Rise of Gandhi dynasty's 'reluctant prince'

Rahul Gandhi addresses a massive crowd of Congress supporters at Sahaswan, in the Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh.
Rahul Gandhi addresses a massive crowd of Congress supporters at Sahaswan, in the Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh.

RAHUL Gandhi is more than two hours late. Yet still they wait for him: the young men pressed against the makeshift bamboo security railings, the elderly sitting on the dusty ground further back, the late crowded onto rooftop terraces.

In the rural hamlet of Sahaswan, they have come to hear the man they believe will be the next prime minister of the world's largest democracy.

Rahul speaks to the farmers, the shopkeepers, the landless labourers. He tells them he is one of them.

''I come to you. Why? Because I meet you, I speak with you, I take food in your house and drink the well's dirty water. Then if I get ill due to drinking the dirty water of your well, I can realise what problems a poor person can suffer.

''I come to you because I see the country's strength here. I see the power of youth, the future that can transform our country.''

Despite his claims of kinship, Rahul Gandhi's background could not have been more different to those he is addressing. He is the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, the family that has provided India with its prime minister for 37 of its 64 years as an independent nation.

This man is destined, in most Indian eyes, to follow his father, his grandmother and his great-grandfather to the highest office.

But while Rahul Gandhi has had every benefit his privilege and profile could bring, he has also carried their burdens.

This was a young man who lost his grandmother at age 14 to assassins' bullets, and his father seven years later to a suicide bomber.

He had to leave Harvard because he couldn't be kept safe. To this day, a security man with a machinegun stands at the base of the podium whenever he gives a speech.

His critics have labelled him ''the reluctant prince'', and say he is unwilling to take on any real responsibility (currently Rahul's major role is organising the youth wing of the Congress party).

A steady, rather than inspirational, orator, he has neither his great-grandfather's brilliant intellect nor his grandmother's force of personality.

Many believe his younger sister Priyanka would make a better leader, but she has shunned politics.

''Congress insiders complain that [Rahul Gandhi] is a neophyte who does not have what it takes to become prime minister,'' the US charge d'affaires to India, Geoffrey Pyatt, wrote in a 2007 cable published by WikiLeaks.

But Rahul's supporters say he is biding his time.

''There is no suspense about it,'' senior Congress figure Digvijay Singh says. ''He has a role, which is increasing constantly.''

The day will come, Mr Singh says, when Rahul ''has to look after us all''. That day might come sooner than Rahul had planned.

His Italian-born mother Sonia, president of the Congress party and, in reality, the most powerful person in India, has this year suffered an undisclosed but serious illness and is scaling back her public appearances and private politicking. Her son has become ''working president'' of Congress, a dry run for the job he might soon inherit.

There is little ceremony when he arrives at his first campaign stop, Babrala, in a white four-wheel-drive (having flown to Uttar Pradesh from Delhi in a helicopter), and an innocence in the childlike wave he offers the crowd.

At 41, he is still boyish, his perennial 5 o'clock shadow offset by youthful dimples. He wears sneakers and Nike socks, odd accessories for a man building his political persona as the friend to India's rural poor, who are almost never in anything more substantial than sandals.

This is the first of four rallies he will speak at today, and each receives the same message: that he, and his party, are the ones who will bring prosperity to India's villages, farms and markets.

''Today our country is growing fast and there is no dearth of money,'' he says. ''We send money for the poor, but money is not reaching to you as it's stolen along the way … The poor, the unemployed, the farmers suffer because of it.''

In the crush of humanity walking out of the square after his speech, 25-year-old Mohammed Akram tells me Rahul Gandhi will unite India. ''He has the power to bring all the people together, all the people across India, all religions. We have much hope for Rahul Gandhi. He will help us.''

But Rahul is far from universally loved. A recent poll by India Today found 61 per cent of people thought his campaigning in rural areas ''a political stunt''.

At Babrala, Congress scouts have to be sent out in utes to collect more men (political rallies are an almost exclusively male dominion) to fill up the square where Rahul will speak.

Even then, it is little more than half full, and many concede they are just here to see ''a Gandhi'' - a nod to the Kennedy-esque tragic mystique his family carries in this country - rather than out of any support for him.

But at Sahaswan, the town square is filled to overflowing hours before he arrives.

Rahul's current political campaign is focused on India's most populous and politically powerful state, Uttar Pradesh.

Home to 200 million people, it is overwhelmingly rural. Rahul already holds a national seat here (Amethi, once held by his father) but he is concerned, immediately, with the state elections in February next year.

Campaigning against him is the state's Chief Minister Mayawati, a Dalit and the self-styled champion of that caste, formerly known as ''untouchable'', who make up the majority of UP's population.

Her government is bleeding support, wounded by corruption scandals and Mayawati's self-aggrandising style (she is fond of erecting statues of herself).

Rahul's own true ambitions remain inscrutable. He never gives interviews (declining several requests from The Age) and his speeches rarely stray from the Congress line, a careful left-of-centre rhetoric.

But, with his mother fading and his embattled party foundering in government, Rahul is no longer the young man with time on his side.

He has been an MP for seven years. By the same age, his great-grandfather was the president of Congress and deeply involved in midwiving democratic India.

In the town and village squares, they wait. But all of India will not wait for Rahul Gandhi forever, regardless of his famous surname.

Of the man apparently born to lead his country, India is now asking: ''When?''