Does humiliation loom for Rahul Gandhi, India's 'princeling'?
New Delhi: As the scion of India's most famous dynasty, Rahul Gandhi was meant to work some much-needed family magic over the ruling Congress party.
But after a lacklustre election campaign during which he struggled to connect with voters and was outshone by his sister, he came under more fire this week for going missing at a crucial time.
At a farewell dinner for outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Rahul was conspicuous by his absence, generating another round of negative headlines for a man derided as a "princeling" by India's likely next leader, Narendra Modi.
Although the full extent of its defeat after a decade in power will only become clear on Friday when results are announced, exit polls have indicated support for Congress has slumped to an all-time low.
His mother, father, grandmother and great-grandfather all led the party to thumping general election victories.
And while the 43-year-old may be a relative youngster in Indian politics, many commentators say the electoral humiliation could leave any hopes he had of emulating his ancestors dead in the water.
"He may be a well meaning and decent individual but as a politician he is a failure," said Kay Benedict, a Delhi-based analyst and Congress expert.
Rahul, whose Italian-born mother Sonia remains party president, was chosen to lead the Congress campaign despite asserting last year that the "power so many people seek is a poison".
His appetite for power has long been questioned and he rejected several offers to enter government under Singh.
It has not helped that his younger sister Priyanka brims with the charisma Rahul is accused of lacking, a point starkly illustrated during the campaign when she emerged in the latter stages.
He has been at his most impassioned defending the secular tradition personified by his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister whose socialist model framed the post-independence economy.
A Hindu nationalist with a reputation for championing big business as chief minister of Gujarat state, Modi is the antithesis of Nehru.
Gandhi has called the election "a clash between these two ideas of India", hammering Modi over communal riots that killed more than 1,000 people -- mostly Muslims -- in Gujarat in 2002.
Modi, the son of a tea-seller, has in turn enjoying riling Rahul as "shehzada" or prince who has no concept of the everyday challenges faced by India's masses, calling for an end to the "mother-son" government.
While Rahul's upbringing was as gilded as Modi's was humble, it was also cloaked in tragedy.
He was 14 when his grandmother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was slain by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 as revenge for the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
His father, Rajiv Gandhi, was then pressed to take over as premier. Seven years later, Rajiv was assassinated by a Tamil suicide bomber.
With Gandhi studying at Harvard, it was left to Sonia to pick up the mantle and lead Congress back to power in 2004, before declining to become premier.
After office jobs in London and Mumbai, Rahul was sucked into politics himself and entered parliament a decade ago.
But he spends little time in his constituency, rarely speaks in parliament and a leaked US diplomatic cable, written in 2007, said he was "widely viewed as an empty suit".
"Rahul Gandhi was just not able to communicate, he spoke in riddles," said Mohan Guruswamy from the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Delhi-based think-tank, as he assessed the Congress campaign.
Benedict detected dissent in Congress "with many in rank-and-file questioning his ability" even if it would go against party tradition to blame the Gandhi family.
For now, the party leadership is rallying round Rahul, arguing the result was in effect a verdict on a government which he did not enter.
"All this discussion is absurd," said Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid when asked for his view on the exit polls. "Rahul Gandhi is our leader and he will remain our leader in good and bad times."
Asked before the election if he would take full responsibility for defeat, Rahul replied: "If we don't win, I am the VP of the party of course I will take responsibility for it."
pulse of the nation >
Education qualification: Should Smriti Irani come clean?
Thanks for being one of the first people to vote. Results will be available soon. Check for results
- Yes. She must clarify the discrepancies in her affidavits
- No. She must instead focus on her ministry to prove critics wrong
- Educational qualifications do not matter to become a minister. His/her work counts