With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's heart ailment raising leadership questions in his Congress party, his government's youngest minister says party general secretary Rahul Gandhi is the person best qualified for the job.
"Rahul Gandhi is a leader with a pan-India appeal that no one else has. He is the symbol of hope and change. He transcends all the boundaries of regions and religions," 36-year-old Jitin Prasada, the youngest minister in the Manmohan Singh cabinet, told IANS in an interview.
Prasada, an MP from Uttar Pradesh's Shahjahanpur constituency, said: "We are working under his (Gandhi's) leadership and we know that he (Gandhi) has the qualities to lead a country as diverse as India."
"Koi ho to batao? (cite anyone else)", he asked this reporter as the minister leaned back on the couch in his office at Udyog Bhavan.
The young politician is the son of the late Jitendra Prasada, who was political secretary to Rahul's father and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Prasada, who holds a masters degree in business administration, was made minister of state for steel last April and political observers believe this was due to his proximity to Rahul Gandhi. Another young minister inducted in the cabinet, reportedly at the Congress general secretary's behest, was 38-year-old Jyotiraditya Scindia.
Asked who he would rate a better leader of the government, Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi, Prasada thought for a while and said: "Manmohan Singhji has proven his mettle and we all believe in the leadership of Soniaji".
Asked why the Congress was not thinking of a future leader outside the Nehru-Gandhi family, Prasada said: "They are not nominated leaders. People and their representatives have chosen and elected them as leaders.
"They (the Nehru-Gandhi family) have a long history of serving this country. They have made incomparable sacrifices."
On the forthcoming elections, the minister claimed that the Congress was on a strong footing and would retain power. He said the party would go to the voters on the strength of its policies and its government's achievements.
But the Congress has very little representation from Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, which account for 222 parliamentary seats in all. The party is sewing up an alliance with the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh. In Tamil Nadu, the ruling DMK is an ally already.
"In these states where our tally has gone down we are working hard, and more at the grassroots level. We have launched welfare schemes for almost all the sections of society, which includes loan waiver to farmers and pioneering poverty alleviation programmes," Prasada said.