India's 'crown prince' vs 'messiah of hate' | delhi | Hindustan Times
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India's 'crown prince' vs 'messiah of hate'

delhi Updated: Apr 14, 2009 10:21 IST

AFP
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They are as different as chalk and cheese, India's political "crown prince" Rahul Gandhi and his estranged first cousin Varun Gandhi, dubbed the "messiah of hate" by local media.

Engaging, earnest and touted as a future premier, Rahul, 38, has become "the young face" of the ruling Congress, in campaigning for general elections starting this week, said columnist Parsa Venkateshwar Rao. Rahul "represents a new generation," Rao said.

In contrast, Varun, 29, jailed on charges of inciting Hindu-Muslim hatred while stumping for the opposition Hindu nationalists has become a spectacle of scandal embroiling the Gandhis -- the first family of Indian politics.

Congress has denounced Varun's diatribes, in which he threatened to cut off the hands of anyone who dared harm India's majority Hindus, as a betrayal of the secular convictions of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

"It goes against all the principles the Gandhi family has stood for," said Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul's sister.

Rahul, Priyanka and Varun are heirs to a dynasty that has given India three Congress prime ministers -- its first Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv -- since independence from Britain in 1947.

And Congress believes it has another winner in Rahul as it fights an election in which 100 million people will be first-time voters.

Rahul, whose dimpled face is splashed on posters, is chasing the youth vote in a campaign in which the prime ministerial incumbent Manmohan Singh is 76 and his main challenger, L K Advani, is 81.

Gandhi, who heads the party's youth wing, shrugs off questions about whether he entertains prime ministerial hopes, saying his goal for the next two years is persuading young people to get politically involved.

"There's going to be a space for a new type of politics," he said on the campaign trail, promising to change a system which has long been the preserve of fixers, cronies, criminal suspects and people with influence. Asked about his longer-term future, he will only say he is a "soldier of the party."

Premier Singh, a family loyalist, is widely seen as keeping the job warm for Rahul. Since independence, power in Congress has threaded from one generation of the family to the next and now rests with Rahul's Italian-born mother Sonia who is Congress president.

It was Sonia who cradled her mother-in-law Indira as she lay dying after being shot by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984. Sonia, who arrived in India in her early 20s as a bride to live in the Gandhi joint family, entered politics after her husband Rajiv -- Rahul's father -- was blown up by a Tamil rebel suicide bomber in 1991.

She said she "fought like a tigress" to prevent Rajiv, a commercial pilot, from joining politics after his brother Sanjay -- Indira's closest advisor and viewed as her political heir -- died piloting a small plane. After Indira's assassination, Sonia feared prophetically politics might mean a violent death for her husband too.

Maneka Gandhi, Sanjay's widow and Varun's mother, became a family outcast after her husband's death when Indira made it clear she would play no political role. Varun's anti-Muslim outbursts, constantly replayed on Indian television, have deepened the family schism.

Sonia was persuaded by Congress to become leader to rescue the party's fortunes after Rajiv's assassination, overcoming stagefright and stumbling Hindi to lead the party to unexpected victory in 2004.

Rahul, meanwhile, has thrown himself into politics, criss-crossing India to drill home his message of change.

"These pan-India pilgrimages give the Gandhis the air they belong to the whole country -- something other regional leaders can't do," said analyst Rao. Such is the family's aura, many party supporters can't conceive of a future without a Gandhi in charge.

"Rahul's leadership right now is very important to lead the country into a next era," Oscar Fernandes, a Congress leader said.

But critics decry the need for continuation of the dynasty, calling it at odds with India's emerging economic superpower status.

"What is questionable is the assumption -- shared by his family, his close associates and apparently by the man himself -- that the top job in party and government is his for the asking," said historian Ramachandra Guha.

Posts "should be filled on the basis of competence," he wrote in Outlook magazine. The family declared in 2004 it had decided Rahul should formally enter politics, although his younger sister Priyanka is seen as the more charismatic. She has promoted her bachelor brother while she raises two children.