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Coronation over, but questions still remain

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RISING STAR?Rahul Gandhi delivers his first speech as Congress party Vice-President during the Congress party leadership conclave in Jaipur on Sunday.PHOTO:AFP
RISING STAR?Rahul Gandhi delivers his first speech as Congress party Vice-President during the Congress party leadership conclave in Jaipur on Sunday.PHOTO:AFP

Rahul Gandhi, the next in line in India's top political dynasty, has been handed the keys to power, but his political abilities and policy convictions remain largely an open question.

Rahul was named vice-president of the ruling Congress party on Saturday at a ceremony that saw senior leaders openly weeping. Tributes hailed him as "the heartbeat of young people" and India's answer to Barack Obama.

In his decision to accept the post, the 42-year-old who has spent a lifetime in the corridors of power appeared to signal willingness to follow in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, grandmother and father as prime ministers.

Until now the Cambridge and Harvard-educated bachelor, often spotted in upmarket nightspots and restaurants in the capital, had refused repeated offers of cabinet positions and entreaties to take a bigger role in the party.

"I will fight for the people of India with everything I have," he promised party members, who see the Gandhi dynasty as the force that binds together India's only national secular party.

"Congress party is now my life," he added late on Sunday at the end of a strategy meeting in the city of Jaipur before national elections scheduled for early next year.

But Rahul has spent many years seemingly unsure of his own future, first going into business management in London before returning to India and winning the family parliamentary seat of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh state in 2004.

He has since concentrated on a low-profile mission of reviving the Congress youth wing, while undertaking heavily publicised visits to marginalised and seemingly wronged people such as tribal groups threatened by mining.

His occasional trips to stay overnight with low-caste families and even rare journeys on Delhi's metro system are covered intimately by the media, ensuring him constant and generally positive publicity.

But his refusal of greater responsibility and his aloof style - he almost never gives interviews and is a reluctant public speaker - has raised consistent questions about his appetite to be prime minister. A U.S. diplomatic cable written by the American ambassador and leaked in 2011 stated that Rahul was "widely viewed as an empty suit".

For all these reasons, his decision to become number two in the party behind president Sonia Gandhi, his mother, is seen as a watershed moment.

"There is one subject now closed for discussion. Rahul Gandhi will lead the party in the next campaign, and thereby claim the prime ministership if the electorate makes this a possibility," wrote commentator M.J Akbar.

The next elections could also see the power of the Gandhi name tested by Narendra Modi from BJP.AFP


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