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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 March, 2004, 13:05 GMT
The riddle of Rahul Gandhi

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News Online correspondent in Delhi

He grew up in the shadow of overwhelming security after his father's assassination.

He has been described as shy and genteel, more interested in the outdoors and cricket matches than the hurly burly of Indian politics.

Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi
Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi - Rahul's decision has 'baffled' some observers
It was not that long ago that Rahul Gandhi remarked: "I am not averse to politics, but that does not mean that I am going to join politics."

So the decision of 34-year-old Rahul to contest the upcoming general elections has taken a lot of workers in his Congress party, as well as political analysts, by surprise.

Rahul, son of the slain former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and fourth generation scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that is synonymous with the country's 119-year-old Congress party, is contesting the traditional family seat of Amethi in northern state of Uttar Pradesh.


"Did we expect it? Well, yes and no. But it is a pleasant surprise," Congress party media manager Tom Vadakkan told BBC News Online.

A day after the Congress announced that Rahul would contest the elections, senior party members did not even have a CV of the son of the party chief Sonia Gandhi to hand out to the media.

Rahul is the dark horse with a detailed knowledge of constituency profiles and a back room operator
Mahesh Rangarajan
Party workers and political observers were expecting Rahul's more charismatic and effervescent young sister Priyanka to pick up the gauntlet and contest the elections.

"It is a baffling decision. The general impression was that Priyanka was more articulate, forceful and more charismatic. I am not sure anyone knows what the real story is. Perhaps it is more personal or family related," says Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who teaches government at Harvard University.

Indian newspapers seem to be largely clueless on why precisely the son was sprung on the scene ahead of the daughter.

The Congress party grapevine is abuzz with theories.

One is that the mother, Sonia Gandhi, is sticking to an Indian tradition of a male heir - something that Sonia staunchly denies.

Another is that Priyanka Gandhi is buying more time to look after her two toddler children before taking the plunge into electoral politics.

But Mahesh Rangarajan, a leading Indian political analyst now at Cornell University, says Rahul "was always in the race".

"He's the dark horse with a detailed knowledge of constituency profiles, and a back room operator," he told BBC News Online.

'Whiff of fresh air'

Details of Rahul's past are still fuzzy.

He went to the finest Indian schools and studied economics at foreign universities.

 Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi
Priyanka and Rahul - will the sister join the fray?

He returned to India 18 months ago and one newspaper has reported that he runs a call centre in the western city of Bombay, also known as Mumbai.

Congress leaders are upbeat about Rahul's decision to contest elections, and say he will energise the party's rank and file and attract young voters in a country where more than 60% of people are under 35 years of age.

"He is like a whiff of fresh air in the murky world of politics, just like his father Rajiv Gandhi. He is a vivid reminder of the countenance and manner of his father, and techno savvy as well," says Congress parliamentarian Ashwani Kumar.

But some analysts reckon Rahul's induction into politics lays bare the deep problems within Congress - India's Grand Old Party - which is looking dispirited and is still in the process of forging a network of allies, essential to the country's coalition era politics.

"Rahul's induction highlights the leadership vacuum in Congress," says Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Mahesh Rangarajan agrees: "The prime reason for his induction is the party's desperation."

It also highlights the belief of many in Congress that the legacy of the party and the country cannot be secure unless a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family enters the arena.

But some believe the very dominance of the family has been a mixed blessing for the party.

"This [dominance] has led to the exit of several highly capable leaders from the party from the 1970s onwards," argues Manesh Rangarajan, which is why "Congress itself is a much weakened force today".

'Pan-Indian ramifications'

So will Rahul's baptism in politics help swing the party's fortunes in the upcoming elections?

"It will have pan-Indian ramifications for the party's fortunes. And if Priyanka joins the fray, the entire picture would change," exults Tom Vadakkan.

Analysts are not so sure.

They reckon that Rahul will win his seat easily and bolster the party's spirits, but beyond that his impact will be unclear.

Some argue that a new member of the Gandhi family only succeeds when he or she has a wider message.

"Jawaharlal Nehru captured the imagination of young, more militant nationalists. Indira Gandhi cultivated a pro-poor image. Even Sanjay Gandhi had a cult like following and a project of change directed from above," says Mahesh Rangarajan.

"It is unclear what Rahul stands for, what is his message and what is his programme. Till he defines that, his strength will be not last beyond the novelty value."

India votes 2004: Full in-depth coverage here


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