New Delhi: Politically, Rahul Gandhi, 39, has a lineage that promises success in politics, even the highest elected office in the land. After all, he is the great grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister; grandson of Indira Gandhi, who served several terms as prime minister; son of Rajiv Gandhi, who was the prime minister for one term, 1984-89; and, most importantly, the anointed heir apparent of the Nehru-Gandhi legacy.
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Yet, Manmohan Singh, 76, is the official prime ministerial candidate of the Congress party in the 2009 election.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Estimates suggest that there are around 310 million young people between 18 and 30 years of age; that number is less than half the 714 million eligible voters in this election.
Together with the fact that its principal rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has put forward an 81-year-old prime ministerial candidate, some analysts say it would have made eminent sense for the Congress to project Gandhi as its prime ministerial candidate.
It is difficult to make out whether this is a strategy on the Congress’ part or just Gandhi being himself: a person who values his privacy and individuality, despite being part of India’s most prominent political family.
Ever since he formally entered politics, Gandhi has preferred to be on the periphery. His public appearances are few and far between although he has emerged as one of the public faces of the party in these elections. And, unlike other politicians, he has rarely played by the rule book, thinking nothing about turning up to watch an Indian Premier League match, alongside very publicized visits to the badlands of Uttar Pradesh, or spending a night with a Dalit family. Even his intervention in Parliament during the debate on the nuclear deal with the US, a passionate, albeit rehearsed speech, was found by some critics to be well meaning but academic.
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One reason for Gandhi’s seeming reluctance to wear the crown (or even be seen as someone who wants to wear the crown a few years down the line) could be his idealism, say analysts. He may consider building the Congress from within more important than competing with rival parties.
Still, that’s a theory at best. Gandhi remains largely inscrutable.
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He rarely speaks to the media or gives interviews, at least not on the record. While his actions do not set out a clear agenda, unlike, say, his first cousin and political rival, Varun Gandhi—who as a candidate of the BJP from Pilibhit triggered a furore with his controversial remarks against Muslims—it is similarly difficult to make out anything definitive from his public pronouncements.
Those who have worked with him closely vouch for his sincerity. “He (Gandhi) is very methodical and well meaning. He always comes across as a sincere person, who intervenes in discussions with a desire to address issues; they are not superficial interventions,” said a person who works with one of the non-profit organizations with which Gandhi is associated. This person, like many of the others spoken to for this story, did not want to be identified.
Gandhi’s first tryst with Parliament began after he won the Lok Sabha elections from Amethi in 2004, defeating his nearest rival by 290,853 votes.
For most of the tenure of the 14th Lok Sabha, he preferred to remain in the background, breaking his silence with a high-profile intervention during the debate on the nuclear deal with the US.
Despite his seeming reluctance, it’s only a matter of time before Gandhi becomes India’s prime minister, said one political analyst. “There is no challenge to his leadership,” said Bidyut Chakrabarty, professor, department of political science, Delhi University, who added that Gandhi would play an important role in Indian politics “if not for anything else, then because of his association with the Gandhi family”.
The buzz in Congress circles, however, indicates that the prince may finally be ready to take on kingly responsibilities. If the Congress-led coalition comes to power, he will be a minister, goes the buzz.
It remains to be seen if Rahul Gandhi the minister is as enigmatic as Rahul Gandhi the member of Parliament.
Ruhi Tewari in New Delhi contributed to this story.