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Indeed, since he first became a member of Parliament seven years ago, Gandhi has cut a slightly withdrawn figure, preferring to tour villages and spend hours talking to the rural poor over making parliamentary speeches or supplying India’s ever-hungry news media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.