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'Find new issues to fight'

Bofors and foreign origin are not relevant any more, says Rahul Gandhi.
PTI | By Indo-Asian News Service, Shahmau (amethi)
PUBLISHED ON APR 12, 2004 10:40 AM IST

For years, said Rahul Gandhi, his family has suffered from all sorts of presumptions and accusations.

For years, his father and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi has been accused of taking bribes from an arms dealer — until a court recently cleared the late prime minister of all charges.

Now, as Rahul Gandhi debuts in politics as a member of India's oldest political party, the Congress, the Bofors gun deal accusations have resurfaced.

This time the target is his mother, Sonia, who is already fighting detractors who point to her Italian origins and say India should have an Indian leader.

"Every time, I or my sister Priyanka go out to campaign, there are two issues which always, always crop up - the trumped up charge of Bofors and that irrelevant issue of foreign origin.

"These things have no meaning any more. The opposition should find new issues to fight us," Gandhi told IANS in an exclusive interview.

"Where are the issues of power, roads, water, education? That's what I fight for."

Even personally, said the erudite, soft-spoken 33-year-old economics and management graduate, the idea that he is shy or reticent is presumptuous.

"You ask anyone who knows me - none of them will say that I'm shy. Never. It's just an idea that has caught on."

Media reports over the years have always spoken of him as a bashful man comparing his gentle and quiet manner with the gregariousness and people skills of his younger sister, Priyanka.

So it came as more than a shock when Rahul Gandhi announced that he would be contesting the polls from the Gandhi family and Congress bastion of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.

Surely, wondered many, the right choice was Priyanka, to convince old voters of the party's continued importance and to lure new voters to alter the Congress' recent faltering fortunes at the hustings.

"The decision to contest was mine. I felt the time was right to participate in helping the Congress and fulfil the dreams that my father had seen."

So, as he campaigns in traditional Indian politician attire of white kurta-pajamas, with the exception of sturdy Nike walking shoes, Gandhi is travelling almost 200 km every day reaching out to the voters who once supported his parents and his late uncle.

As he speaks, his eyes sparkle with honesty, humour and indeed a sort of innocence rarely ever seen in the tough as nails world of Indian politics.

It is evident that this man who studied economics at Trinity College, Cambridge, and enjoys swimming, chess and cricket is new.

"My father is a hero, so is my grandmother. I cannot hope to be bigger than them," said Gandhi sitting in a white Toyota Qualis. "But I shall try, in my own way, to do things that my father had wanted to do. Things he left unfinished."

And there is a lot to do.

Amethi, though somewhat better off than most of rural districts of Uttar Pradesh, is still desperately poor. Around six major factories have shut shop in the constituency, which has voted to parliament a Congress legislator 10 times, five of which have been a Gandhi.

"You must see things in perspective," said Gandhi, earnestly. "The legislator gets just Rs 20 million a year for developing the area, and that's obviously not enough for a area of around two million people.

"The main development initiative should come from the state government, which obviously does not want to do anything because it is a Congress constituency."

When he speaks, this man exudes a sense of learned charm, perhaps crucial in a country whose politics is often slammed for out-of-control levels of corruption.

Last time, Sonia Gandhi won from Amethi drawing 67.12 percent of the vote, a margin of more than 300,000 votes. This time Rahul's supporters are asking for a margin of 500,000 votes.

That he is immensely popular is evident. But how far will Rahul Gandhi be able to push the fortunes of the Congress in a year where most opinion polls predict a sweep for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?

"See the same opinion polls predicted a sweep for us in three states in the assembly polls (a few months ago), and we lost," said Gandhi. "So I don't trust too much on them.

"We have been in power for more than 40 years, we have been out of power for some time now. But the Congress cannot be in power for like 200 years, so there's a natural change of fortunes."

And if there is one thing that Gandhi could do for the party, he said, it would be to bring in fresh blood.

"Young people, I really want to see more and more young people in the party. I want to work towards drawing them to the Congress. It'll be arrogant for me to state a huge vision but that is one of the things that I want to do."

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