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Rahul Gandhi steps up to the plate

Publication Date : 28-01-2014


For many years after entering politics, India's Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi seemed ill at ease addressing a crowd; he often read haltingly from a sheet of paper.

But in recent months, Gandhi has grown more confident, even assertive. He no longer appears uncomfortable addressing a huge audience or the media.

On the contrary, at a party meeting two weeks ago that many thought was a coming of age for the 42-year-old member of one of India's oldest political dynasties, he spoke with conviction, blasting the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a marketing genius that could sell combs to bald men.

"We are warriors and we will go into battle knowing what we stand for," he thundered.

Those within the Congress said that they had expected Gandhi to step up to the plate.

"I was not so surprised that when Rahul got his opportunity, he established his leadership," said senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar.

Even Congress watchers felt a change in the politician, often referred to as the reluctant prince. "There is a feeling now in the party that it can work. He can lead the party," said Rasheed Kidwai, journalist and author of books on the Congress party. "At least we are seeing some promise."

Recently, Gandhi has highlighted the achievements of the government, brought in younger politicians like Sachin Pilot as spokesmen, increased his interaction with both the people and the media, and has stepped in to reverse unpopular decisions of the government including an ordinance to shield politicians who have been convicted of crimes.

He has also decided that in 15 constituencies, candidates for the general election would be chosen after getting feedback from village heads and party workers, and that the party manifesto will be created after feedback from the public.

There has been little doubt that the Gandhi scion, whose father Rajiv, grandmother Indira and great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru were all former Indian prime ministers, would lead the Congress party.

While he seemed reluctant to play an active role in the party for years after entering politics in 2004, Gandhi was made vice-president of the party last year.
Since then, he has slowly moved into its spotlight.

And even though he was not named the party's candidate for prime minister, there is little doubt among Congress leaders that he is the natural heir.

The Congress too is helping with the image building.

Over the weekend, Gandhi urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to give minority status to the Jain community so it can qualify for welfare schemes, and the government obliged immediately.

Just days earlier, he had asked the government to increase the number of subsidised gas cylinders, used by households for cooking in India, from nine to 12. It happened almost immediately.

"The Rahul era has started. He is much more forthcoming. He is not shying away from responsibilities like in the earlier years," said Dr N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman of the Centre for Media Studies in Delhi. "Does it give him an edge over other competitors - that is the question. He has yet to go further in terms of talking more about issues concerning the people."

Gandhi's main rivals are BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, a political veteran and a powerful orator, and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, just three years older than Gandhi and with just a year of political experience.

Modi, 63, has years of experience heading a state government and, since he took over, the BJP has pulled ahead in most opinion polls.

Questions remain about Gandhi's ability to revive the fortunes of his party, which just received a drubbing in last year end's state-level polls.

"Actually the worries of the Congress cannot be solved by a single person. The credibility of this government is low and public confidence has eroded," said Uttar Pradesh-based analyst Sudhir Panwar.

"The main challenge for Rahul Gandhi is to stop the further decay but the erosion is so much you can't expect wonders in three to four months."

Kidwai said: "The talk doing the rounds is that he will at the least make a good opposition leader."


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