NEW DELHI — In India’s bruising national election, only one major candidate is talking about love.
Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India’s most famous political dynasty, has said that he bears his opponent, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, no ill will. He has even said that he regards Modi with the same “love” he has for all living beings (even if Gandhi also calls him a thief).
The magnanimous talk has a purpose: As Gandhi seeks to be the fourth member of his family to lead India, he is campaigning in a manner designed to draw a sharp contrast between himself and Modi, the most polarizing and popular figure in the country.
On a recent campaign stop in his constituency of Amethi, Gandhi strode to the front of the gathering in a plain white kurta and black running shoes, joined by his younger sister Priyanka, a political celebrity in her own right. He spoke without a teleprompter, roaming the crowd and shaking hands.
Once derided as inept, Gandhi, the head of the Indian National Congress party, has emerged as a credible politician who has helped lead an invigorated opposition to Modi’s government. But few expect him to become prime minister after the results of the seven-phase election are announced Thursday. Some say it is not certain that he even wants the job.
The 48-year-old is an unconventional leader who does “not have that hunger for power,” said Rasheed Kidwai, a political commentator and the author of a biography of Gandhi’s Italian-born mother, Sonia. “His end goal is ambiguous. . . . That’s where people have an element of doubt about him.”
Gandhi declined requests for interviews.
“In a democracy, people decide who their prime minister will be,” said Pawan Khera, a Congress spokesman. “Rahul Gandhi has fought well . . . [and the] people of India have heard all sides. They will speak on the 23rd.”
Gandhi’s campaign is freighted with decades of baggage and tragedy. His great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was India’s first prime minister. His grandmother, Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, also led the country. So, too, did his father, Rajiv. Both Indira and Rajiv were assassinated. (The family is not related to revered independence leader Mohandas Gandhi).
The Congress party governed India for most of its post-independence history, embracing the secularism of India’s founders and center-left politics. In 2014, Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, swept to power in a landslide win after a decade of Congress rule widely perceived as ineffectual and corrupt in its later years.
The BJP victory reduced the once-mighty Congress to a humiliatingly low number of seats in Parliament. Gandhi, meanwhile, was pilloried as bungling and unqualified. BJP leaders called him “pappu” — a Hindi term for a well-meaning but dimwitted little boy.
More recently, though, such insults have landed with less impact. Gandhi has become a vocal critic of the Modi government, hammering its failure to assist struggling farmers and accusing Modi of corruption in a controversial fighter-jet purchase from France. Even as Gandhi has attacked Modi, he has attempted to show that it isn’t personal: Last year, Gandhi hugged a visibly surprised Modi in Parliament.
Gandhi’s biggest win came in December, when the Congress party wrested control of three major state legislatures from the BJP, a sign of voter discontent with the nation’s ruling party. Winning the national election is considerably more difficult: Modi remains the most popular figure in the country and never misses an opportunity to attack Gandhi and his family as a corrupt and sclerotic dynasty. He also criticizes the Congress party for its involvement in deadly anti-Sikh riots after Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984.
“Just calling someone corrupt in a loud voice does not make that someone corrupt,” said Khera, the Congress spokesman. Attacking the party for its dynastic politics is a “hackneyed argument,” Khera said. “We are proud of the legacy of Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.”
Gandhi has led an unusual life. As a teenager he met with world leaders such as Mikhail Gorbachev but grew up under strict security and was partially home-schooled. He attended university in the United States and completed a graduate degree in development studies in Britain. He later worked at a management consulting firm in London and helped found an outsourcing company in Mumbai. He became a member of India’s Parliament in 2004.
Gandhi meditates regularly and is very close to his sister Priyanka, with whom he talks every day, said Sam Pitroda, a technology entrepreneur who was an adviser to Rajiv Gandhi. Unlike his father, Rahul Gandhi carefully analyzes decisions before acting, Pitroda said. “You can argue with him,” he said. “You can disagree with him.”
Overall, Gandhi has “run a reasonably good campaign,” said Zoya Hasan, a retired professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “There is a change in popular perception” of Gandhi, she added. Now he is “being taken seriously, and there is even a grudging appreciation” of the way he has persisted.
On a recent afternoon, Gandhi took to the stage under a billowing tent in 104-degree heat in Amethi, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. In the audience were a few thousand women, members of a community-based microlending network that Congress touts as one of Gandhi’s successes.
He talked about rising unemployment, the controversial fighter-jet deal and the “false promises” of the Modi government. When he mentioned his party’s main election pledge — providing a guaranteed income to the poorest 20 percent of Indians — the crowd shouted in approval.
In Amethi, a Congress stronghold that has been represented by a Gandhi for 31 of the past 40 years, nearly everyone has a story about a member of the family. At Ram Murti Shukla’s house, there are stories not just about one Gandhi but about every single one of them. Shukla helped on campaigns in the 1980s and remembers Rahul Gandhi as a quiet child.
“I have seen Rahul grow up in front of my eyes. I can tell you he is extremely honest, never lies and doesn’t like sycophancy,” he said. “There is no artifice in Rahul, unlike Modi who is only a showman.”
Other voters in the constituency said Gandhi had not done enough to promote development in the district and voiced support for Modi’s tough talk on national security. “We have decided to support Modi, keeping the national interest in mind,” said Ankit Misra, 22. “He has finished terrorism.”
Sangatha Prasad has worked as a gardener at the factory of a state-owned company in Amethi ever since it was set up by Gandhi’s father, Rajiv, in 1983. Prasad acknowledged that Rahul Gandhi could have done more for the area, but he was not willing to abandon the Congress party.
“When you’re upset with family, you resolve it from within,” he said. “You don’t break it off.”
Masih reported from Amethi.