Indians vote on key election day

India’s ruling Congress party Vice President Rahul Gandhi attends the All India Congress Committee (AICC) meet to prepare for the upcoming polls in New Delhi, India, Friday, Jan. 17, 2014. Some critics have described him as a "reluctant prince" who has shied away from taking full responsibility

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Rahul Gandhi, heir apparent of the powerful Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty which has dominated Indian politics for decades, is facing his biggest test in 2014.

Parliamentary elections are being held from 7 April to 12 May and the ruling Congress Party looks set for an extremely tough race.

Appointed second in command of Congress in January 2013, Mr Gandhi is charged with leading the party into these elections and managing its campaign.

But his task is immense - Congress is bearing the brunt of voter unhappiness over a slowing economy, high inflation and a string of damaging corruption scandals. Opinion polls predict a debacle for the debacle for the party.

For the past several weeks, Mr Gandhi has been criss-crossing the length and breadth of India, addressing election rallies and holding meetings with party workers and supporters.

Rahul Gandhi has long been seen as a prime-minister-in-waiting but with the charismatic and populist BJP candidate Narendra Modi having declared his hand, Congress have refrained from naming Mr Gandhi as their prime ministerial candidate.

Although they insist they need not declare candidates before results are in, analysts say the move is aimed at protecting one of the party's main assets at a time when the party seems set to lose.

Emerging from shadows

Many in the party ranks have long clamoured for a bigger role for Rahul Gandhi.

But there have also been questions about how eager he has been to embrace this role. Critics have often described him as the "reluctant prince" who has been the de facto number two for a long time, wielding the power, but shying away from responsibility.

Also, his campaigning in last year's crucial state elections failed to deliver the votes, raising further questions about his leadership abilities.

In his only television interview earlier this year Mr Gandhi gave the impression he was leading the party because his birth gave him no choice, rather than because of any ambition.

The son of murdered former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and his Italian-born widow Sonia, Rahul has been steadily building up his own political profile as he strives to emerge from his parents' shadow.

He was born on 19 June 1970 and went to the finest Indian schools, going on to study economics in the US and work in London before returning to work in Mumbai in 2002.

Rahul was seen as a shy man whose interests lay more in cricket matches and the outdoors than in political life.

His charismatic and popular sister Priyanka was thought to be more likely to take over the family's mantle of power.

His decision to enter formal politics before the 2004 general election therefore took many by surprise.

That year, Mr Gandhi stood for parliament and won the traditional family constituency of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, which his father had once held.

In September 2007 Rahul was named as the party's secretary general, with his mother Sonia remaining as president, and in January last year, he was appointed the vice-president of the party.

He represents the fourth generation of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has led the Congress party, and India, for much of the time since independence from Britain in 1947.

His grandmother, Indira, was another prime minister, also assassinated, while his great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was independent India's first leader.

'Backroom operator'

Why Rahul, rather than Priyanka, answered the party's call for a new generation of Gandhis is still not fully clear.

Many within the Congress party saw his move into politics as positive, although the decision was seen by some to highlight the party's lack of alternatives and its continuing reliance on the Nehru-Gandhi family for leadership and direction.

Whatever the concerns, expectations were high that he would play a major role in the government and the party. Despite his "dark horse" image, he is said by some analysts to have a detailed political knowledge and to be a practised backroom operator.

Although he turned down previous roles to take a prominent role in the party, by 2008 he had kicked off a campaign called the "discovery of India", aimed at winning over hearts and minds and projecting himself as a future leader.

In his campaigning in Uttar Pradesh in the 2012 state elections, he addressed more than 200 rallies, slept in villagers' huts and even grew stubble to give himself more of a "man of the people" look.

Graphic of Nehru-Gandhi dynasty

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