Elections in India Next Generation of Gandhis Has Eye on Power

The Gandhi siblings, the heirs of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, are the stars of India's massive parliamentary elections, whose fourth phase was held Thursday. The ruling Congress Party hopes to groom Sonia Gandhi's son Rahul to become a future prime minister.
Von Rüdiger Falksohn und Padma Rao

It is the last Monday in April and Munni Devi Shukla, an Indian housewife, hopes that, with a little luck, the day will bring a few special, poignant moments. Wearing her best sari, she leaves her village, Bamburi at 9 that morning, accompanied by her eldest son and the grandmother of the family, even though she is already 70. The hot sun soon brings the temperature up to a scorching 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). Walking along endless dusty country roads, it takes the Shuklas four grueling hours to reach the parade grounds in the small city of Deva.

On this day, bamboo rails divide the huge field of shriveled grass at the town's water tower into a grid, as if a cattle roundup were about to take place. Men wearing black sunglasses and carrying walkie-talkies keep the public out of a semi-circular security area in front of the platform, which is draped in the orange and green colors of the country and of the ruling Congress Party.

Banners attached to a tall frame billow in the welcome breeze. The campaign is coming to an end in this district, which is located in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. It is shaping up to be the hottest April day in the state in 51 years. Rahul Gandhi is expected.

"We have come here with great hopes," says Munni Devi. "He is so much like his father Rajiv, our former prime minister. He will take his place one day, and we are his supporters. We want to see him, just once in our lives, with our own eyes."

Admittedly Rahul Gandhi is not actually running for the post of prime minister. However, during this year's elections, which last a total of four weeks, India's most famous member of parliament, who has often been criticized in the past for his pronounced political lethargy, has become the Congress Party's most zealous activist. No Indian politician has as many speaking engagements or is traveling as much as Rahul Gandhi.

The election in his district is over, and voters here in Deva will go to the polls in three days. Rahul has come to the town to campaign for his party and his Italian-born mother, party leader Sonia Gandhi, who is running for office in the nearby town of Rae Bareli, the family's political stronghold. Rae Bareli is also in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state.

The mechanics of Indian elections are complicated. In the election, 714 million eligible voters decide on the composition of the lower house of the Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha. The vote is held in several phases, and the results will not be known until May 16.

Some 543 seats in parliament are up for grabs. Voters are casting their ballots at 1,368,430 electronic voting machines in 828,804 polling places. The roughly 300 parties competing have 4,617 registered candidates, including many with criminal records, even some suspected murderers. In Uttar Pradesh, scores of candidates are considered shady characters. Congress, with only about a quarter of its candidates having dubious backgrounds, is still the cleanest major party in the state.

Most registered voters are younger than Rahul Gandhi, who is 38, and 39 percent are illiterate. The social situation in the country will likely play an important role in the election. About two-thirds of India's 1 billion people live on less than $2 (€1.50) a day, even though India is considered one of the world's economic miracles and still expects to see 5 percent growth this year despite the global downturn.

The poor have had enough of empty promises from the capital, New Delhi. Only concrete, tangible proposals count for them, not the country's international affairs, such as investigating the Mumbai terrorist attacks  or India's relations with archenemy Pakistan.

Their concerns are more local, such as the plans to build a railroad car factory in Rae Bareli, which is expected to bring new jobs to the region. Even though Sonia Gandhi laid the cornerstone on Jan. 29, construction has been held up by the wily chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati Kumari. Mayawati, as she is usually known, has been opposing -- at least during the election campaign -- projects associated with the Congress Party such as this one.

The 53-year-old Mayawati, who was born into the lowest Dalit caste, is one of the three frontrunners for the office of prime minister. But despite her popularity, her approach to politics in Lucknow, the state capital, is more egocentric than anything else. Instead of promoting effective social programs, she has embarked on a personality cult that includes the building of a concrete sculpture garden complete with marble statues of herself and pink elephants, the symbol of her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

Mayawati's two rivals, on the other hand, are weighed down by the ravages of time. Manmohan Singh, 76, the moderate prime minister known for his integrity and his trademark blue turban, underwent an 11-hour operation in late January. The diminutive economist, who opened India up to the world market in 1991, has received five heart bypasses. If his Congress Party manages to form a government again (it has not decided on a potential coalition partner yet), Sonia Gandhi will ask him to continue as prime minister -- at least until her son, Rahul, is ready to take his place.

