Reproduced from The New York Times
By JIM YARDLEY
Published: June 4, 2010
AHRAURA, India — Rahul Gandhi’s helicopter descends out of the boiling afternoon sky and a restless, sweat-soaked crowd of 100,000 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.
A helicopter carried Rahul Gandhi above a rally in May in Ahraura, India. It is rumored that he might become prime minister.
Mr. Gandhi 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, Mr. Gandhi 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 declared to loud cheers, speaking for about 15 minutes before he left, waving through the window of his helicopter. “I can come with you anywhere and everywhere to fight with you.”
India is Mr. Gandhi’s family inheritance. Seemingly the only uncertainty is when he will collect it. He holds no major post in government, yet rumors persist that the governing Indian National Congress Party — whose president is his mother, Sonia Gandhi — might install him as prime minister before the current government expires in 2014. The job’s current occupant, Manmohan Singh, recently had to bat away retirement questions.
Yet despite his aura of inevitability, Mr. Gandhi 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 belly — 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 schemes while also pursuing pro-growth policies. But it holds power only with the support of fickle coalition partners.
Mr. Gandhi is using his enormous popularity to broaden the party’s political base, steering clear of more contentious policy making. That could help position Congress 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 Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, who has met privately with Mr. Gandhi and speaks highly of him. “It is still not apparent to a lot of people what his own deep political convictions are.”
Mr. Gandhi traverses the country, often on secret trips, to recruit as many as 10 million new youth members. His job 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 the Gandhi clan. But Mr. Gandhi has also insisted that the party’s youth organizations hold internal elections for posts and operate as meritocracies.
He also has 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 seen an internal strength in him.”
Mr. Gandhi 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 almost never 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 short video clip of Mr. Gandhi riding his bicycle in New Delhi. Mr. Gandhi confirmed in 2004 that he had a Spanish girlfriend, but whether they remained a couple was unclear.
His advisers say his low profile reflects his desire not to overstep the authority of his organizational position while the secrecy is rooted in security concerns. His grandmother, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated, as was his father, Rajiv Gandhi. (The family is not related to Mohandas Gandhi, considered the father of modern India. Rahul Gandhi’s great-grandfather was Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister and another founding father.) His official residence in New Delhi is heavily fortified and he traveled 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 also to burnish his image. Last spring, he turned down an offer to join Mr. Singh’s cabinet. “They want to keep a certain mystique to him,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst in New Delhi.
Before he entered politics in 2004, winning a parliamentary seat in his father’s old district in Uttar Pradesh, Mr. Gandhi had appeared ambivalent about the family profession. He attended Harvard for three years before transferring to Rollins College in Florida because of security concerns after his father’s death. He earned a master’s degree in development studies at Cambridge and worked in London as a management consultant before returning to India after his mother took over the Congress Party.
Some veteran politicians initially dismissed him as a pappu, the Hindi word for a nice boy, if one who is not too smart. Inside the Congress Party, some leaders had considered his younger sister, Priyanka, a more dynamic politician, but her focus has been on raising her children rather than running for office.
Mr. Gandhi’s breakthrough came during the 2009 elections, when he campaigned across the country and was later credited for the unexpectedly strong showing by Congress.
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, who uses only one name. Analysts say Congress must regain seats in Uttar Pradesh and neighboring Bihar if it wants to achieve a national majority.
“The real test is Uttar Pradesh,” Mr. Rangarajan said. “Everything rests on it. It is the most populous state. It is the demographic center.”
Uttar Pradesh will hold state elections in 2012, and Mr. Gandhi is pushing to unseat Ms. Mayawati. For months, Mr. Gandhi has periodically turned up at villages to share a meal or even spend the night with Dalit families. He told reporters that he did not see people’s castes, only that they were poor.
“When Rahul Gandhi goes to the home of a Dalit to share a meal, Mayawati’s stomach starts itching!” shouted one speaker at the rally.
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 organizations — as opposed to the usual practice of party bosses picking their choices.
Mr. Gandhi’s campaign could eventually threaten entrenched interests within the party, analysts say, which is why, for now, the internal voting is limited to the youth organizations. And his efforts to unseat Ms. Mayawati got off to an inconsistent start. Analysts say the public response to his recruitment efforts in Uttar Pradesh had been tepid before his latest trip.
Ultimately, analysts say, Mr. Gandhi will have to reveal more about himself than his just organizational vision. He has traveled widely and met with business or political leaders. When Bill Gates recently visited India, he joined Mr. Gandhi in a village. In Egypt, Mr. Gandhi 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.