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Coming of age of Rahul Gandhi

Rahul Gandhi addresses a press conference in Delhi
Mr Gandhi's news conference has put the spotlight on his political acumen

By Sanjeev Srivastava
India editor, BBC Hindi services

One of the more significant developments of the ongoing Indian elections is the coming of age of Rahul Gandhi - the governing Congress party's heir apparent and the fourth generation scion of the famous Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

As campaigning for the Indian elections has gradually peaked, Mr Gandhi has come to occupy the centre stage.

As the new poster boy of the party and its principal campaigner, he has addressed more public meetings than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Congress President Sonia Gandhi put together.

The signs have been unmistakable these past few weeks.

A generation shift is taking place in the nearly 125-year-old Congress party, with Mrs Gandhi looking increasingly comfortable with her son assuming a bigger role.

His word was final in forging pre-election alliances. It is well known that the party's decision to go it alone in the politically crucial states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar - which together account for 120 of the 543 parliamentary seats - was taken on Mr Gandhi's insistence.

He will most certainly play a decisive role once the results are declared.

Depending on how many seats the Congress gets, the final call on whether the party makes an effort to rustle up the required numbers or sits in opposition will be taken by Mr Gandhi.

'Man in command'

At a news conference in Delhi earlier this week - his first in the national capital - Mr Gandhi gave the impression of a man in command, exuding a mix of authority and charm (a Mumbai-based writer and socialite referred to him as the "dimpled darling" in a newspaper article!).

Supporters of Rahul Gandhi
Mr Gandhi is popular among India's younger voters

He now looks like someone who is comfortable discussing politics and taking decisions.

It is a far cry from 2004 when he made his debut from Amethi, the Gandhi family parliamentary constituency in north India from where he is now an MP.

He was introduced to the people of Amethi by his charismatic sister, Priyanka.

I was there along with some other journalists. As we watched an unsure, somewhat hesitant and uncomfortable Rahul, our collective verdict was swift and severe.

A political greenhorn, shy and introverted. We found him well mannered and sincere but thought that was hardly good enough to succeed in the rough and tumble of Indian politics.

He also failed to impress as a public speaker and looked distinctly uncomfortable with large crowds. But there was a refreshing ring of honesty about him which was noticed by everyone.

Family ties

But that was five years ago and it is obvious he has evolved since then. He is more assured, relaxed and gives the impression of being comfortable donning the mantle of a politician.

He also comes across as someone with definite ideas about right and wrong and what is the best way forward for the Congress.

He demonstrated his faith in the young by taking charge of the youth wing of the party. He then extended crucial support to the youthful Omar Abdullah for the post of Jammu and Kashmir chief minister.

He has also repeatedly said during the last couple of years that in his view one of the most important tasks before him is to democratise the Congress and hold internal elections.

A Congress party rally
Mr Gandhi has addressed more rallies than the PM and Mrs Gandhi together

This idea of internal democracy does sound a bit odd coming from someone whose only claim to fame is his family name.

Mr Gandhi - or anyone else in his family since the days of his great grandfather and independent India's first prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehru - has really not had to work their way up in the Congress.

Their critics dub them the last of the Moguls; they say the Gandhi family think they have some divine right to rule.

But for the tens of millions of supporters of the family - both within and outside the Congress party - there is no looking beyond a Gandhi in their search for a national leader.

It is not an easy debate to settle, especially in South Asia where political dynasties seem to flourish.

Those who defend the Gandhis also talk about political families in the opposition. The example of Kennedys, Bushs and the Clintons is also given to buttress the point of political families thriving even in the US.

Mr Gandhi himself admits to the advantage he enjoys because of his family name.

"But just because I am an outcome of a system does not mean that I cannot change it," he said when quizzed on his attempts to democratise the Congress.

'Straight talking'

But following his news conference this week - where he praised some prominent opposition leaders - another debate has now started about whether Mr Gandhi is still a little wet behind the ears, and how long it will take for him to mature into a seasoned politician.

Mr Gandhi's remarks were seen by some of his party's allies as needless and untimely merit certificates handed to opposition leaders in the thick of an electoral battle.

Priyanka Gandhi
Mr Gandhi was introduced in Amethi by his charismatic sister Priyanka

A large section of the Indian media, as well as opposition leaders, have described Mr Gandhi's remarks as politically naive, serving only to confuse his friends and give more ammunition to his critics.

But a few more charitably inclined analysts are reading a political masterstroke in the remarks. They say the young Gandhi has succeeded in sowing seeds of confusion in the opposition cadres by "very carefully calibrated comments".

Nothing can be farther from the truth in my opinion. If anyone is really confused, then they have to be those friends of the Congress party who are working flat out to oppose some of those opposition leaders Mr Gandhi praised.

Though to be fair to him, I do believe that some of his comments were rather exaggerated and misinterpreted in the Indian media. But then that comes from being a public figure.

There is another interpretation which is being put forward by those who know Mr Gandhi well.

Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit said people should not read too much politics into candid remarks made by a young politician.

The former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and a friend of the Gandhi family, Farooq Abdullah, was more forthright.

"Thank God there are some straight-talking people like him in politics. Otherwise most politicians in this country are dubious and dishonest."

Mr Abdullah has a point. For too long Indians have been exposed to politicians they do not really trust or like. But at the same time, they have also come to expect a certain kind of behaviour from them.

Candour, sincerity and a freshness of approach are not the attributes one associates with Indian politicians.

Maybe Mr Gandhi really represents that whiff of fresh air his supporters discern in his approach towards politics.

Whichever side - his critics or supporters - is right, I am sure Mr Gandhi will have learnt his own lesson from the press conference.

In public life - especially if you are a Gandhi in India - your every word will be dissected and analysed.

Whatever one's intentions, in the highly-charged Indian political environment there is a very thin dividing line between "speaking from the heart" and "shooting from the hip".



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