The Congress scion will step into his mother Sonia Gandhi’s shoes as the party president next week.
In January 2013, Rahul Gandhi was named Congress vice president when his mother told him the night before that “power is like poison”.
Five years after that emotional acceptance speech in Jaipur, Rahul Gandhi is ready to pick up that poison chalice. With no other claimants to the post, he will step into his mother Sonia Gandhi’s shoes as Congress president next week.
Shehzada, princeling and Pappu, the Gandhi scion, who saw his grandmother and father being assassinated, has been called many a derogatory name through the years as he appeared to shy away from the responsibility of leading the Congress.
The young bespectacled boy who clung to his father Rajiv Gandhi’s waist as his grandmother Indira Gandhi’s body was consigned to flames is now 47.
There has been no getting away from the spotlight since for the man poised to take over as president of the party, the sixth from the Gandhi-Nehru ‘dynasty’ to do so, continuing a chain beginning with Motilal Nehru.
The easy elevation is unsurprising, given the tacit understanding within the party that the mantle must pass from Gandhi to Gandhi.
Politics may or may not have been his calling but it was certainly in his blood. So, as he moved from a home education to Delhi University’s St Stephen’s College and then to Harvard and Rollins College in Florida and Trinity College, Cambridge, the final goal was always clear.
He also joined the Monitor Group, a consulting group in London, where he worked for three years. But it had to be back home, to a political role carved out for him, after that.
Often dismissed for practising the politics of “fits and starts”, Rahul Gandhi became an MP in 2004 when he won the Amethi Lok Sabha seat.
He has taken a surprisingly long time to learn the ropes, coming across as earnest and well meaning but also uncertain and disinterested.
He took up emotive issues like the agrarian crisis in Vidarbha, did the unusual by staying the night at a Dalit home in Uttar Pradesh with then British foreign secretary David Milliband, but squandered much of the goodwill by seeming to lose interest and disappearing from view.
In 2015, for instance, he took a 56-day sabbatical. And there are also two annual sojourns timed around his June birthday and New Year’s Eve.
He may no longer have that luxury.
His first litmus test is only days away with elections in Gujarat on December 9 and 14. The results for both the polls in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat will be out on December 18.
Top Congress leaders say Rahul Gandhi’s leadership of the party would be established if he delivers a victory in Gujarat or at least substantially improves the Congress tally.
Gandhi’s past electoral record has not been too good. Since he became Congress vice president in 2013, the party has lost power in state after state and is left with only Punjab, Puducherry, Meghalaya, Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh.
But Rahul Gandhi looks more confident than he has for a while, having worked on his image and outreach.
Armed with a refurbished social media team mostly managed by his hand-picked people, he is trying to shed his reticence and appear more accessible.
He’s now more relaxed and confident, targets Modi regularly with snappy one liners (Gabbar Singh Tax, for instance), takes selfies with people and has improved his
Twitter following to 4.71 million.
In a dose perhaps of some realpolitik, Rahul Gandhi is also openly declaring his Hindu credentials.
“I am a Lord Shiva worshipper,” he said recently to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party’s efforts to win the Hindu vote.
He has been visiting temples routinely -- and does not necessarily visit mosques at the same time.
In doing so, he seems to be correcting the Congress’s pro-minority image.
Rahul Gandhi has also been speaking out on his life outside the spotlight.
“I believe in destiny,” he said when asked why he is not getting married.
He recently also revealed that he is a black belt in the Japanese martial art form Aikido.
It may have made a difference.
Of late, the BJP seems to be taking Rahul Gandhi more seriously, often fielding a host of ministers to counter the Congress charge against demonetisation and GST.
Congress leaders say he has come of age and cite his address at the University of California, Berkley, where he boldly took questions, even on dynastic politics.
There was the Rahul Gandhi who walked into the Press Club of India and tore off an ordinance by the then Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government headed by Manmohan Singh to overturn an apex court order barring convicted MPs from contesting elections.
And then there is this one readying to be president of the grand old party. Maybe not so impetuous or naive, but reasoned and rational.
The normally taciturn Manmohan Singh on Monday called Rahul Gandhi the “darling of the Congress” after he filed his nomination.
It is now up to Rahul Gandhi to prove he is indeed one.