By Paul de Bendern and Alistair Scrutton
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Rahul Gandhi, heir to the family dynasty that has dominated politics in the world's biggest democracy for generations, was trying to make himself heard in the uproar of India's parliament.
Looking nervous, he read haltingly from a prepared statement, criticizing as "anti-democratic" a popular anti-corruption campaign led by activist Anna Hazare, whose hunger strike was aimed at getting parliament to adopt a tough anti-graft bill.
With his voice drowning in the din of a chamber where members are prone to "storm out in fury" if they don't like what they're hearing, senior members of his Congress party beseeched him to "go on, go on" with an address that was being televised live.
Rahul later called his speech a "game changer" in the fight against corruption. Many thought he was deluded -- the government later caved in to some of Hazare's demands.
Weeks before, his mother and Congress party leader, an ailing Sonia Gandhi, had handed over power to a quartet of party leaders that included Rahul. But his long silence had irked Indians. Congress needed him to give the speech of his life.
As Rahul floundered, his younger sister Priyanka watched from the visitors' gallery. She was wearing a sari and her short black hair was swept back like her grandmother, assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a style not lost on many Indians who thought she, not Rahul, should have been the one standing before parliament.
Nothing like the Gandhi family political franchise exists in the world today. A member of the family has essentially run India for two-thirds of the period since independence from Britain in 1947, melding the right to rule of an English monarch with the tragic glamour of the Kennedy clan.
Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, 64, has since returned to India, after five weeks for surgery in the United States for an undisclosed illness. The India media says she underwent treatment at New York's Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
Her son's apparent ascendancy, and uncertain leadership qualities, have raised questions about whether a family political dynasty is compatible with a modern democracy and a country carrying increased economic and diplomatic clout.
Congress itself is a party in decline. Its post-World War Two vision of democratic socialism to uplift the rural masses, with big state-run companies and their public sector unions dominating the economy, is looking shopworn in a modern India where a dynamic private sector is propelling growth.
While Congress began reforms in the 1990s that have helped lead to an economic boom, its share of the vote has steadily fallen over the years as regional parties get stronger.
Sonia helped Congress win the last two general elections, but the party faces a more problematic challenge in the next one due in 2014, as a rising urban middle class, fed up with endemic corruption and poor governance, flexes its muscles.
Interviews with Congress party officials and family friends, some of whom have talked to the media for the first time, reveal deep concerns about the future of the Gandhi dynasty.
Doubts are being expressed in New Delhi's corridors of power, among businessmen in the financial capital Mumbai, by swathes of the poor who feel left out by a decade-long economic boom, and by a middle class angry at the unchecked corruption that annual growth of around 8 percent has brought.
This modern India no longer holds the Gandhi family in the same reverential awe; their tragedies that so traumatized the nation now fading with time.
"I think the whole idea of a dynasty negates merit," said Arun Jaitley, a senior leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. "The real worth of India's democracy will be realized only when the charisma of so-called dynasties is smashed. Aspirations are changing, people are becoming very harsh judges, things are changing for the better in India."
Rahul is putting his leadership credentials to the test by leading the Congress campaign for local elections next year in Uttar Pradesh, a poor and caste-ridden state with 200 million people, equivalent to the world's fifth-most populous country and considered a political barometer for India as a whole. Congress finished a poor fourth in the last state assembly elections there in 2007.
A RELUCTANT LEADER
A teenage Rahul Gandhi once told his father, the prime minister from 1984 to 1989, he wished they could go back to happier days when Rajiv Gandhi was a pilot with Indian Airlines and had no political aspirations.
"I can't now, because now I have a belief in my people. There is no going back," former Cabinet minister and family confidante Mani Shankar Aiyar recalled Rajiv Gandhi as telling his son.
"That," said Aiyar at one of those leafy British colonial homes in New Delhi reserved for India's senior politicians, "is the ethos of these kids growing up."
Rahul is the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister and independence hero. His grandmother and Nehru's only child, Indira Gandhi, was shot by her Sikh bodyguards. His worst fears were realized when his father was assassinated by a Tamil suicide-bomber in 1991 on the campaign trail.
Rahul, who did not respond to an interview request, may understandably be reluctant to take his spot in this pantheon, but his destiny and duty, his dharma, is written, as far as Congress is concerned.
"It's not a question of whether he will perform or has the ability. He will come on board," a senior Congress party insider said. "There may be rumblings (within Congress) but there are always rumblings. There were rumblings with Indira, with Sonia."
