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The emerging face of Indian politics

Marc Smith is deputy editor of Families in Business.

Despite a cushioned upbringing as a member of India’s foremost political Gandhi family, Rahul Gandhi looks set to step out of the wings and transform the Indian National Congress party. It’s a daunting task – requiring more than his movie star good looks, says Marc Smith

India's Nehru–Gandhi dynasty, one of the world's foremost political families, has suffered its fair share of glory and heartbreak since Jawaharlal Nehru became the country's first prime minister in 1947. Sixty years on and the Indian National Congress (INC), the party synonymous with the family name, is hoping that the latest scion will make his "Big Leap Forward" into major league politics.

Rahul Gandhi, 36, is being heavily tipped to assume a more prominent role within the party that is desperately in need of him. The leadership of the INC, which was the dominant force in Indian politics following independence from the British and Nehru's subsequent accession to the head of state, has been held by Indira and Rajiv Gandhi – respectively Rahul's grandmother and father. The party hit an all-time low in the 1998 elections under the leadership of non-family member Sitaram Kesri. Sonia Gandhi, Rahul's mother, took the reins on the back of this defeat and led a coalition of 14 disparate parties to victory in the 2004 general election, when Rahul was first elected to parliament as an MP for Amethi in the Uttar Pradesh region.

Family pressure
"Sonia Ghandi is very keen on dynastic succession and she sees to it that the party prevents any young leaders from achieving publicity and prominence," says Professor James Manor, an expert in Indian politics at the University of Sussex. "The culture [of the INC] since 1980 is to accept unquestioningly that a member of this family must lead the party."

Whereas his mother was reluctant to take to the helm – she suffered from the "controversy" of being Italian and declining to take the chairmanship of the parliamentary party – Rahul is said to be much more keen, although he is biding his time. Having studied at Harvard and Trinity College, Cambridge – where he used a false name but failed to complete his degree – the young Rahul worked in London for a strategy consultancy firm before returning to India to start a software company in 2002. But it is events further back in his childhood that perhaps give the biggest clue as to why he feels he has something to prove in politics and why, equally, he is agonising over when to do it. As a 14-year old he lost his grandmother, the then prime minister, who was assassinated by militants in 1984. Just seven years later tragedy struck again as militants murdered his father, who had left the post of prime minister in 1989.

All in a name
Rahul's upbringing was consequently overshadowed by strict security and he is notoriously shy of speaking to the media, which has led some critics to dismiss him as being able to offer nothing more than his infamous surname. Others are calling for the party to modernise and leave the Nehru–Gandhi family behind altogether. "Several extremely effective politicians at the regional level, and one at the national level, have jumped ship to form their own parties," says Manor, "so the party has been deprived of some talent, while others who remain in the party are quietly discontented."

However, there is no getting away from the fact that the name does carry weight – a couple were arrested in December for fraudulently using Rahul's name to influence the sanctioning of a US visa for a client of their jewellery business. Opposition parties, meanwhile, despite pouring scorn on the dynastic legacy, remain powerless to stop the family's ability "to inspire popular confidence", according to Manor.

But it is the poor whom India's politicians need to appease more than any other. Despite India's growing reputation as a superpower in waiting, the levels of poverty remain startlingly high, and the next generation of leaders needs to devise a way of filtering the growth down to the have-nots. While keynote speeches on the hot topics of the day, such as globalisation and Kashmir, may be missing from his fledgling political career, Rahul has been doing his best at a grassroots level to show that he is a man of the people – it is reported that his campaigning in the run up to the 2004 elections entailed many meetings with local villagers in their huts.

Today, 30,000 posters adorn the city of Ludhiana pleading with Rahul to take the next step and lead the party in an area that used to be its stronghold, but where it is now reduced to the role of an also-ran. While his mother is keen for her son to step into a more senior role, the man himself has remained tight-lipped. Nevertheless, there are not many who refuse to believe that the next generation of the dynasty is about to enter stage left.

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