News / Asia

Mother's Absence Provides Political Opening for Another Gandhi

Rahul Gandhi waves during an election campaign rally ahead of state assembly elections in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, April 6, 2011
Rahul Gandhi waves during an election campaign rally ahead of state assembly elections in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, April 6, 2011

Indian Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi is still recuperating from an undisclosed illness in the United States. During her absence, her son is expected to assume a more prominent role in leading the country’s ruling party. Rahul Gandhi has long been seen as a future prime minister in a country where the Congress Party relies heavily on having a member of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty at its helm.

The Congress Party says Sonia Gandhi’s surgery in the United States has been successful. While the Party has disclosed little about her condition, she is expected to be away for three to four weeks.

While India’s most powerful politician recovers overseas, the focus at home is on the role that her son, 41-year-old Rahul Gandhi, will play in future in Congress Party affairs.

Sonia Gandhi has named him as part of a four-member panel to steer the party in her absence. The other three are close advisers of Ms. Gandhi, but not the most senior leaders of the party.

Many political commentators see this as a signal that Rahul Gandhi is now a step closer to moving to the top rungs of Indian politics.  

Rahul Gandhi heads the youth wing of the Congress Party. He is popularly known as the crown prince of Indian politics and a prime-minister in waiting.

The head of the Center for Media Studies in New Delhi, Bhaskara Rao, says his appointment to oversee Congress Party affairs is significant.   

“It indicates the beginning of a transition. It only signifies the beginning of the new era of the youth of India, what is already known," he said. "The beginning of it has been indicated." said.

Led by the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, the Congress Party has ruled India for most of the six decades since independence. Sonia Gandhi, widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, is widely credited with reviving the party after it lost power in 1996 and steering it to victory in two successive elections.

She declined becoming prime minister after questions were raised about her Italian origins and handpicked Manmohan Singh, a family loyalist, for the post. But she is widely regarded as wielding the real political power.

During the last year, Prime Minister Singh has been battered by a series of corruption scandals in his administration and there has been speculation whether Rahul Gandhi will take the top job if the party returns to power in the 2014 general elections.

In recent years, Gandhi has focused on reviving the party in states where it has been losing support. He has traveled across rural areas to campaign for the rights of farmers and tribal people who are fighting the takeover of their land for industrial and mining projects.

Rahul Gandhi’s political mettle will be tested next year when the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, governed by a rival regional party, heads for state elections.

Political commentator, B.G. Verghese, with the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, says Rahul Gandhi has yet to make his mark in politics.

“He has got to prove himself. He is a bright young man, he has a lot of energy and dynamism and a certain charisma. He is something of a hands-on person. He gets mixed up with the hoi polloi [mingles with the public], at least on occasion. All that goes in building a popular figure, but that does not add up to being prime minister," said Verghese.

But in India, Sonia Gandhi’s illness has triggered talk of Rahul Gandhi playing a pivotal role on the national political stage.

A recent poll showed him as the favorite to be the next prime minister, with no Congress Party leader presenting any challenge to him. The Congress Party has long faced charges of being dynastic, accused of only being able to unite behind a member of the Gandhi family.

Rahul Gandhi represents the fourth generation of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty. He is the great grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister. Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, and grandson Rajiv Gandhi also ruled India.

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