Enigmatic Rahul Gandhi prepares for key party role

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2005, 12:00am

After spending a year learning the ropes as a member of parliament, Rahul Gandhi's 'education' is drawing to a close as the heir to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty gets ready to establish himself in a key party role.

Speculation is mounting that he will probably be made general secretary of the Congress party in the next couple of months, making him the second-most-powerful person in the party after his mother, Sonia Gandhi, who is party president.

Although no Congress politician will confirm this outright, party spokesman Ambika Soni said: 'The party wants him to take on a senior role in the organisation. General secretary? Why not? With internal elections on in the party organisation, it's likely to happen soon.'

With his high-profile political debut last April, Mr Gandhi, 36, finally put paid to the endless speculation that his more extroverted sister Priyanka would be the next-generation Gandhi to lead the party.

But for a year he has been almost invisible. Apart from one speech in parliament, he has been nursing his constituency of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh or travelling the country to learn about social issues.

This 'education' has been necessary because of his personality - a political novice - and his sequestered upbringing - he and Priyanka were pulled out of school the day their grandmother, prime minister Indira Gandhi, was assassinated in 1984. Tutors taught the children at home. After his father and former prime minister Rajiv was assassinated in 1991, security was stepped up further.

No one knows what opinions are being shaped in his mind. Secrecy surrounds his itinerary. Contact with journalists has been sporadic, requests for interviews denied. From information that has trickled out, it seems he is earnest and a good listener.

Judging by the people he chooses to meet, social issues, the environment, wildlife and aviation are of particular interest.

'I've always found him affable and approachable in Parliament,' said journalist Vinod Sharma. 'He has a good memory for faces. And with farmers in villages he has a common touch. He can sit on the floor and have a cup of tea with them.'

Analysts warn that as Congress general secretary, his task would be daunting - to revive a very sick party.

'The Congress is in a disastrous state,' said analyst Mahesh Rangarajan. 'In large areas of India, it is defunct or moribund. It won the last election purely by default by cobbling together a coalition. It's losing deposits in by-election after by-election.'

Signs of a more visible Rahul Gandhi are emerging. Once the monsoon is over, he is expected to tour Uttar Pradesh to boost the party's image. His visit to Kabul this past weekend with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is another indicator. The moment Mr Gandhi takes on a bigger role, expectations will rise.

'If he succeeds in reviving the party, it will be linked to him. If he fails, it will be delinked. He can't be seen to have failed,' said columnist Neerja Chowdury.

His biggest advantage is time. India has hardly any politicians below the age of 45. Given that almost half the country's 1-billion-strong population is below the age of 20, if Mr Gandhi manages to strike a chord with young Indians, the sheer size of his following could make up for his apparent artlessness.