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Page last updated at 09:59 GMT, Thursday, 23 April 2009 10:59 UK

India's prime minister in waiting?

Rahul Gandhi
Critics say that while Mr Gandhi may have won over the people of Amethi, he has yet to win over all of India

By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Amethi

It's a totally one-sided contest in Amethi, the constituency in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh from where Rahul Gandhi is contesting the parliamentary elections.

When Mr Gandhi started in politics in 2004, he beat his nearest rival by nearly 200,000 votes. This time, his supporters say they will ensure his victory margin is doubled.

Mr Gandhi, 38, has impeccable political lineage - he is the fourth generation of India's famous Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

The Gandhi family is imbued with star quality - wherever they go, huge crowds mob them.

Political loyalty

Support for the Gandhi family in Amethi is absolute and most people here don't even know the names of other candidates.

Vipul Mishra
Amethi is the place which is going to give India its prime minister this time
Engineering student Vipul Mishra

"I've voted for the "panja" (the hand - Congress Party's election symbol). Rahul Gandhi is from this region, he is our man," is the common refrain among voters queuing up to cast their ballots on Thursday, the second of the long drawn-out five-phase elections.

Political loyalty runs deep in Amethi.

Usman Khan, 75, was at the polling booth soon after 0700 local time. "I'm old and infirm, my eyesight and knees are weak so I thought I would come and vote early before it gets crowded."

Mr Khan said that he had voted for Congress.

"When Rahul's father (the former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi) was MP here, he built a network of irrigation canals in the area. Thanks to him we can grow different kinds of crops."

Similar sentiments are expressed everywhere.

"We have seven voters in our family and we all always vote for the Congress Party," says housewife Chandravati Singh.

Shopkeeper Sushil Jaiswal says that Rajiv Gandhi "did a lot" for the people of Amethi.

"But after his death, the place fell into neglect. Then in 2004 Rahul Gandhi became our MP and he's also improved this place."

A small crowd gathers outside Mr Jaiswal's shop and people begin to list the good work done by the MP in the last five years.

Large numbers

"The road network in the region is fantastic with almost every village connected by proper roads. Amethi's railway station has been spruced up and several new trains have begun to stop at the station," Mr Jaiswal said.

"Mr Gandhi is focusing on education and has opened many computer training institutes in Amethi."

Usman Khan
We live because of the Gandhi family
Congress supporter Usman Khan

Congress supporters say that the only major problem in Amethi is electricity supply, which usually lasts for only 10 hours a day. But most believe Mr Gandhi will soon address this problem too.

Almost everyone here believes that it will be sooner, rather than later, that Mr Gandhi will be the prime minister. And defying the harsh sun and high temperatures, they have come out in large numbers to vote.

"We support Rahul Gandhi for prime minister because he is young," said Vipul Mishra, a 22-year-old engineering student.

In India, politics is largely dominated by leaders in their 70s and 80s.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is 76 while the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate LK Advani is 81.

Mr Gandhi - at 38 - is seen as a refreshing change by his supporters.

"Rahul Gandhi is young and he thinks like a young man," Mr Mishra said.

"He is patient and hears us out. He's the only one who is thinking about the youth."

He added: "I have great expectations from this election. Amethi is the place which is going to give India its prime minister this time."

Mainstream

The Congress Party has repeatedly said that its prime ministerial candidate is Manmohan Singh - while the Gandhi scion himself has kept quiet on the issue.

Voting in Amethi
Long queues of people in Amethi are expected to vote for Mr Gandhi

But it is no secret in India's political circles that the young Gandhi is being groomed to run the country one day in the future.

Since the 2004 elections when Mr Gandhi took tentative steps into politics, he has now left the periphery of political life and moved into the mainstream.

In September 2007 he was appointed a party general secretary and has been looking after its youth wing.

But his seemingly inexorable rise has not gone without some criticism. His detractors accuse him of being inarticulate and lacking in charisma. They argue that he has yet to prove that he is ready for a larger role.

Supporters say that he has emerged as his party's most sought-after campaigner in these elections and has addressed several campaign rallies outside of Amethi.

Senior Lucknow-based journalist Sharat Pradhan said: "He comes to Amethi once every two months. He has done quite a bit of work here. He has worked for women's empowerment [and] the rural employment guarantee scheme here is a success because he personally monitors it.

"But he doesn't need to spend all his time in Amethi. His name would get him all the votes. He needs to step out, strike a rapport with people in the rest of the country."

Majority unlikely

However, Congress is believed to have its own reasons for not naming Rahul Gandhi as its prime ministerial candidate.

The party is unlikely to get a majority on its own and does not want to put the young leader at the mercy of bickering and mercurial alliance partners.

In the unlikely scenario that the party does win a majority on its own, Rahul Gandhi may well find himself wearing the crown.

He would then become the fourth member of the Nehru-Gandhi family to be prime minister.

As the great-grandson of India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the grandson of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the son of Rajiv Gandhi, no-one doubts that he has the right pedigree for the top job.



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