On the campaign with Rahul Gandhi

Andrew North reports from the rally

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"We've come to see the helicopter," said two friends matter-of-factly as they waited for Rahul Gandhi to arrive at a political rally in Ghaziabad, near Delhi, this weekend.

The atmosphere was a little flat, with the warm-up speakers struggling to provoke much return volume from a crowd that contained more than a few dozing heads.

It was in stark contrast to an open-air rally in Delhi a few days earlier for Mr Gandhi's main challenger, Narendra Modi, where supporters chanted his name with frenzied devotion for hours before his arrival.

But as the first thwack, thwack of the rotors sliced through the warm afternoon over Ghaziabad, there was a surge of excitement.

Congress party supporters leapt onto chairs for a better view. Nearby rooftops filled with local people straining to see the helicopter descend.

They were all empty again though by the time Mr Gandhi started speaking.

Discouraging start

In his defence, he was on opposition turf in this mixed urban constituency - the incumbent is a senior figure in Mr Modi's BJP.

But it was a discouraging start for the latest scion of the Gandhi dynasty to front the Congress party, already weighed down by the perception that it is on the ropes after a decade in power.

The party is gambling on making him the sole face of its campaign, in effect airbrushing out the people who have actually been running the country and are most associated with the corruption scandals and wheezing economy that have brought the Congress low.

Rahul Gandhi campaign helicopter Rahul Gandhi's helicopter arrives at the public meeting in Ghaziabad

Neither his mother and party leader, Sonia Gandhi, nor the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, feature on its core election posters, leaving Mr Gandhi's youthful features, often trendily unshaven, beaming out alone.

But although he looks cheerful on the posters, he hasn't seemed so happy in person about being the frontman.

In his only television interview so far (his only interview in the 10 years since he became an MP) Mr Gandhi gave the impression he was doing the job because his birth gave him no choice, rather than because of any ambition. And his performance was widely slated.

Polite reception

Even now, he is not officially Congress' prime ministerial candidate - reportedly at his mother's insistence, which Mr Modi seized on as proof of the party's "imminent defeat".

Speaking in public Mr Gandhi comes across well and as a likeable and caring man.

There was real affection for him among many in the audience.

"We need him because he is young, not like the old men in the cabinet," said one enthusiastic supporter in the separate women's enclosure at the front. "He is the only male politician who understands the issue of women's safety," said another.

They clapped when he pointed to the enclosure and reeled off one of his regular lines, that "India will not be a superpower until it empowers its women".

He promised to improve India's creaking education system and that "everything made in China today would be made in India tomorrow".

But the applause was polite rather than adoring.

His problem is that the Congress has had 10 years to do all this - even if he wasn't in charge.

And if it is defeated in May, many predict the end of the Gandhi family's grip on the party too.

Andrew North Article written by Andrew North Andrew North South Asia correspondent

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