At 41, Gandhi is the most scrutinized politician in India today. The great-grandson of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, the grandson of Indira Gandhi, the son of Rajiv Gandhi, the Western-educated Rahul is projected by admirers as the face of a young, modern India but reviled by foes as the personification of hereditary privilege.
Last month, with his mother suffering from an undisclosed but serious illness, Gandhi embarked on the biggest test of his political career, seeking to revive the Congress party’s political fortunes here in the vast and underdeveloped state of Uttar Pradesh, home to 200 million people, or one in 35 people on the planet.
It is a moment that invites comparisons, with his father and role model, whose life was cut short by assassins in 1991; with his iron-willed grandmother, assassinated seven years earlier, and even with his revered great-grandfather.
As he throws himself into one of India’s hottest political caldrons, many people are wondering whether this sincere but slightly diffident man is up to the task.
“Mafias and criminals are representing you now,” he said at a rally last week to launch the Congress campaign for next year’s state elections, appealing to young people to share his anger with the politicians who have made the state a byword for corruption and misrule. “Now your generation has to come up and fight against this.”
With some of the tragic mystique of the Kennedys and a touch of raw South Asian feudal power, the family name is certainly a draw. Thousands of people turned up to see him speak, and there had been a buzz of excitement as his helicopter came in to land, necks craning as the rotors threw up a swirling cloud of yellow dust.
But Gandhi lacks either the natural presence of Nehru or the oratorical skills of Indira — his well-meaning speech seemed to fizzle out in the hot sun, failing to draw laughter, anger or anything more than mild applause from his largely sympathetic audience.
‘A fairly sincere bloke’
Indeed, since he first became a member of Parliament seven years ago, Gandhi has cut a slightly withdrawn figure, preferring to tour villages and spend hours talking to the rural poor over making parliamentary speeches or supplying India’s ever-hungry news media with easy sound bites. His aides declined The Washington Post’s request for an interview.
He rejected an offer from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to take a ministerial position two years ago, and, so far at least, has rejected appeals from supporters and sycophants to take some of the weight off his mother’s shoulders by assuming the role of “working president” of Congress.
Sonia shocked the nation by turning down the prime minister job after leading Congress to victory in 2004, winning many Indians over with a culturally savvy act of “renunciation” even as she remained the country’s most powerful politician as president of her party and head of the ruling coalition government.
But her son’s unwillingness to grab the reins of power offered to him has had the opposite effect, winning him the derisory nickname of “the reluctant prince.”
Indeed, the sense that he lacks the fire in his belly to be a great leader leaves many Congress party workers yearning that his more charismatic, more spontaneous younger sister Priyanka would finally enter politics.
“Rahul lacks his sister Priyanka’s charisma, but he comes across as a fairly sincere bloke,” said columnist and novelist Shobhaa De. “Not terribly bright, but with his heart in the right place.”
After seven years in power, his Congress party is widely blamed for rampant corruption and rising inflation and, after so many incarnations over so many decades, the Nehru-Gandhi brand has lost much of its luster. Some pundits jibe that Rahul Gandhi has about as much value as “a post-dated check on a crashing bank.”
Learning from the poor
For two decades, the people of Uttar Pradesh have voted largely according to their caste and religious identities, and rejected the kind of catch-all secularism that Congress and the Gandhi family represent. In the process, the state has largely failed to enjoy the fruits of India’s economic boom.
Gandhi is trying to convince them that the time is right for a state government “for all of the people, by all the people,” a government that pulls Uttar Pradesh back into India’s economic mainstream. He is doing it by consciously evoking the memory of his ancestors, launching his campaign from Nehru’s old constituency, on the anniversary of his birth 122 years ago.
Should Gandhi deliver a decent electoral haul for Congress in Uttar Pradesh, he will inspire party workers around the country. “If he fails to deliver — in a dynastic party you don’t lose your position, but you do lose face,” said Yogendra Yadav, a social scientist and senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. “Even in dynasties, you have to earn respect. You have to earn enthusiasm from your own workers.”
Supporters argue that Gandhi’s apparent reticence reflects the fact that, unlike many Indian politicians, he has no thirst for power for its own sake. Organized and disciplined but no natural multi-tasker, he has been quietly working to democratize Congress from within by introducing elections for key posts in the party’s youth wing.
He makes much of the experience he gleans from touring India’s villages. His education — at Rollins College in Florida and Trinity College in Cambridge, England — and several years as a management consultant counts for nothing, he insists, compared with this chance to learn firsthand from the poor about their problems.
“I spend nights in their huts and take their bread; I drink the dirty water from their well and get sick,” he said at the Phulpur rally. “But unless I drink that water and fall sick, how can I know, how can anybody know, what lives they are leading?”
Opponents may mock him for his elitist background, even accusing him of using “special soap” to cleanse himself after these visits to lower-caste homes, but at Phulpur, his efforts to reinvent himself as a man of the people seemed to be paying off.
Many in the crowd said they appreciated his “simplicity” and “dedication.” Yet in the muted reaction to his speech, there were also signs of the battle he faces repairing the tarnished image of Congress around the country.
“Corruption and inflation are the main things we care about,” said Tapasya Diwarkar, a 24-year-old medical student, to murmurs of assent from people around her. “That’s why we don’t like politicians, and that’s why we weren’t cheering.”