Grandson of one prime minister and the son of another, Rajiv Gandhi became independent India's seventh leader only hours after his mother's assassination Wednesday.
He continues a legacy that has seen his family rule India for 34 of the nation's 37 years of independence.
Yet the mantle of leadership may not weigh easily on this former Air India pilot. Until recently, he tried to shun public life. He regarded politics as distasteful. He and his Italian wife, Sonia, have a daughter, Priyanka, and a son, Rahul.
But in 1980, duty called - or rather his mother, Indira, called - after the stunt-plane death of Sanjay, his younger and more activist brother, who had been heir apparent. Shedding a pilot's uniform for a cotton smock, Rajiv was groomed quickly to follow his mother. Elected to Parliament in 1981, he recently became his mother's campaign manager for general elections planned next year. Playing to his strength, the soft-spoken Rajiv was painted with a ''Mr. Clean'' image.
Although the passing of the mantle was anticipated by a nation accustomed to nepotism, Rajiv's appointment as prime minister has come much sooner than expected. He was still being tested by many Indian politicians in the world's largest democracy.
Although he has survived India's often-squalid politics, he has not been judged as mastering it. Like a pilot who leaves many of the details to a technician, Rajiv maintains a Nehru-like aloofness from much of day-to-day politics. He was seen as badly managing the abortive attempt in August to topple the elected government of former film star N.T. Rama Rao in the state of Andhra Pradesh.
The Cambridge-educated Mr. Gandhi will have to be even more masterful of India's internal tensions than his mother. His mother knew all too well how India's religious and communal strife can strike out at its leaders - including both herself and independence leader Mohandas Gandhi (no relation to her). Two years before she sent the Indian Army into the Sikh holy temple, she told the Monitor: ''Democracy allows ... explosions. If you have small explosions, they are dealt with - sometimes without any government action. But if you put the lid on them, then there is the risk of having a very big explosion with which nobody can deal.''
Rajiv will not only have to tackle the Sikh situation, but also begin to garner his own political support with the ruling Congress (I) Party. That party is the main remnant of the one that fought for independence and, because of Mrs. Gandhi's many moves to oust rivals, has lost much of its grass-roots support.
''There's a very big challenge in front of us today - how to get India into the 20th century,'' Rajiv stated in a Monitor interview last month. He spoke of the need to eliminate the vestiges of ''colonialism,'' the social inequities. ''We really must get the poor and the weak of India out of their rut, out of the morass they're stuck in. I consider that a far more challenging job.''
Such goals are often unheeded in India, where politics rarely rises above regional interests or caste. As author V. S. Naipaul notes: ''In India, where the problems are beyond comprehension, the goals have to be vague.'' Removal of poverty and establishment of justice are like abstractions, much less immediate than people's obsessions.
When asked what he would do if he was in power, Rajiv said his highest priorities would be population control and education, ''areas which got left behind.... Social reform is also extremely important,'' he said. ''So is a more equitable distribution of wealth.'' The philosophic Nehru was imbued with great dreams, and Rajiv's supporters compare him with the founder of the dynasty.
He is certainly very unlike his mother, who exercised power with an assertive , strong-willed control. And, rather than projecting charisma, the scion of the Nehru family often appears rather bored.
For despite the voice and Hindi lessons, posture and gait, and raw political management at his mother's side, Rajiv is still essentially that nice young man, who, out of ''duty to mummy,'' is being buffeted by a political system whose rules he does not care to understand.
He disdains sycophancy, so dear to the hearts of most Indian politicians, and has berated many a chief minister for their ostentatious shows. On a recent trip to Amethi, he winced at the idolatry all around as withered old women fell to the ground in homage, struggling to touch his feet. Young men, ragged and barefoot, chanted, ''You are the hope of India - Rajiv, Rajiv, Rajiv.''
Such displays may make him long for his days as a pilot.
''I sometimes get into the cockpit all alone and close the door,'' he said. ''Even if I cannot fly it, at least I can temporarily shut myself off from the outside world.''