Quiet man set to take up reins of power in India

RAHUL Gandhi's helicopter descends out of the boiling afternoon sky and a restless, sweat-soaked crowd of 100,000 people suddenly surges to life. Men rush forward and teenage boys wave a white bed sheet bearing the request: "We want to meet the Prince of India."

Gandhi climbs on to a viewing stand in this isolated corner of India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, and offers a boyish wave. Not yet 40, Gandhi is the great-grandson of India's first prime minister, the grandson of India's fourth prime minister and the son of India's seventh prime minister.

"I'm standing here with you," he declared to loud cheers, speaking for about 15 minutes before he left, waving through the window of his helicopter. "I can come with you anywhere and everywhere to fight with you."

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India is Gandhi's family inheritance. Seemingly the only uncertainty is when he will collect it. He holds no major post in government, yet rumours persist that the governing Indian National Congress Party – whose president is his mother, Sonia Gandhi – might install him as prime minister before the current government expires in 2014.

The job's current occupant, Manmohan Singh, recently had to fend off retirement questions.

Yet despite his aura of inevitability, Gandhi largely remains an enigma. India is an emerging power, facing myriad domestic and international issues, but he remains deliberately aloof from daily politics. His thoughts on many major issues – as well as the temperature of the fire in his belly – remain mostly unknown.

For the Congress Party, that may be an advantage. The party has been the top vote getter in the past two national elections by appealing to the poor through welfare schemes while also pursuing pro-growth policies. But it holds power only with the support of fickle coalition partners.

Gandhi is using his enormous popularity to broaden the party's political base, steering clear of more contentious policy making. That could help position Congress to win an outright national majority – though it does little to illuminate what he would do with a mandate if he won it.

"What most people still have a hard time figuring out is, 'What is Rahul Gandhi's vision?' " said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

Gandhi traverses the country, often on secret trips, to recruit as many as 10 million new youth members.

Most Indian political parties are internally undemocratic and often dominated by political dynasties, none more famous than the Gandhi clan. But Gandhi has also insisted that the party's youth organisations hold internal elections for posts and operate as meritocracies.

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He has also succeeded far more than other Indian politicians in tapping into the hunger for generational change in India, analysts say, and has positioned himself as a change agent for the future.

"We youth are with Rahul!" said Manonit Garharabari, 23, at the rally. "The whole youth is with Rahul. We see an internal strength in him."

Gandhi is omnipresent in the media, and his face is plastered on untold numbers of billboards and political posters. His public image is of a humble, serious man, if somewhat shy, even as his name invariably tops polls ranking the country's "hottest" or "most eligible" bachelors. Yet he almost never grants interviews and only occasionally conducts news conferences.

His daily life is cloaked in secrecy, which makes it an irresistible if elusive topic for the Indian media. One news station ran a lengthy report after obtaining a short video clip of Gandhi riding his bicycle in New Delhi.

His advisers say his low profile reflects his desire not to overstep the authority of his organisational position while the secrecy is rooted in security concerns. His grandmother, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated, as was his father, Rajiv Gandhi. His official residence in New Delhi is heavily fortified and he travelled to the rally in Ahraura with a special black-clad security detail.

Yet analysts say his inaccessibility is also a deliberate effort to protect him from taking unpopular public stands and also to burnish his image. Last spring, he turned down an offer to join Singh's cabinet. "They want to keep a certain mystique to him," said Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst in New Delhi.

Before he entered politics in 2004, winning a parliamentary seat in his father's old district in Uttar Pradesh, Gandhi had appeared ambivalent about the family profession. He attended Harvard for three years before transferring to Rollins College in Florida because of security concerns after his father's death.

He earned a master's degree in development studies at Cambridge and worked in London as a management consultant before returning to India after his mother took over the Congress Party.

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Some veteran politicians initially dismissed him as a pappu, the Hindi word for a nice boy, if one who is not too smart. Inside the Congress Party, some leaders had considered his younger sister, Priyanka, a more dynamic politician, but her focus has been on raising her children rather than running for office.

Gandhi's breakthrough came during the 2009 elections, when he campaigned across the country and was later credited for the unexpectedly strong showing by Congress.

His youth drives are conducted state by state, and he has hired a non-profit group of former election commissioners to oversee the internal elections for posts in the party youth organisations – as opposed to the usual practice of party bosses picking their choices.

He has travelled widely and met with business or political leaders. When Bill Gates recently visited India, he joined Gandhi in a village. In Egypt, Gandhi has befriended Gamal Mubarak, son and heir apparent of President Hosni Mubarak. In China, he has met Xi Jinping, the man tapped to replace the country's president and party leader, Hu Jintao.

It seems he is preparing for the future.