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Last Updated: Monday, 26 January, 2004, 11:54 GMT
Young Gandhis in spotlight
By Sanjeev Srivastava
BBC India correspondent

Rahul (left) and Priyanka Gandhi
Next generation Gandhi: India's future leaders?
The scions of one of the world's most famous political dynasties - Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi - are once again the focus of media and public attention in India.

After a recent visit to Amethi, the parliamentary constituency of their mother and Congress president Sonia Gandhi in northern India, there is no end in sight to the debate the tour has generated.

It has once again fuelled speculation about whether or not Rahul and Priyanka will contest the forthcoming Indian elections.

The 116-year-old Indian National Congress is one of the largest and oldest political parties in the world and has governed the country for 42 out of the 56 years since independence in 1947.

For 37 years the country has had a prime minister from the Nehru-Gandhi family.

But the once almighty Congress party finds itself on the back foot in the run-up to the national elections which are due in a few months from now.

Party beckons

The Italian-born Sonia Gandhi can draw crowds but has repeatedly failed to draw votes.

I will decide to enter politics when I really feel like it - that may happen in a week, in three weeks or in 10 years
Priyanka Gandhi
The governing BJP party is determined to make an election issue of her foreign origin.

A string of losses in recent state elections has further demoralised Congress ranks and there's a sense of drift in the party.

Sonia Gandhi is doing her best to revitalise the party organisation - she is also going all out to make new political friends and is calling upon leaders of smaller regional parties with an eye on possible post-election coalition arrangements.

Against this backdrop, the Amethi visit of the Gandhi children was aimed perhaps to boost the party rank and file.

If the rousing welcome the new Gandhi generation received in Amethi is any indication, that aim was served to some extent.

Star appeal

It was amazing to see how crowds thronged to meet the Gandhi children just about everywhere they went.

At present they hold no position, power or authority.

Priyanka (left) and Sonia Gandhi
Could Priyanka attract votes her mother has failed to?
But still people came in their thousands just to look at them.

Although they are barely in their thirties, an ageing Congress party believes they are the best chance to rescue it from political disaster.

So everywhere Priyanka and Rahul went they were besieged by Congress supporters pleading with them to join politics and contest elections.

It's not just party members who want them to join active politics.

There were many ordinary people as well who wanted the young Gandhis to enter the fray for real.

There were times when it all got even a bit embarrassing.

Like when a homegrown poet in a village near Amethi sang a song he had especially composed in praise of the Gandhi children.

Tragic history

Many believe it's this culture of encouraging sycophants which is responsible for the Congress losing its pre-eminent position in the national public space.

But as the Gandhi children did their round of Amethi, there was no doubting their charisma.

In terms of popularity, they remain without doubt the first family of Indian politics - a lot like the Kennedys were in America in their prime.

And just like the Kennedys, the Gandhis have seen politics take a toll on their family.

Their grandmother, Indira, and father, Rajiv, were both assassinated.

Like her husband, Sonia Gandhi originally wanted to stay out of politics but finally gave in.

Now it's the turn of her children to face the pressure.

Rahul and Priyanka lament the fact that everyone sees them through the Gandhi-Nehru prism.

"Nobody is interested in the work we are doing. All that you want to know is whether and when we will join politics," Priyanka told journalists following their every move in Amethi.

But at the same time both of them say they are not averse to politics.

Privately, Rahul says it's his sister who's more politically inclined. But even she hasn't made up her mind.

"I will decide to enter politics when I really feel like it. It should come from inside me. And that may happen in a week, in three weeks or in 10 years," she said.

The Gandhis may still be unsure about how far to go. Or maybe they just don't want to show their hand as yet.

But in the minds of their supporters there's no doubt - they are desperate for generation next.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Sanjeev Srivastrava
"The closest India gets to royalty"



SEE ALSO:
Countdown to Indian election
12 Jan 04  |  South Asia
Vajpayee's election gamble
09 Jan 04  |  South Asia
Priyanka: Daughter of the dynasty
01 Oct 99  |  South Asia
Sonia Gandhi: Heir to a dynasty
08 Sep 99  |  South Asia


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