Rahul appears to be in search of an image in a country that expects its politicians to be larger than life -- movie stars are frequent election candidates, for instance -- to galvanize the poor majority who eke out lives of subsistence and misery.
"Sonia is not intellectually brilliant, but she has tenacity. She's stuck it out," said a source close to the Gandhi family. "Rahul may be genuine. But he is really just a very average guy."
Rahul, a bachelor, does seem nice. Even his detractors say he is genuine, committed to grassroots politics. When a newly arrived Reuters correspondent met him at a business conference, he seemed more concerned about the spouse and children of a visiting foreigner than talking shop.
In 2007, U.S. diplomats noted the skepticism about Rahul in diplomatic cables released by the Wikileaks website (wikileaks.org)
"Veteran politics watchers cannot explain Rahul's apparent missteps, while Congress insiders complain that he is a neophyte who does not have what it takes to become Prime Minister," an April 2007 cable said.
Family sources say he is underestimated, his reticence stemming from being a highly-educated man who has studied and worked abroad and is aware of the history on his shoulders.
"He's quite intelligent and bright, but he keeps his thoughts shrouded," said a close Delhi-based friend of Rahul. "Remember one thing. Rahul is an amazing chess player. Like any game of chess it's about who wins, why and the tactics."
Rahul has refused government jobs, preferring to rebuild the Congress youth wing, seen as crucial for the long-term survival of a party that relies on a rural vote bank, but which is run by members now at retirement age.
Congress officials say Rahul just needs time. When Rajiv was thrust into the leadership of the party and running the government after the death of his younger but more politically astute brother Sanjay in a plane crash, he also faced opposition from party veterans who stymied reform initiatives.
Congress will survive, they say, as it has before.
"It's like a willow tree," said Aiyar. "It may bend but it won't break."
But the party is no longer the dominant force it was for so many years. When Rajiv Gandhi first became prime minister in 1984, Congress had a two-thirds majority in parliament. Now it is a minority in parliament, dependent on querulous coalition partners, and most states are in the hands of regional parties or the opposition.
India's traditional caste and religion-based politics, while still a key factor in winning elections, is becoming less relevant to a growing urban middle class, who are also less in awe of a famous surname.
Rahul Gandhi's home constituency of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh has long been the seat of power for the Nehru-Gandhi family.
As in much of India, modernity here is seeping into this small town of 12,000 in fits and starts and the family franchise is fading. Posters depicting the Gandhi trio of Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka are overwhelmed by images of Hindu gods and advertisements for mobile phone operators on the streets. A dusty statue of Rajiv Gandhi at the city center is about the only monument to the dynasty.
Disillusionment has set in among the youth here who are hard-pressed to find jobs in offices and factories and are disinclined to toil in the fields like their parents, the traditional vote bank of Congress.
"Our families for generations have been voting for Congress. They had faith in the party," said Mahi Khan, a 23-year-old arts student, dressed in sports shoes and a pink designer t-shirt. "But now it has become a family party and slowly its vote magic is fading away."
The disgruntlement can also be felt in nearby Rae Bareli constituency, another family bastion once represented by Indira and now by Sonia Gandhi. During Indira's rule, Indian Telephone Industries employed more than 12,000 people here. Today, most factories have closed or shifted elsewhere.
"There has been no development in the city. Gandhi family members are winning on their names," said Santosh Atlanti, 34, as his mother nudged him to keep quiet. "Even we had been voting for Sonia so far, but this time we need to think."
The Atlanti family owns three shops along the main road amounting to some 35-40 votes, he said. "That should count for something."
"The office of Sonia Gandhi is in front of my house but we cannot see her face to face, the way I am talking to you," he added. "Meeting her personally is beyond question as the security is so tight."
These rumblings of discontent may be one reason why Rahul is focusing on young voters, touring schools and universities. He tried that in state elections in neighboring Bihar state last year, however, with little success.
"Rahul's thinking is very good and the youth relate to that," said youth leader Rahul Bajpai in Sonia's constituency. "But many fossil-like seniors in the party do not want smart and clever youngsters to take prominent places in the party."
Even Rahul has been criticized for putting forward young candidates from rich families or with famous names for parliament.
"They come from well-known families. Apart from a few smart ones, many make parliament look like a college cafeteria," sniffed one senior opposition party member.
HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF
When Sonia joined Congress in 1998 after a seven-year absence from politics following Rajiv's death, she faced a rebellion from Congress veterans worried about her Italian origins. She had met Rajiv as a language student at Cambridge.
