Indian spotlight on Rahul Gandhi

May 17, 2009 12:00 am

, NEW DELHI, May 17 – The Congress party’s resounding victory in India’s elections has shone a spotlight on its star campaigner Rahul Gandhi, heir to the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty and a likely premier in waiting.

Gandhi, the 38-year-old son of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, was widely credited with energising the party and pulling in millions of first-time voters.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said Saturday he would ask Gandhi to serve in the cabinet, a move seen by analysts as a potential stepping stone to the top job.

Gandhi said his first priority was to work on his pledge to democratise India’s political system — long the preserve of the wealthy and well-connected.

"My job is to change the politics of the country… and unleash the energy of the youngsters," said Gandhi, whose handsome, dimpled faced beamed from election posters across the country during the long election campaign.

With 51 percent of India’s 1.1 billion population under 25, and two-thirds under 35, the youth vote represents a huge constituency for the centre-left secular party.

Analysts said the Congress victory and a cabinet job would pave the way for Rahul to replace Singh, 76, who recently underwent heart bypass surgery, midway through the government’s five-year term.

"This is the smoothest possible transition for Rahul," said political risk analyst Subhash Agrawal.

"Singh becomes PM for a notional period of say two years, then resigns on health grounds and hands over to Rahul."

Singh has already praised Gandhi for having "all the qualities a good PM should have".

Indian newspapers on Sunday stressed Gandhi’s contribution to his party’s electoral success and some chose to illustrate their front page coverage of the victory with a picture of him, rather than the prime minister.

"Somewhere in the course of the campaign, he changed from an apprentice politician to a tactician, shunning and wooing allies with the ease of a natural," gushed the Economic Times.

"Ra-Ra Rahul," cheered the Mail Today.

Since India’s independence from Britain in 1947, power in Congress has passed from Gandhi’s great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first premier, to his grandmother Indira Gandhi and later to his father Rajiv.

It now rests with his Italian-born mother Sonia, party president and seen as India’s most influential politician. Many Congress supporters cannot imagine the party without a Gandhi at the helm.

Sonia has carefully managed her son’s career, making sure he has been given time to carry out his stated aim of learning politics "brick by brick".

A few years ago, Rahul showed little inclination to fill the boots of his illustrious forebears. But now he has shed his halting speaking style and is sounding far more seasoned and at ease on the hustings.

In two years Rahul will be 40 — the same age his father was when he became premier following the slaying of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Rajiv too was assassinated — by a Sri Lankan Tamil separatist suicide bomber.

In 2004 the party announced Rahul would enter politics, even though his sister Priyanka, 37, is considered much more of a natural politician.

"It’s quite possible (that he will be prime minister) provided he works hard toward it, provided he goes through the grind and provided that he deserves it," Priyanka said in a TV interview earlier this month.

But critics decry the need for continuation of the dynasty, deeming it at odds with India’s status as an emerging economic power.

"What is questionable is the assumption — shared by his family, his close associates and apparently by the man himself — that the top job in party and government is his for the asking," said historian Ramachandra Guha recently.

Posts "should be filled on the basis of competence," he said.


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