Gandhi Jnr trump card in battle for huge state

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 March, 2007, 12:00am

Dynasty's latest member fails to shine on tour ahead of Uttar Pradesh polls

Rahul Gandhi, the bright hope of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, made his biggest and most important appearance on the political stage this week with a three-day tour of Uttar Pradesh ahead of state elections.

The 37-year-old, who many believe is being groomed to be the Congress Party's prime ministerial candidate in 2009, is running the party's campaign in Uttar Pradesh. More than 120 million voters in India's most-populous state go to the polls in a vast, seven-stage election starting on April 7.

On Monday, Mr Gandhi visited Deobande, a Muslim centre, where he donned a topi hat and cast himself as a proponent of secularism in the style of his ancestors.

'Do not forget that I am the grandson of Indira Gandhi,' he said to rapturous applause.

From there, it was a high-speed dash from town to town, followed by a convoy of jeeps carrying journalists, party members and curious local residents who are wealthy enough to own a car.

Mr Gandhi's campaign in Uttar Pradesh is his first big political test and may turn out to be one of his toughest. Congress has not ruled the state for 15 years, and in the last state election, in 2002, it garnered a paltry 25 out of 403 possible seats.

Congress hopes the Gandhi dynasty's charisma will transform its fortunes in the state, held in the grip of two caste-based parties.

The ruling Samajwadi Party (SP), which pledges allegiance to the lowly Yadav caste, and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which claims to serve the Dalit - formerly known as untouchables - are likely to dominate. Since neither of them can form a majority alone, they will have to cobble together an alliance with other parties.

To win the seats that would allow Congress to join such an alliance, Mr Gandhi knows he must appeal to Muslim voters, who constitute 18 per cent of the state's population and are not firmly tied to either the SP or the BSP.

Mr Gandhi is the son of late former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and his Italian-born wife Sonia, now leader of Congress. He now holds his father's seat in Parliament. His grandmother, Indira, took over the top job from her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India's first prime minister.

Rahul Gandhi seemed more comfortable meeting supporters on the road than he did speaking at organised rallies. Though his father and grandmother were assassinated, he seemed to disregard such fears as he hopped out of his car to wave and shake hands, a broad smile upon his face.

Addressing large crowds, his charm was less apparent.

'Rahul has made no public impact', said Mulayam Singh Yadav, chief minister of the state and leader of the SP.

But even in Uttar Pradesh, where Congress has fared so badly, the Gandhi name still worked its magic.

Nadeem Warsi, a kite-string maker, waited in the hot sunshine in the town of Bareilly for three hours before learning that Rahul Gandhi's speech had been cancelled. But he had seen Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi 'years ago' and his mind was made up: 'I will always vote for Congress.'