Rahul Gandhi comes of age with India's 2009 elections

Rahul Gandhi comes of age with India's 2009 electionsNew Delhi  - The summer of 2009 not only saw a resurgent Congress Party emerge from India's gigantic electoral exercise but it also saw the coming of age of one of the party's key leaders for the future - Rahul Gandhi.

Member of India's most important political family, the Nehru- Gandhis, the 38-year-old formally joined politics in 2004 and has emerged within five years as a key strategist for the party and its star campaigner.

Gandhi, who counts squash and scuba diving among his hobbies, travelled some 87,000 kilometres in peak Indian summer weather to address more than a hundred political rallies.

He joined senior Congress Party leaders in backroom confabulations to plot strategy, some of which accounted for crucial wins in states like Uttar Pradesh which saw the Congress Party win 21 seats against a poor nine in 2004.

Gandhi, educated in an elite Delhi school and Cambridge university in Britain, formally joined Indian politics in 2004.

Over the past five years he has concentrated on rebuilding the party's organization which has fallen apart at the grassroots largely due to infighting and lack of leadership at local levels and the growing clout of region and caste-based parties.

He has focused on the youth and student wings of the party, trying to introduce transparency through elections and to draw more members.

Though he has made a mark within the party, he has had less success in a rumbustious parliament where his speeches are constantly interrupted by opposition deputies.

From day one, there have been steady calls within his party that he should take on a bigger leadership role.

Most Congress Party leaders feel they need a member of the non- partisan, secular Nehru-Gandhi family to hold the party together, stem infighting and to draw voters. The Congress Party has been a political domain of the Nehru-Gandhi family for years.

Rahul Gandhi's grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, was independent India's first prime minister. His grandmother Indira was thrice prime minister. Gandhi was just 14 when she was assassinated in 1984.

He was 21 when his father Rajiv Gandhi, also a prime minister of India, was assassinated by an LTTE suicide bomber.

His mother, the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, who met Gandhi's father while they were students in Britain, could have been prime minister as well.

But she chose not to and after the Congress Party-led coalition won the 2004 elections nominated economist-turned-politician Manmohan Singh to be prime minister and remained Congress Party president. But she has also been steadily grooming her son for a larger role.

Over 60 per cent of India's 1.1 billion population are aged below 25. Empowerment for youth has been Rahul Gandhi's buzzword and immediately after the election results were announced he said it was a victory for young people and the poor, a vote for inclusive governance.

"The energy Rahul Gandhi has been able to infuse in party cadre, specially young people, is enormous," Sachin Pilot, a young Congress Party lawmaker said.

Repeatedly asked by reporters on the campaign trail about his joining government or becoming prime minister, the younger Gandhi has said his task of rebuilding the party is not yet complete.

Critics said Gandhi lacks fire, that his sister Priyanka is more of a natural when it came to politics. As for prime minister - he lacks experience, he has not been in government.

Rahul's work experience comprises a stint with a London-based strategy consultancy firm and two years running an engineering and technology outsourcing firm in Mumbai.

But Indian politicians have headed ministries and governments with less experience and politics, as one veteran Congressman put it, is in the young man's blood.

Rahul Gandhi was an undisputed star of the Congress Party's 2009 election campaign. The party's decisive win has sycophantic leaders clamouring again that the young Gandhi should join the government.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his very first encounter with the media after the victory, gave Rahul Gandhi much of the credit and said he would again try to persuade him to take a cabinet post. (dpa)