Rahul Gandhi’s helicopter descends out of the boiling afternoon sky, and a restless, sweat-soaked crowd of 1,00,000 people suddenly surges to life. Men rush forward in the staggering heat. Teenage boys wave a white bedsheet bearing a faintly cheeky request: “We want to meet the prince of India”.
Rahul climbs onto a special viewing stand in this isolated corner of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, and offers a boyish wave. Not yet 40, Rahul is the great-grandson of India’s first prime minister, the grandson of India’s fourth prime minister and the son of India’s seventh prime minister. His audience includes some of the poorest people in India.
“I’m standing here with you,” he declares to loud cheers, speaking for about 15 minutes before he departs, waving through the window of his chopper. “I can come with you anywhere and everywhere to fight with you.”
India is Rahul Gandhi’s family inheritance. Seemingly the only uncertainty is when he will collect it. He holds no major post in government, yet rumours persist that the governing party, the Congress — whose president is his mother, Sonia Gandhi — might install him as prime minister before the present government expires in 2014. The job’s current occupant, Manmohan Singh, recently had to bat away retirement questions.
Yet despite his aura of inevitability, Rahul largely remains an enigma. India is an emerging power, facing myriad domestic and international issues, but he remains deliberately aloof from daily politics. His thoughts on many major issues — as well as the temperature of the fire in his stomach — remain mostly unknown.
For the Congress party, that may be an advantage. The party has been the top vote getter in the last two national elections by appealing to the poor through welfare programmes while also pursuing pro-growth policies, a formula it calls ‘inclusive growth’. But it holds power only with the support of fickle coalition partners.
Rahul is using his enormous popularity to broaden the party’s political base, steering clear of more contentious policy making. That could help position the Congress party to win an outright national majority — though it does little to illuminate what he would do with a mandate if he won it.
“What most people still have a hard time figuring out is, ‘What is Rahul Gandhi’s vision?’” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, who has met privately with Rahul and speaks highly of him. “It is still not apparent to a lot of people what his own deep political convictions are.”
Rahul has recruited as many as 10 million new youth members for the party, traversing the country to do so, often on secret trips. His role is also to try to take back crucial strongholds like Uttar Pradesh in the north, which his family claims as its home base but which the Congress party does not control.
Most Indian political parties are internally undemocratic and often dominated by political dynasties, none more famous than the Gandhi clan. But Rahul has also insisted that the party’s youth organisations hold internal elections for posts and operate as meritocracies.
He has also succeeded far more than other Indian politicians in tapping into the hunger for generational change in India, analysts say, and has positioned himself as a change agent for the future, despite his obvious debts to India’s political past. He is trying to bypass the identity politics of caste and appeal to young people of all backgrounds.
“We youth are with Rahul!” said Manonit Garharabari, 23, at the rally. “The whole youth is with Rahul. We see an internal strength in him.”Omnipresent
Rahul is omnipresent in the media, and his face is plastered on untold numbers of billboards and political posters. His public image is as a humble, serious man, if somewhat shy, even as his name invariably tops polls ranking the country’s ‘hottest’ or ‘most eligible’ bachelors. Yet he rarely grants interviews, including for this article, and only occasionally conducts news conferences. Reporters are often tipped to his appearances at one village or another, but often all they get is a photograph — which inevitably appears in newspapers around India.
His daily life is cloaked in secrecy, which makes it an irresistible if elusive topic for the Indian media. One news station ran a lengthy report after obtaining a 10-second video clip of Rahul riding his bicycle in New Delhi. Rahul confirmed in 2004 that he had a Spanish girlfriend, but whether they remain a couple remains unclear.
Security concerns partly explain the secrecy. His grandmother, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated, as was his father, Rajiv Gandhi. His official residence in Delhi is heavily fortified, and he travelled to the rally in Ahraura with a special black-clad security detail.
Yet analysts say his inaccessibility is also a deliberate effort to protect him from taking unpopular public stands and to burnish his image. Last spring, he turned down an offer to join Singh’s cabinet. “They want to keep a certain mystique to him,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst.
Before he entered politics in 2004, winning a parliamentary seat in his father’s former district in Uttar Pradesh, Rahul had appeared ambivalent about the family profession. Some veteran politicians called him a ‘pappu,’ a Hindi word for a nice boy, if one who is not too smart. By the 2009 elections, Rahul had emerged as a political force, appearing across the country and earning credit for the unexpectedly strong showing by the Congress party.
Some analysts interpreted the 2009 voting results as evidence that the clout of regional, caste-based parties was waning. Over two decades, these parties splintered national politics and gave rise to leaders like Mayawati, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and India’s most powerful Dalit politician. Analysts say Congress must regain seats in UP and neighbouring Bihar if it wants to achieve a national majority.
“The real test is UP,” said Rangarajan. “Everything rests on it. It is the most populous state. It is the demographic Centre.” UP will hold state elections in 2012, and Rahul is pushing to unseat Mayawati. For months, he has periodically turned up at villages to share a meal or even spend the night with Dalit families.
His youth drives are conducted state-by-state, and he has hired a nonprofit group of former election commissioners to oversee the internal elections for posts in the party youth organisations — as opposed to the usual practice of party bosses picking their choices.
Ultimately, analysts say, Rahul will have to reveal more about himself than his organisational vision. He has travelled widely and often meets with business or political leaders. When Bill Gates recently visited India, he joined Rahul in a village. In Egypt, Rahul has befriended Gamal Mubarak, son and heir apparent of President Hosni Mubarak. In China, he has met Xi Jinping, the man tapped to replace the country’s president and Communist Party leader, Hu Jintao.
It seems he is preparing for the future.