New Delhi: Reluctant “crown prince” Rahul Gandhi is finally getting his hands dirty in India’s tumultuous politics after years of dithering about filling the boots of his illustrious forebears.
Gandhi, 38, whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather were prime ministers, has launched what the ruling Congress party has dubbed his “Discovery of India” trip—aimed at winning hearts and minds as elections loom, scheduled to be held early next year.
“He has become the new face of the party, (representing) a new generation,” said political columnist Parsa Venkateshwar Rao.
Ground reality: Rahul Gandhi meeting villagers during his visit to tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh on Sunday. He is on a whirlwind tour across the country that has made BSP leader Mayawati jittery.
Despite being a member of Parliament, Gandhi, projected as a future prime minister, had worried party leaders with his seeming hesitation to take up his dynastic duties.
But now he has waded into a battle with a politician who could be his toughest foe; iconic leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, or BSP, who also wants to be prime minister. The BSP essentially espouses the cause of the Dalits—members of the caste at the bottom of the Indian society.
The good news for the Congress party is that Gandhi, whose political appearances had been few and far between in all these years, “is finally beginning to irritate someone. The bad news is he has irritated Mayawati,” noted veteran columnist M.J. Akbar.
The confrontation is being played out mainly in UP, the country’s most populous state, where Mayawati is chief minister and which the Gandhi family view as their inherited political fiefdom.
The charismatic Mayawati swept to power last year in UP and has made no secret about wanting to be premier.
“People say Uttar Pradesh is just a glimpse of what’s going to unfold at the national level,” she claimed in January.
With the general election due by May 2009, the Congress has been rattled by her meteoric rise. It has traditionally enjoyed the support of the Dalits—once considered so impure that upper castes carried out cleansing rituals if a Dalit touched them or their shadow fell upon them.
But Mayawati, seeking to build a pan-India support base, is challenging the Congress for low-caste loyalty.
Gandhi, whose mother Sonia Gandhi is the Congress party chief, has embarked on a slew of visits to humble rural homes as the party tries to retain the vast low-caste vote.
Mayawati has lost no time accusing the shy, bespectacled Gandhi, who still looks and sounds more like an earnest student than a seasoned politician, of opportunism.
The Congress “is sending its prince (Gandhi) to live and eat with Dalits just to win their votes,” she said, accusing him of “bathing with special soap and going through purification rituals...after meeting and eating with Dalits.”
Gandhi, dishevelled and dirty after campaigning under a baking sun, angrily dismissed the charges last weekend and demanded reporters inspect his dust-streaked shirt and trousers.
“See my clothes. Do you think I use special soap?” asked Gandhi, a former business consultant elected to Parliament in 2004, adding: “My job is to go and listen to those who are not heard.”
While he has dismissed calls by party members for him to be the next premier, replacing scholarly 75-year-old incumbent Manmohan Singh, no-one rules him out in the longer term despite his wooden campaigning skills.
The family’s aura is so great that many in the Congress cannot picture a future without a Gandhi in charge.
“Don’t be surprised if the Congress portrays him as the person to lead the country in the 21st century,” said political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan.
But others believe the Congress may no longer be able to play the dynastic card.
Mayawati “is here to stay,” said Aditi Phadnis, a political columist at the Business Standard newspaper. AFP