Monday 29, May 2023

Rahul Gandhi: ‘Princeling’ heir to once-powerful Indian dynasty

AFP, New Delhi:Being born into India's most famous political dynasty is traditionally a guaranteed ticket to the prime minister's office, but Rahul Gandhi's chances of fulfilling his family destiny now look smaller than ever.

The 52-year-old, who was expelled from parliament Friday after a defamation conviction, is the son, grandson and great-grandson of former Indian leaders.

But his family legacy has not equipped him to compete against the electoral juggernaut of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose party holds a near-monopoly on power through nationalist appeals to the country's Hindu majority.

Modi has revelled in casting his chief opponent, dubbed an "empty suit" in leaked US embassy cables from 2005, as an out-of-touch princeling more interested in luxury and self-indulgence than fighting to helm the world's biggest democracy.

His Congress party was a once-mighty force with a proud role in ending British colonial rule 75 years ago, but under his stewardship it has become a shadow of its former self, plagued by infighting and defections.

Rahul was born in 1970 into India's equivalent of the Kennedy clan in the United States, with its own history of elite prestige, political power and tragedy.

At the time his grandmother Indira Gandhi -- daughter of India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and no relation to fellow independence hero Mahatma Gandhi -- was premier.

Indira was shot dead by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 in retaliation for ordering a military assault on the Golden Temple, the faith's holiest shrine, earlier that year.

She was succeeded by her son Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul's father. Rajiv was assassinated in 1991 by a Tamil suicide bomber when Rahul was 20.

Rahul was enrolled at Harvard but dropped out after a year following his father's death. He later graduated from Rollins College, Florida and in 1994 earned a master's degree from Cambridge.

While in his 20s, he lived in London, where he worked at a management consultancy for a time as his mother Sonia, Rajiv's widow, took charge of Congress.

She worked to groom her son for top office but by the time he was ready to lead, the political fortunes of the charismatic Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party were fast on the rise.

He steered Congress to two landslide election defeats, with Modi openly mocking his privileged upbringing at campaign rallies and comparing it to his own humble origins as "a son of the soil".

His exhortations of religious tolerance and India's secular traditions also failed to dent the BJP's muscular advocacy for the Hindu majority, at a time of rising intolerance against Muslims.

Gandhi stepped down as opposition leader in 2019 after the second loss and his mother also vacated the party presidency last year.

But analysts say the family remain in de facto control of the party and are still its most recognised faces.

And Gandhi remains the most likely candidate to defeat Modi in next year's election, even if political experts consider another BJP landslide a near certainty.

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