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India's JFK Junior

Sonia's back, but Rahul Gandhi's making strides.

Rahul Gandhi
Rahul Gandhi, Indian parliamentarian and son of the chief of the ruling Congress party Sonia Gandhi, leaves after casting his vote at a polling station in New Delhi, May 7, 2009. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

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