Nevertheless, she was named party leader. Congress promptly lost the 1999 general election in one of its worst electoral performances to date to the Hindu-nationalists Bharatiya Janata Party. Since then, she has consolidated power, her popularity and mystique growing when she turned down the prime minister's job after Congress's 2004 election win and appointing reformist technocrat Manmohan Singh to the job instead.
For visiting dignitaries, her heavily-guarded mansion in the wealthy center of New Delhi is the place to be, not the Prime Minister's office in South Block on the site of the old British Viceroy's mansion. Forbes magazine this month named her the seventh most powerful woman in the world, ahead of IMF managing director Christine Lagarde.
At meetings, she may take down notes, but usually says little, her serious expression only occasionally breaking into a smile, party workers say.
"She is a loner," said Rasheed Kidwai, author of a biography on Sonia Gandhi. Her children are her closest advisers.
An art exhibition for renowned artist Anish Kapoor in New Delhi last year highlighted her almost regal isolation. A museum official told guests they would be able to see Sonia on a large TV screen while Kapoor escorted her around the exhibits. Delhi's elegantly dressed elite were only allowed in once Sonia had left.
No pictures of Sonia have been published since she returned from her operation and she has yet to make a public appearance, though she has met party leaders and coalition partners in private over the past few days. The Gandhi family and the Congress party have handled her illness as a "personal matter" requiring no public explanation.
As Congress leader, she has quietly squelched dissent and sidelined political rivals. With 79-year-old Manmohan Singh expected to leave office by 2014, Congress now has almost no candidates to replace him apart from Rahul.
When Rahul visited Uttar Pradesh to mediate over a high-profile land dispute earlier this year , Sonia ordered no other party figures to follow him. That happens often on his trips, Congress sources said.
"Sonia's failure to ensure meritocracy in the party may be fatal in modern India," said Inder Malhotra, a journalist and author on the Gandhis.
That may have worked fine in her first term from 2004 to 2009 as she consolidated power in the party. But with the government floundering in the face of corruption scandals, the economy slowing and reforms stuttering to a halt, Congress is searching for leadership.
One senior Congress official acknowledged Sonia has made some mistakes, including approving the appointments of officials now under investigation for corruption. Others say her aloof leadership style is holding back progress.
"Mrs. Gandhi never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity," said one U.S. diplomatic cable in November 2007 published by Wikileaks.
PRIYANKA A WILD CARD?
With Sonia seriously ill and her son struggling to measure up to the high expectations of a family scion, many Congress party eyes are turning in the direction of the 39-year-old Priyanka, who many think resembles her steely-willed grandmother Indira Gandhi, known as "India's iron lady".
"Priyanka has 50 percent of Indira's qualities. She has quick decision power, whereas Sonia and Rahul dilly-dally," said 87-year-old Uma Shankar Mishra, a senior party official in Rae Bareli.
Apart from counseling her mother and taking part in election campaigns, the mother of two has avoided politics. In public, Priyanka wears saris like her mother and grandmother, but in private she prefers wears jeans or skirts, the image of a modern mother.
"I think Priyanka is very knowledgeable about politics," said Aiyar, the family friend. "Remember, there was no person more non-political than her mother in the early days. But she learnt. Her imitation (of Indira) does not lie just in her hairstyle. It is more profound."
Her ascension remains unlikely as Rahul's younger sister. While Indira chose her younger son Sanjay over Rajiv, few think Sonia would ignore Italian and Indian tradition and bypass the older son.
The deeper worry is that neither Priyanka nor Rahul will be able to control a political system that demands strong national figures to keep fractious coalitions together. Congress also faces charismatic opposition leaders who have risen without a family name, such as the BJP's controversial chief minister in Gujarat state, Narendra Modi.
"I think Rahul can deal with the Congress party. The loyalty is there," said biographer Kidwai. "It's the second part that is tricky, dealing with crafty political allies."
The future of the family dynasty, along with the fortunes of Congress, may well rest with how Rahul plays the political end-game in this chess match.
"The Gandhi family is the bonding adhesive of Congress. The minute the family is not there, the party will begin to fall apart," said Aiyar.
As Rahul walked out from parliament that August day, reporters asked why he had taken so long to respond to the Hazare hunger strike and the anti-corruption protests it had inspired.
"I tell you why," Rahul replied. "Because I like to think about things and then decide about things."
He may be running out of time to do that.
(Additional reporting by Alka Pande in Lucknow, Annie Banerji and Arup Roychoudhury; Paul Debendern reported from Amethi)
(Editing by Bill Tarrant)