India's princeling Rahul Gandhi seeks 'poison' of power
Rahul Gandhi greets supporters during an election rally at the Juranti Tea Garden, some 80kms from Siliguri, on March 25, 2014 - by Diptendu Dutta
If polls are to believed, the 43-year-old is about to lead his Congress party to a crushing defeat when India holds elections from April 7.
In public, the scion of India's most famous dynasty refuses to contemplate defeat at the hands of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and its right-wing leader, Narendra Modi.
But most analysts believe that Gandhi knows he hasn't a hope of victory, and some question whether a man apparently born to rule really wants the job.
"He is not desperate as he knows his father became prime minister too early ... but I think there's no easy choices in politics," said Rasheed Kidwai, who has written several books about Congress and the Gandhis.
Modi, son of a tea-seller, is India's ultimate rags-to-riches story.
Gandhi was born into a life of privilege, but his younger years were cloaked in tragedy.
- Tragic upbringing -
He was 14 when his grandmother, prime minister Indira Gandhi, was slain by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 as revenge for the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
His father Rajiv Gandhi was then pressed to take over as premier. Seven years later, Rajiv was assassinated by a Tamil suicide bomber.
"In my life I have seen my grandmother die, I have seen my father die, I have seen my grandmother go to jail and I have actually been through a tremendous amount of pain as a child," Rahul Gandhi said in a recent TV interview.
"When these things happen to you, what I had to be scared of I lost. There is absolutely nothing I am scared of."
With Gandhi studying at Harvard, it was left to his Italian-born mother Sonia to pick up the mantle and lead Congress back to power in 2004 before declining to become premier.
After office jobs in London and Mumbai, Rahul Gandhi was sucked into politics himself and entered parliament in 2004 in a seat vacated by his mother, who remains the Congress president.
After a stint as head of its youth wing, his profile rose further when he became Congress vice president in January 2013. But he has still struggled to carve out a reputation as a politician in his own right.
It has not helped that his younger sister Priyanka brims with the charisma Rahul is accused of lacking. A leaked US diplomatic cable, written in 2007, said he was "widely viewed as an empty suit".
As outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh floundered in his second term, Congress looked to Rahul, hoping some of the Gandhi magic would rub off.
- 'Power is poison' -
After becoming Congress number two, Gandhi raised eyebrows by declaring the "power so many people seek is a poison".
He rejected offers to enter government, instead promoting causes such as right-to-information legislation he regards as key to curbing rampant corruption and a food security bill that critics say India can ill afford.
He has been at his most impassioned defending the secular tradition personified by his great-grandfather Jawaharal Nehru, India's first prime minister whose socialist model framed the post-independence economy.
A Hindu nationalist with a reputation for championing big business as chief minister of Gujarat state, Modi is the antithesis of Nehru.
Gandhi has called the election "a clash between these two ideas of India", hammering Modi over communal riots that killed more than 1,000 people -- mostly Muslims -- in Gujarat in 2002.
Kidwai said Gandhi fundamentally objects to Modi's message that India needs a strongman leader, seeing it as a dangerous fallacy to believe "one man can solve the country's problems".
A recent survey found that while 78 percent of Indians view Modi positively, Gandhi's rating was only 50 percent.
The polls also indicate Congress could lose half of its 204 seats in the 543-member parliament.
But such a humiliation will not necessarily end the career of a relative political novice. Gandhi has time on his side if he does want to take on the challenge of rebuilding his family's political vehicle from the wilderness of opposition.
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