Rahul Gandhi: Congress' favourite son heading for defeat?

Rahul Gandhi waves to supporters, with his sister Priyanka Vadra seated by his side, in Amethi, on Saturday, April 12, 2014 Image copyright AP
Image caption Rahul Gandhi is the main campaigner for his Congress party in the ongoing general election

The hopes of India's Congress party rest on the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, heir to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which has dominated Indian politics for decades. The BBC's Geeta Pandey went to Uttar Pradesh to watch him campaign as he tries to inspire voters in the face of polls predicting defeat.

Nearly 7,000 people have gathered on a pleasant summer day at the Ramlila ground in the town of Pratapgarh for a Congress rally.

Party workers have bussed in supporters from the neighbouring districts too and, as I drive up to the venue, I encounter hundreds of people - men and women, young and old - walking towards the rally grounds.

Mr Gandhi's smiling face greets us from a huge hoarding at the entrance. Inside, the waiting crowd waves party flags, some cheer and clap as candidates from the nearby constituencies take the stage to speak.

Among them is Ravi Kishan, the biggest star of Bhojpuri-language cinema and Congress candidate for Jaunpur.

"Rahul Gandhi could lie around on a beach in Italy or somewhere else in Europe, with a glass of wine by his side," the actor says.

"But he has chosen to be among us," he adds.

Mr Kishan's statement is made to highlight the sacrifice Mr Gandhi is making by exchanging the comforts of the city life for the rough and tumble of Indian politics.

As Mr Gandhi arrives, the crowd surges forward, with many craning their necks to get a better look.

In his 20-minute speech, he lists the achievements of the Congress government in the past 10 years - the rural employment guarantee scheme, the landmark food security bill, the roads and electricity infrastructure the government has built.

Image caption Thousands of people attended Rahul Gandhi's rally in Pratapgarh

He ends by ticking all the right boxes - his wish to see more women in parliament, about the power of the youth, turning India into a manufacturing hub to compete with China, and a promise to create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

After the speech, he scales the security fence to get into a narrow enclosure between the stage and the public; women and men press forward to grab his hands. Some scream out his name to get his attention.

Family matters

Among the crowd is Ram Kumar, a 60-year-old daily wage worker.

"I will definitely vote for him. The Congress party has done a lot for the people here - we've got water, power, better roads because of the party," he says.

Rahul Gandhi is from the first family of Indian politics - his great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru was the first prime minister of independent India, his grandmother Indira and father Rajiv were also prime ministers, and his mother Sonia is now the Congress party president.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption With Sonia Gandhi dogged by health issues, Rahul Gandhi is now leading the Congress party from the front

Last year, he was appointed the party vice-president and, with Mrs Gandhi dogged by health issues, over the past few months, the power has shifted - slowly but steadily - from the mother to the son.

"The transition from the Sonia Congress to Rahul Congress has happened and it has been very smooth," says Rashid Kidwai, senior journalist and author of 24 Akbar Road, a book on the Congress party, and of Sonia Gandhi's biography.

The ongoing general election is being seen as the first major test of Mr Gandhi's leadership.

In the past few weeks, he's traversed the length and breadth of the country, meeting party workers and supporters and addressing election rallies.

A few weeks after the rally in Pratapgarh, Mr Gandhi arrives to a tumultuous welcome in the nearby district of Amethi, the constituency where he is seeking re-election for the third time.

His rivals here are television actress Smriti Irani of the BJP and poet Kumar Vishwas of the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

AAP convenor Pankaj Shukla, who is overseeing Mr Vishwas's campaign, says the people of Amethi are angry with the lack of development in the area.

'Our loss'

At a roadside tea stall in the town, I stop by to speak to a group of local farmers and labourers. The men complain about poverty, bad roads, frequent and long power outages and lack of jobs.

But no one is ready to criticise Mr Gandhi - they talk about the "development work that Rajiv Gandhi did" in Amethi, they applaud the Congress "for not attempting to divide the Hindus and Muslims like the BJP" and they talk about their "emotional attachment with the Gandhi family".

Image caption Ram Kumar says he will definitely vote for the Congress party
Image caption No-one in Amethi is willing to criticise Rahul Gandhi

Sahabakat Mishra says everyone in his village votes for the Congress and he is willing to offer "a personal guarantee" that Mr Gandhi will win with a huge margin of votes.

Farmer Mohammad Naeem Khan says "Rahul will definitely win from Amethi because if he loses, it will be our loss".

In 2004, when Mr Gandhi formally entered politics and contested the election for the first time, many in Amethi said they were electing the PM, not an MP.

"When Mr Gandhi contested for the first time, there was huge enthusiasm for him. There was a lot of hope. He was young, good looking and belonged to the family," says Smita Gupta of the Hindu newspaper.

In 2009, his supporters repeated the same sentiment. Five years later, as yet another election gets underway, they are still clinging on to the hope that their man in Delhi will be the next PM.

But the rest of India is not Amethi. And at the moment, not many are willing to bet on the Congress - or on Mr Gandhi.

'Inarticulate, uninspiring'

The Congress government, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is facing huge voter disenchantment at the slowing economy, corruption scandals and high inflation and all opinion polls are predicting a rout for the party and a massive win for its rival BJP.

"To be fair to Mr Gandhi, the anti-incumbency the Congress is facing has not had anything to do with him," says Ms Gupta.

Critics, however, are less sympathetic and many say he's inarticulate and an uninspiring leader.

Image caption Not many are expecting the Congress party to do well in the general election

"Rahul Gandhi has not been able to click as a leader. He's not acceptable to the country," senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley recently said.

"His communication skills are at best modest. His ability to inspire even the Congress cadre is questionable. His understanding of the economy is suspect," he added.

"Not everyone can be Obama," admits Mr Kidwai but argues that Mr Gandhi has "not done badly at all".

"It is an unfair assessment to blame him for the poor state the Congress is in at the moment. He's been winning his seat for the past 10 years, he's not named in any scam and his personal integrity has never been questioned."

Mr Kidwai says the 2014 election is not the "make or break" election for Mr Gandhi.

In India, where the average age of the cabinet is 65 years and most senior politicians are well into their late 70s and 80s, age is on his side.

"It takes time for leaders to shape up. Mr Gandhi is only 43 years old. He has plenty of time - the make or break election for him could be 2019 or 2024 or even 2029. He will still be under 60," Mr Kidwai says.

Ms Gupta says the Congress is "mentally prepared" that they will not win this election, and even a poor tally will not be a major setback for the Gandhi scion.

"It is unthinkable that the Congress can be led by somebody outside the family. The party centres around the family. After the elections, no matter what the results, Rahul Gandhi will still be calling the shots."

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