The third leading candidate, Lal Krishna Advani of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is 81 and constantly touts his supposed physical fitness. The balding Advani, a former interior minister, dismisses Singh as a weakling, has himself photographed while lifting weights and even has his own blog.  A former agitator against Indian Muslims, he has since moved to the center of his party and united its factions, at least temporarily. The less than savory aspects of his campaign were delegated to someone else -- ironically, a cousin of Rahul Gandhi.

Varun Gandhi, 29, rejected by the Congress Party, played the role of BJP agitator, spouting anti-Muslim rhetoric more virulent than anything Advani would have said during his rabble-rousing days. "Karimullah, Mazharullah -- what scary-sounding names!" he ranted in his constituency of Pilibhit in March. "If they attack Hindus, I will slit their throats and cut off their hands!"

Mayawati, as chief minister, did not miss the opportunity to have the out-of-control Gandhi thrown in jail on charges of racial incitement. There are 150 million Muslims in India, and keeping them happy could be advantageous to Mayawati. The prisoner complained that the recording of his speech was manipulated. He has since been released, having served his purpose for Mayawati.

Rahul Gandhi, who has studied at Harvard and Cambridge, can only benefit from the contrasts between himself and such vulgar detractors. It is almost evening by the time his helicopter touches down, with considerable delay, in Deva, to a frenetic welcome by hundreds of thousands of his supporters. The crowd is surprised to see that he is not alone as he greets a row of local dignitaries. He is accompanied by his 37-year-old sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.

Housewife Munni Devi Shukla is delighted. What a proud-looking pair of siblings, she thinks, as she watches these two members of India's most elegant family, part of a modern, fourth generation following in the footsteps of their great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister. The two siblings are adept at interacting with the crowd, seemingly without even a touch of arrogance.

"He is the leader of young people like us," says Mohammed Rihad Khan, an 18-year-old student. "He is so good-looking and well-dressed," a fellow student adds. The political crown prince speaks for a quarter of an hour, rhythmically and in a high-pitched voice, about debt forgiveness, free meals for children and Mayawati's pink elephant obsession.

It appears that Rahul can do no wrong at the moment. "I don't have the experience to be prime minister," he says modestly, cleverly adding the word "now." All pollsters agree that a reliable prediction of the outcome of this election is impossible, and that India's major parties will end up haggling over coalitions after May 16.

But no matter what the outcome is, Rahul is in a comfortable position. If the Congress Party remains in power, the Gandhi heir could soon succeed the aging Singh. If none of the parties secure a stable majority, creating the need for early new elections, support for Rahul will likely grow and he will be able to declare his candidacy. And even if it is not yet Rahul's time to run, he will only be 44 at the end of the next legislative period, at which point he could conceivably become India's next leader.

According to his married sister Priyanka, "Rahul has the potential to be prime minister, but he must first sort out his personal life." Rahul is still a bachelor and is rumored to be in a relationship with a Colombian woman.

It is dark by the time the Gandhis leave Deva. Given the family's troubled karma -- a Tamil suicide bomber killed their father Rajiv during the 1991 election campaign and their grandmother Indira was killed by her own Sikh bodyguard -- the family's public appearances are kept deliberately brief.

The next morning, as Rahul is already on his way to his next destination in the western state of Gujarat, Priyanka makes a campaign appearance in Rae Bareli.

Priyanka, who had actually intended to focus on her personal life with her two children, has a busy campaign schedule on the Tuesday. Her day ends with an appearance, arranged by her party colleagues, on a garbage-strewn strip of ground along the roadside.

When she arrives, Priyanka emerges from a white limousine draped with flowers, greets her fellow party members and walks to the podium. Her diction and gestures remind many older Indians of her grandmother Indira. Her speech is unemotional, and in it she calls upon her audience to go to the polls. She repeatedly uses the Hindi word for "change" and magnanimously tells the 800-strong audience: "It's not about Sonia, not about Priyanka, not about Rahul. It's about you and your country."

After passing quickly and cautiously through the crowd, she returns to her waiting car. Priyanka's convoy of 12 SUVs disappears, marking the end of the party's campaign in Uttar Pradesh.

Since then, people in Rae Bareli and elsewhere have speculated why the attractive campaigner wore a special sari on that day, a beige and wine-red garment she inherited from her grandmother, Indira Gandhi. She had the sari lengthened to fit. On this day, one thing is clear: Priyanka has measured up to her grandmother.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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