A Gandhi presses the flesh to woo India's largest state
BAREILLY, INDIA — Just in case the speeches, the showers of marigold petals, and the adoring roadside chants of "Long live Rahul!" aren't enough, the marquee-size poster leaves no doubt: Ruling India is a family business.
On one side are the faces of the past: Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi – the father, daughter, and son who was each a prime minister. On the other side is Rajiv's widow and ruling party chief, Sonia Gandhi.
Next to her – both on the poster and probably also in India's line of succession – is her son Rahul. In theory, this campaign stop is about assembly elections in the impoverished farm-belt state of Uttar Pradesh, which began April 7. But in truth it is a first look at whether this Kennedy in a kurta has the stuff to someday lead the world's largest democracy.
Which is why "Rahul's Roadshow" – a barnstorming series of political rallies across India's most populous state– has become the can't-miss event of this political year.
But despite having been tipped for the prime minister's job since birth and elected to parliament in 2004, his political positions and personal life remain remarkably unknown. He has made no significant speeches, championed no causes, given no media interviews. The press don't even know last name of his girlfriend, who is intriguingly referred to only as "Veronique" – and is at turns described as being from Spain or Latin America.
"He is at the moment an unknown quantity," says Zoya Hasan, a political scientist in Delhi.
Actually, as a member of the parliament in New Delhi, Mr. Gandhi isn't even on the ballot during these elections, which are solely for the state assembly in Uttar Pradesh and will take place in seven phases, finishing May 8. But Gandhi has taken it upon himself to try to revive the fortunes of his Congress Party here in his home state, where it holds only 25 of 403 assembly seats.
At last, it seemed, the bespectacled, 30-something former management consultant was taking off the political training wheels, ready to become more than merely the vehicle for a famous name. What has emerged, however, has been something less definitive – a picture of a personable yet inexperienced campaigner more at ease among the masses than on the stump.
To those who know him, this is not a surprise. Gandhi was the "nice, well behaved" child who had a good sense of humor but was naturally shy, says Rasheed Kidwai, who wrote "Sonia," a biography of Gandhi's mother.
Like Sonia Gandhi, who overcame shyness to become the head of the Congress Party, Rahul "will become less shy, more confident, the more experience he has," Mr. Kidwai says.
In some respects, Uttar Pradesh is an odd choice as a political nursery. The state presents Indian politics at its most visceral – a cock fight of casteism, religious baiting, and inexhaustible (though often well-founded) charges of corruption.
By contrast, the Harvard- and Cambridge-educated Gandhi has a dark side – a high-brow love for shooting pistols, driving fast cars, and spending long hours surfing the Web. In this crowd, he is an "aw-shucks" neophyte in perfectly pressed shirts – and he has come late to the game.
"He has been too inactive politically since he became a [member of parliament], and he started his campaign in [Uttar Pradesh] too late," says Inder Malhotra, a political analyst.
Then again, no one expects him to be able to reverse Congress's fortunes in a state that is so divided by caste politics. So, in effect, the pressure is off, allowing him to take his turn as a debutant with very little on the line.
"Rahul understands this, too," Mr. Malhotra adds. "It's not just about these elections – he is taking a long-term view to general elections in 2009."
To that end, Gandhi's goals in Uttar Pradesh have been simple: to broadcast his identity as a young, charming Gandhi and to appeal to voters weary of caste-based politics. In other words, to stay clean and to stay above the fray.
It is a script that has served his family well – though sometimes in tragic circumstances. His father, Rajiv, became prime minister reluctantly only after his more politically minded brother died in a plane crash. After Rajiv was assassinated by a Sri Lankan suicide bomber in 1991, the Congress Party turned to his wife – Rahul's Italian-born mother, Sonia – to take up the cause. She refused, dropping out of the political picture for seven years, before returning to lead Congress to victory in the 2004 elections.
Even then, however, she refused the post of prime minister. "To the common man, anyone who is reluctant to come to power is divine," says Yashwant Deshmukh, a political analyst in Delhi.
Now Rahul is attempting to take that mantle on himself. "Being reluctant is a classical message," Mr. Deshmukh adds. "It has gone out into the masses" through the roadshow.
At a recent stop, Gandhi told reporters: "I am not in politics for position."
But Gandhi also has other goals in Uttar Pradesh, say others. "He is acutely conscious of the fact that his father became prime minister unwillingly, without being properly prepared, and so he is trying to get as much hands-on experience of politics as he possibly can," says Kidwai.
The more informal aspects of his cross-state campaign have played to generally favorable reviews. Though both his grandmother, Indira, and his father were assassinated, Gandhi was so at ease during the drive between rallies last month that security agencies expressed concerns over his frequent stops to greet crowds and linger over lunch at roadside restaurants.
Yet Gandhi's reviews on the platform have been mixed. One speech was canceled because of a low turnout, and another was marred by Gandhi's comment that his family would have saved a mosque demolished by Hindu nationalists had it been in power at the time in 1992.
But in the end, Gandhi can always turn his rhetoric to his famous heritage – and he has rarely lost an opportunity to do so.
That history is what brought Radhey Upadhyaya to Bareilly. Dressed in a smart brown jacket, the postal worker says he heard Rahul's great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru speak in 1956. And he came to Rahul's rally to show his loyalty to India's first family.
"No one else has made sacrifices for this country like [the Gandhis]," he says.