Hours after he was named vice-chairman of India’s governing Indian National Congress party on the weekend, Rahul Gandhi’s mother came to him and wept.
“Last night, every single one of you congratulated me,” he told a riveted audience of party stalwarts in Jaipur on Sunday night.
“But last night my mother came to my room and she cried. Why did she cry? She cried because she understands that the power so many people see is actually a poison,” said Mr. Gandhi, speaking of his mother, Sonia, who chairs the party and is the de facto leader of the nation.
Power has certainly proved toxic for Mr. Gandhi’s family – his father, Rajiv, and grandmother, Indira, were both assassinated. Now Mr. Gandhi has formally taken on the mantle, with Congress taking the long-anticipated step of anointing him as its prime ministerial candidate in the next national poll, expected in the spring of 2014. “For me, the Congress party is now my life, the people of India are my life, and I will fight for the people of India and for this party,” he told his audience.
It was a surprisingly emotional speech from Mr. Gandhi, who is often panned for his wooden speaking style and vague remarks. The occasion provoked a storm of tears and cheering in the packed hall where the Congress was having a key strategy session.
Yet polls indicate that the Gandhi name itself is no longer enough to carry voters and those results suggested that young Indians may be growing increasingly disenchanted with the dynastic tradition.
Mr. Gandhi was put in charge of his party’s campaign in the critical state elections in Uttar Pradesh last year and in 2007, and Congress suffered harsh defeats both times.
On the whole, Mr. Gandhi has had an undistinguished political career. A member of parliament since 2004 (in a seat held by a member of his family for almost as long as this country has been a democracy), he is criticized here for “stunts,” such as slipping his security detail to ride a motorbike into a community that has had caste violence. He has made a high-profile effort that has yielded few results to energize a new party “youth wing.” He is aloof and rarely speaks publicly.
It also didn’t help that Mr. Gandhi, who is supposed to represent a new generation of Indians, was absent during the huge demonstrations that followed the gang rape and murder of a young student in Delhi last month.“At the iconic moment of youth anger, he was missing for weeks,” said Mobashar Jawed Akbar, a prominent author and political commentator, in an interview.
“If you look at the record of Rahul Gandhi, it has been an amazing succession of failures – I presume the game plan of Congress party is that the law of averages works and now he’s exhausted all his failures,” he added.
His political ascendance was nevertheless inevitable. “This party has genius in every other forum except succession,” said Mr. Akbar. “Anyone who attempts to offer a word of variation, that’s the end of their career.”
Aarthi Ramachandran, author of the new biography Decoding Rahul Gandhi, said the dynastic torch-passing gave her pause as a citizen.
“We’ve been waiting for it to happen but when they actually announced it I felt so incredibly sad because some part of me didn’t believe it would happen. I think about the Congress party that is so much more than this family and has such a long history and so many leaders, but today if you ask young people in the street they say, Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi. Yet this is India’s biggest democratic institution, where politics plays itself out.”
A fairly sympathetic biographer, Ms. Ramachandran called him a simple, good-intentioned sincere person. “This is not a guy [who] needs to be read between the lines. What you see with him is what you get.” But, she added, “that’s not enough to run a country.” The Congress appears to believe, despite the evidence from Uttar Pradesh, that his dynastic appeal alone can get the party re-elected.
She describes him as torn between seeing himself as an activist who will transform Indian politics (with a new era of transparency, accountability and equity) and a Congress die-hard who will carry on the family tradition of keeping the party in power.
Mr. Gandhi, 42, is unmarried, a rarity in this country, and discussions of his personal life – which at times has been said to involve a Colombian expatriate girlfriend and the granddaughter of the former king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah – circulate but are never confirmed. He seemed to be dedicating himself to a sort of political asceticism in his weekend speech. In the many, many billboards of his pale, stubbled face that look down on Jaipur (and the national capital) these days, Mr. Gandhi has a wistful expression; he is widely rumoured to be a reluctant political heir.
“Regardless of whether Rahul Gandhi wants to lead the Congress or not, and what his own personal ambivalence about power might be, the Congress Party has put itself in a place where it cannot survive without him,” columnist Santosh Desai said in the Times of India.
The dynasty through the decades
The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has produced three prime ministers who governed India and dominated its politics and the Indian National Congress party since independence.
Jawaharlal Nehru joined forces with Hindu spiritual leader Mohandas K. Gandhi to lead India to independence in 1947, founded the Congress Party and governed India for 17 years. He died of heart attack in 1964.
Indira Gandhi was the only child of Nehru, elected prime minister in 1966 and governed for 15 of the next 18 years. She was assassinated in 1984.
Rajiv Gandhi was installed as Congress Party leader and prime minister after the death of his mother, Indira Gandhi. He was swept from office in 1989 and assassinated in 1991.
Sonia Gandhi is the Italian-born widow of Rajiv. Sonia was offered the leadership of the Congress Party after her husband was killed. She initially rejected the offer but in 1998 she agreed to become the party president.
Rahul Gandhi is the son of Sonia Gandhi. The 42-year-old lawmaker is vice-president of the Indian National Congress party.