were a far cry from Nehru’s legendary rhetoric.
Compare that with overwhelming favorite Modi’s electrifying campaign, during which he repeatedly derided Rahul, 43, and his mother Sonia for keeping India poor, and the house of Gandhi looks vulnerable.
Few would write off the clan completely. Sonia, the power behind the prime ministerial throne occupied by Manmohan Singh, delivered Congress its worst result to date in 1999. She then led the party to victory in the next two elections.
Nonetheless, leaders of both the Gandhi’s Congress party and Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said they believed Modi would seek to loosen the dynasty’s grip on India if he wins.
They pointed to his home state of Gujarat, where he has systematically purged rivals from institutions and won three consecutive terms, capitalizing on his pro-business policies.
“He will defang them politically. Look at what he did in Gujarat: he has just reduced the Congress to a non-player,” said Kanchan Gupta, member of the BJP’s national executive committee.
Modi has questioned Sonia’s non-native roots - the widow of Rajiv was born in Italy. On Thursday, a BJP ally called Rahul a “foreigner”, even though he was born in New Delhi.
During the election, Modi contrasted his humble past as the low-caste son of a tea seller with Rahul’s privileged and cloistered life in plush districts of the capital.
In one recent newspaper interview, Modi said the family’s leadership could come under threat if the party fails to win 100 of parliament’s 543 seats, as some polls predict.
Congress sources said they were worried he planned to target their very existence in politics.
“We’re assuming this will be one of his priorities,” said a Congress strategist who is close to the Gandhi family. “The family is not worried, but the party is,” he said.
The scale of Modi’s antipathy to the Gandhis was on display at the start of the campaign last year, when he launched the construction of the world’s tallest statue, a $338 million, 182-metre tall homage to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Nehru’s deputy and interior minister, who was often at odds with him.
Modi, a Hindu nationalist, sees Patel as a symbol of an India imagined without the dynasty, who would have led the country down a different, right-wing path if he had not been thwarted by the socialist and atheist Nehru.
“Every Indian regrets Sardar Patel did not become the first prime minister. Had he been the first prime minister, the country’s fate and face would have been completely different,” Modi said at the time.
The Congress party has lost power several times since Nehru’s era. After his daughter Indira Gandhi led the party to a crushing defeat in 1977, the prime minister who replaced her humiliated the family with arrests and investigations.
But that caused a backlash of sympathy among the public that helped propel her back to power with a landslide majority three years later.
If elected, Modi is not expected to follow the same course of using tax and police agencies to harass the Gandhis. In a campaign speech last month, Modi said he did not believe in “vendetta” politics or witch-hunts.
“The Janata Party government was in too much of a hurry,” said Gupta. “Modi is too savvy to be seen to be openly persecuting the dynasty. He has made it very clear that he is not going to be vindictive in politics.”
Going by his record in Gujarat, Modi prefers to move methodically against his opponents - often with the help of close aide Amit Shah, who held multiple posts in the Gujarat government and led Modi’s campaign in Uttar Pradesh, politically the most important state, during the election.
After Modi took office in Gujarat in 2001, Shah, a former stockbroker, helped him consolidate power by squeezing Congress loyalists out of non-state institutions, such as the state’s banking and dairy cooperatives, which are economically powerful and influence the lives of millions of voters.
He also helped the BJP wrest control of the Gujarat state cricket association from Congress after 16 years, getting Modi elected to head the organization in 2009.
Cricket is closely tied with politics in India, where the sport is hugely popular and politicians revel in exposure to it.
Modi is now the longest-serving chief minister in Gujarat’s history, a fact that has helped lure high profile defectors away from Congress ranks, another favored tactic. In the last two years, hundreds of Congress workers have switched sides in the state, including some of its top leaders.
While Modi may not press legal cases against the Gandhis or their associates for alleged corruption - a move some in his party would encourage - a resounding victory on Friday would help him make the BJP India’s natural party of power, not Congress.
“We’re looking at being out of power for 10 years,” said the party strategist, when asked what the implication of a strong BJP majority would be for the Congress party.
Even so, Congress is unlikely to ditch the Gandhis any time soon, not least because the party has recovered from previous defeats.
In the hours after the exit polls came out, party leaders were quick to shift the blame for any potential loss away from Rahul Gandhi’s handling of the campaign.
“There are no leadership changes, there are no nights of the long knives, there’s no mindless recrimination, and as a political party that has known defeat before we work towards victory again,” said Mani Shankar Aiyar, a former minister and family loyalist.
And for many in the party who might be looking for fresh blood, the search ends with Rahul’s charismatic sister Priyanka, who had an important backroom role in the campaign.
“Party men would embrace her with both arms the moment she wants to join - in fact they’d grow a third arm to welcome her,” Aiyar said.
Additional reporting by Nigam Prusty and Aditya Kalra; Editing by Mike Collett-White