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Indian Dynasty Grooms Its Next Political Star

In saying no to being premier, Sonia Gandhi appears to be paving the way for son Rahul.

June 22, 2004|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

AMETHI, India — Most people in this farming region haul their water home in buckets. It's often so dirty it makes them sick. Their roads are rutted like washboards. Half the time, they have no electricity.

For more than 25 years, this deprived district has been the Gandhi family's political finishing school, where the heirs of India's most privileged dynasty are groomed for power.

Amethi's voters recently sent Rahul Gandhi, 34, to Parliament for the first time. His late uncle Sanjay once held the seat. So did his father, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. In 1999, eight years after his father was assassinated, his mother, Sonia, also won the right to represent Amethi.

Last month, she was poised to become India's prime minister after the Congress Party she leads won national elections. By refusing the post and choosing to wield power behind the scenes, Sonia is shrewdly holding open the door to the prime minister's office for Rahul, says biographer Rasheed Kidwai, who knows her well.

Sonia was born and raised in Italy, but Kidwai calls her "a very Indian mother" because she wants her son to take up the family mantle instead of his younger sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who is considered smarter and politically sharper.

"Nobody, to my knowledge, had ever asked [Sonia] about Rahul's political future. She was always asked about Priyanka's political future," says Kidwai, a journalist and author of "Sonia: A Biography."

"But mother Sonia -- an Indian mother -- would always make it a point to bring son Rahul in," he says. "Rahul has gone more to his mother's side: He is shy and doesn't like to seek the limelight."

Like his father before him, Rahul was a reluctant politician. Both men's mothers prodded them into politics.

Rajiv's mother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, forced him to lead the party -- against Sonia's wishes -- after the matriarch's first choice, younger son Sanjay, died in a 1980 plane crash. Sanjay's widow, Maneka Gandhi, is now a member of Parliament for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which draws much of its support from Hindu nationalists.

Maneka thinks her sister-in-law outsmarted her opponents by refusing to be prime minister, ending the argument over her foreign roots but allowing her to keep control over the government.

She isn't shy about her influence, Maneka says.

"I think she's the power in front of the throne. I don't think she makes any bones about the fact that she has avoided the flak that would have gone with the position, but she has no intention whatsoever of relinquishing any of the power of the position."

Sonia says she was driven to lead the party, despite fears that she might suffer the same fate as her husband and mother-in-law, who was also assassinated, because she wanted to honor their sacrifices -- and the Gandhi name.

"I have photographs of my husband and mother-in-law in my office," she told an Indian newspaper editor during the recent election campaign. "And each time I walked past those photographs, I felt that I wasn't responding to my duty, the duty to this family and my country.

"I felt I was being cowardly to just sit and watch things deteriorate in the Congress [Party], for which my mother-in-law and the whole family lived and died."

Sonia has Cabinet rank in the new government, but no portfolio. She heads a powerful committee that resolves disputes among coalition partners, ensuring a leading role for her in key policy decisions.

As president of the Congress Party, she appoints its top officials and is expected to name Rahul party secretary-general responsible for the battleground state of Uttar Pradesh -- where Amethi is located and Indira Gandhi ran for Parliament -- setting him up for dynastic succession.

But as Rahul's star rises, his resume is coming under scrutiny, and critics are questioning whether he is fit to govern or simply a creation of Congress Party image makers.

"They are trying to build him up to become prime minister, but this won't happen," says Hriday Narayan Dixit, vice president of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state. "His only ability is being the son of Sonia Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi."

Harvard and Cambridge

Before Rahul entered politics this year, Indians knew little of him beyond what the media had reported: He went to Harvard and Cambridge universities; he worked abroad in jobs variously described as financial consulting, software engineering and brokering bank securities; and he is a charming, handsome bachelor with a reclusive Colombian girlfriend.

The Gandhi family guards its privacy carefully. In January, an attendant on a state-run Indian Airlines flight used his cellphone camera to snap pictures of Rahul, girlfriend Juanita, his sister and her two daughters on a holiday flight.

When the photos appeared in a few south Indian newspapers, Sonia Gandhi complained to the country's aviation minister, and the flight attendant was fired.

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