Baton of power may soon pass to Rahul Gandhi

NEW DELHI Sat May 16, 2009 6:30pm IST

Rahul Gandhi speaks during an election campaign rally in Amritsar in this May 11, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Munish Sharma

Rahul Gandhi speaks during an election campaign rally in Amritsar in this May 11, 2009 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Munish Sharma

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The Congress Party's victory in the general election may see the baton of power soon passed to Rahul Gandhi, a son of India's most famous political dynasty and now tipped as a future prime minister.

While 76-year-old Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is expected to stay in office, it is the 38-year-old bachelor who is being talked about as Congress's leader-in-waiting, bringing the same draw to Indian politics as a young Kennedy does in the United States.

"Voices are already there. It's a question of time," senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh told local television when asked about Gandhi's future as leader.

Gandhi, whose father, grandmother and great grandfather were all prime ministers, was not the party's main candidate but he had become the most visible campaigner of Congress to win over Indian youth as well as millions of poor villagers.

Like the Bhuttos of Pakistan and the Bandaranaike family of Sri Lanka, dynasties that have dominated South Asian politics since independence from Britain, Gandhi's name brought crowds and publicity.

"You cannot keep the Gandhi family away from Indian politics," said Congress supporter Avinash Chaturvedi as crowds let off firecrackers and played drums outside the party's headquarters.

"Rahul Gandhi has surprised everyone and this result proves his huge popularity ... The party is now reaping the reward."

In this election, the Congress party youth leader had put his reputation on the line, criss-crossing India by helicopter.

His refusal to allow Congress to ally with many regional parties in northern India despite pressure from senior party officials appears to have paid dividends. He insisted Congress should fight alone, free of compromises with regional chieftains.

Gandhi sees himself as a democratic reformer among the elderly politicians, using tech-savvy blogging and texting to win over the 100 million first-time voters aged between 18 and 24.

His boyish looks may have won over many voters in an election in which the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party was led by the 81-year-old L.K Advani.

Over the last year, Gandhi has made well-publicised visits to poor villagers, often staying the night in farmers' homes under the glare of camera lights.

NEW MINISTER?

With the prime minister undergoing heart surgery in January, many Indians feel Gandhi will replace Singh sometime in the next five years.

Singh said on Saturday he would try and persuade Gandhi to join the cabinet. Observers say he could be education minister.

"It is my wish that he should be in the cabinet. But I will have to persuade him," Singh told reporters.

Gandhi is not without his detractors. A few weeks ago he was being slammed for what was seen as a lacklustre campaign.

Critics say the political freshman is too young to deal with complex problems like Pakistan, and that as a member of an elite family he was disconnected from much of India.

But his mother Sonia Gandhi, Congress party head and India's most powerful politician, has helped push him to the forefront.

Unlike many Indian politicians, he has time on his hands.

"India is a young country. What India youth wants is empowerment," he told reporters after one campaign rally.

"We are not going to see it after three months, but give it seven years," he added, referring to the rise of a new generation of younger politicians in the Congress party.

(Additional reporting by Bappa Majumdar and Himangshu Watts)

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