India's JFK Junior

NEW DELHI, India — He doesn't do interviews with the foreign press, so I was only able to meet Rahul Gandhi, the once and future leader of India, elections notwithstanding, by happenstance a few years ago.

He trailed a friend of a friend of mine into a mid-market South Delhi bar called Buzz where he joined my wife and myself and a few pals at a sticky table covered with beer bottles. Along with his trademark wire-rimmed glasses, he was wearing a polo shirt and khakis. The Bollywood music was blasting, so when I shook his hand, I had to shout at the top of my lungs: "DON'T SAY ANYTHING IMPORTANT. WE'RE ALL JOURNALISTS."

What was he like? He was a regular guy. He didn't get in your face with his charisma or try to impress you with his bone-crushing grip. He drank Kingfisher out of the bottle. Like many people he'd meet over the next couple years, I was just impressed he was there, living like a common man.

Since then, Rahul has come a long way.

The Indian National Congress — grand old dame of Indian politics — made a nominal show of strength Sept. 2, as top leaders from the party faithful, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, filed nomination papers to re-elect Rahul's mother, Sonia Gandhi, as Congress president.

As the 63-year-old leader is running unopposed, the election is a formality, and Sonia was installed in office for a fourth term Sept. 3. Her re-election makes her the party's longest-serving president in the year that the Congress — which led India's struggle for independence — celebrates its 125th anniversary.

But there's more at stake than a footnote in the history books. By all accounts, this is the term that Sonia and the party must finish laying the groundwork for Rahul to take the reins — most likely as the next Congress candidate for prime minister.

"He is now not only a grownup man," said longtime Congress stalwart Mani Shankar Aiyar. "He has reached the age of 40, which was the age when Jawaharlal Nehru became president of the party in 1929, the age that Indira Gandhi became president of the party in 1959, and the age that [Rahul's] father, Rajiv Gandhi, became president of the party and prime minister in 1984."

With gravitas and a touch of glamour, the Gandhi family is India's equivalent of the Kennedy clan. But the dynasty Aiyar cites — from great grandfather to grandmother to father to son — has come under increasing criticism in recent years as India strives to slough off its decades-long tradition of rule by a postcolonial, English-educated elite. That's made Sonia, who was an Italian citizen when she met and married Rajiv Gandhi in 1968, the target of accusations related to her foreign birth. And for many years it helped cast Rahul as a sort of JFK Jr. figure, constantly accused of failing to measure up to his

Supposedly, he was wishy washy about entering politics. He wasn't such a bright bulb, he lacked his sister's common touch and so forth. But since he threw his hat in the ring in 2004, most of that sniping has quieted as early missteps have given way to calculated strategy and polished oratory.

After winning a seat in parliament that year, instead of pushing his way into the cabinet as expected, Rahul took no other office and concentrated on his own constituency for his first two years as a politician. He campaigned for the party in the Uttar Pradesh state elections in 2006 and took over as party general secretary — an important organizational position — in 2007.

But he continued to reject a ministry post, vowed to rebuild the beleaguered party from the grassroots, and embarked on a marathon tour of the darkest corners of the country billed as his own "Discovery of India" — a reference to the remarkable book written by his great grandfather, Nehru, from his prison cell in the Ahmednagar Fort.

"People like Jawaharlal Nehru are from a different era," said Delhi University professor Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst. "But if you look at [Rahul] when he goes out and works among the peasantry, something happens to him. It's very difficult for somebody from this background to go out and work in that environment and not be troubled by it. He wants to do something. My sense of Rahul Gandhi is that he's a distance runner. People are judging him, but they're not seeing what is happening."

Rahul made the most of his "Discovery" tour. Like a prince in a fable, he eluded his security team to eat dinner with Dalits (the oppressed people once known as "untouchables.") He instructed well-wishers to shake his hand instead of touch his feet. And he perfected an unadorned style of public speaking that eschews the stock phrases of subcontinental political rhetoric and rings with sincerity.

It was on that trip, in 2008, not long after the prime minister had called a simmering Maoist rebellion against the exploitation of India's indigenous peoples the biggest threat to the country's security, that Rahul promised tribal people in the underdeveloped region of Kalahandi, Orissa, that he would be their "soldier in Delhi."

But the political savvy of the move only hit home this August, when he returned to the same spot to declare victory over United Kingdom-based Vedanta Resources, a mining company that had sought to extract bauxite from the tribe's sacred mountain in the Niyamgiri Hills.

Of course, he'd had help from India's Supreme Court, Survival International and the U.K. press — which christened the Dongria Kondh tribe "the real Na'vi" in reference to James Cameron's Avatar. But he knew exactly when to cash in his chips. "Your voice reached Delhi and you saved your land. I did what I could, but this is your victory," he told a tribal gathering on Aug. 26.

He again pledged his service as "soldier" and went on to praise the protest movement for achieving its goal without resorting to violence — simultaneously laying claim to the significant tribal vote and striking a blow in the propaganda war against the Maoist rebels. Maybe this was the moment that he implicitly declared his candidacy for his mother's, or Manmohan's, spot. And maybe not.

Most recently, Rahul began campaigning to rejuvenate the Congress in West Bengal. At his first public rally in Kolkata on Monday, he criticized West Bengal's Left Front government, alleging that there are "two Bengals," one of the poor and the other of the privileged.

Aiyar calls the will-he-won't-he question "an enigma wrapped up in a mystery." But one thing is certain: the mother-son team, both once derided, have against all odds made the Congress the strongest it has been since the 1980s. And whether or not it's a sign of a healthy democracy, no matter how many times he rejects the title "yuvraj" (prince), Rahul's future is cast in stone.

"It doesn't take a political scientist to predict that sooner or later Rahul will assume the leadership of the party," Aiyar said.