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Rahul Gandhi, the reluctant prince of Indian politics

Mr Rahul Gandhi with supporters at a rally near Ahmedabad last month ahead of Gujarat state assembly elections. Known for his love of reading and racing motorbikes, Mr Gandhi has little to show in terms of political success. While he has been prepari
Mr Rahul Gandhi with supporters at a rally near Ahmedabad last month ahead of Gujarat state assembly elections. Known for his love of reading and racing motorbikes, Mr Gandhi has little to show in terms of political success. While he has been preparing to take over the reins from his mother, he has not led Congress to any significant electoral win.PHOTO: REUTERS

Nehru-Gandhi scion Rahul is set to take over Congress but has yet to prove his mettle as a politician

He hails from a family that has given India three prime ministers, but the man dubbed "the reluctant prince" has yet to prove himself as a politician.

Mr Rahul Gandhi, 47, has found himself in the spotlight of late as he prepares to take over as president of the Congress party from his mother Sonia Gandhi, 71, who has been ill and appearing less in public.

Mr Gandhi has been using humour to counter Prime Minister Narendra Modi, even urging him to hug United States President Donald Trump, who had tweeted appreciation for Pakistan, India's rival.

"Modi ji quick; looks like President Trump needs another hug," he tweeted in reference to Mr Modi clasping Mr Trump in a bear hug at the White House earlier this year.

Mr Gandhi, who has 4.79 million followers on Twitter as opposed to Mr Modi's 37.7 million - has seen a small resurgence in recent times.

He has toured US colleges and garnered positive feedback from members of the Indian community in the US, appeared more confident in rallies and media addresses, and used humour to grab headlines.

Yet as the politician prepares to officially take charge of the Congress party, he will need to do much more to revive the 132-year-old party.

Despite being in politics for over a decade, starting out as an MP from the family seat of Amethi, Mr Gandhi, an idealist who has talked about his aversion to politics, still faces questions about whether he has what it takes to make it in politics.

Congress, which has dominated Indian politics for decades, has fallen into decline since a humiliating defeat in the 2014 election. Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party has gone on to win crucial state elections, such as that in India's most populous state Uttar Pradesh, and threatened to make Congress irrelevant.

Despite being in politics for over a decade, starting out as an MP from the family seat of Amethi, Mr Gandhi, an idealist who has talked about his aversion to politics, still faces questions over whether he has what it takes to make it in politics.

The earnest and serious politician comes from the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, which has given India three prime ministers - his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, grandmother Indira Gandhi and father Rajiv Gandhi.

Despite being born into political royalty, Mr Rahul Gandhi and his younger sister, Priyanka, faced tragedy and led most of their lives under a tight security blanket.

Mr Rahul Gandhi was 14 when his grandmother, then sitting prime minister, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard in 1984.

He was 21 when his father, who was seen to be on a political comeback, was assassinated by a suicide bomber in Tamil Nadu at an election rally for the 1991 general election. His remains were identified by the shoes he was wearing that day.

Mr Gandhi has spoken about the pain that power had brought his family and how his grandmother's death had affected him, when he took over as vice-president of Congress in 2013. A year later, in an interview to Times Now television news channel, he said: "In my life, I have seen my grandmother die, I have seen my father die... I have actually been through a tremendous amount of pain as a child."

Mr Gandhi, who briefly attended the prestigious Doon School, a boarding school for boys in Uttarakhand, was mostly home-schooled, along with Priyanka. He graduated from Rollins College in Florida in 1994 and obtained his Master of Philosophy (Development Studies) from Trinity College at Cambridge University in 1995.

Mr Gandhi worked as a management consultant in London for three years and joined politics in 2004, contesting elections and winning in the family seat of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh state.

His Italian-born mother, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, who six years after her husband's assassination formally entered politics to safeguard the Gandhi-Nehru legacy, led the party to an electoral win that year and then once again in 2009.

He refused offers to join the Cabinet under then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In 2013, the bachelor accepted the post of party vice-president, to the delight of Congress politicians impatient to have the younger Gandhi at the helm.

While Congress, indebted to generations of the Nehru-Gandhi family for many electoral successes, continues to believe in the Gandhi name, Mr Rahul Gandhi's political record so far remains patchy.

Known for his love of reading and racing motorbikes, Mr Gandhi has little to show in terms of political success. While he has been preparing to take over the reins from his mother, he has not led the party to any significant electoral win.

He has been unable to match Mr Modi's rhetoric and often been upstaged by Priyanka, 45, who is seen as more approachable and charismatic. She has largely stayed away from politics, apart from campaigning in support of her brother and mother in the family constituencies during election time.

Still, the biggest challenge for Mr Gandhi remains to revive the party.

Mr Rasheed Kidwai, a journalist and author of books on the Congress party, said of Mr Gandhi: "There is for the first time such pressure on a Nehru-Gandhi. No Nehru-Gandhi has failed. He is the only one with real prospects of failure."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 11, 2017, with the headline 'The reluctant prince of Indian politics'. Print Edition | Subscribe