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Congress wonders if India needs another Gandhi
NEW DELHI |
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Important voices are being raised in favour of Rahul Gandhi as India's next prime minister, as the ruling party looks to its family dynasty to fill a leadership vacuum as a general election approaches.
"What is wrong in wanting a young person like Rahul Gandhi to be Congress's prime ministerial candidate?" Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh, one of the ruling Congress party's elder statesmen, told Indian Express newspaper.
Similar comments from Singh were widely reported across India's media. They were followed by another statement of support, this time from Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi, one of the government's key regional allies.
The statements come as Congress searches for a candidate to lead it into an election expected sometime between October and May, a vote that will pit the left-of-centre party against the more pro-market Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
"Congress is throwing out trial balloons," said political analyst Pran Chopra. "It's making an investment in Rahul."
Many in the ruling Congress see Rahul, the young heir of the Nehru-Gandhi family, as the best hope for a party stung by losses in state elections, perceived weak leadership from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and rising food prices.
"The statements indicate that many in Congress seem to be unhappy with Manmohan Singh," said political commentator Kuldip Nayar.
The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has ruled for most of the time since independence. Rahul's great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru was the first prime minister in 1947. His grandmother Indira Gandhi and father Rajiv also ran India, before both were assassinated.
But critics see Congress's reliance on one family as marking its failure to find a leader of stature, and a sign it is out of fresh ideas for ways to push through a host of reforms needed for India to keep its economy booming.
Indeed, there appear to be few other candidates. Manmohan Singh has lost support as his government flounders. The respected Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram has also been mentioned, but is seen as more of a technocrat than a charismatic politician.
Rahul's mother Sonia Gandhi, who heads the ruling coalition and is seen as India's most powerful politician, turned down the post after the last election. Her Italian birth continues to be a huge obstacle.
"Congress is surrounded by so many problems, like losses in state elections, food prices, they also need to divert attention, and look ahead to the future," said Nayar. "They don't have a leader to project, so the dynasty comes to the rescue."
The bespectacled Rahul, a Cambridge-educated business consultant, surprised India by contesting polls in 2004, ahead of his more charismatic sister Priyanka. He entered parliament after winning a seat in the Hindi heartland state of Uttar Pradesh.
Rahul, 37, was made one of Congress' general-secretaries last year, a post seen as grooming him for a shot at the prime ministership in the future. He has been reportedly trying to freshen up the party's organisation, especially its youth wing.
Congress has credited Rahul with expanding a rural jobs scheme to cover the whole country.
He has also been credited with expanding a government scheme to waive billions of dollars of farmers' debts and has won media coverage for visits to the homes of "untouchables".
His youth is also seen as an advantage in an election in which the BJP will be headed by the 80-year-old L.K. Advani.
But this comes amid criticisms Rahul is not up to the job.
He appeared to have bombed last year, leading Congress in an unsuccessful campaign in Uttar Pradesh state elections.
Leftist parties, which prop up Congress in parliament, distrust the upper class Gandhi, political commentators say. Controversial remarks over India's history last year embarrassed his own party and annoyed Pakistan.
"Apart from the dynasty, he is seen as not having many plus points," said Nayar.
For now, Rahul appears reluctant to take the reins of power, and his mother said last year he had yet to "prove" himself.
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