THAT image seared itself into this nation's collective psyche. The poignant television image of a young, devastated Rahul Gandhi sobbing into his father's waist as he stood next to his slain grandmother's body recalled the tragic one of the young John F. Kennedy Jr saluting his father's coffin two decades ago.
You next met 19-year-old Rahul on your morning paper second page: there he was, our gawky, stocky, bespectacled, Dilton Doiley lookalike at Delhi's St Stephens, where his admission had caused a furore: a 61 per cent aggregate in his school-leaving exam, a miserable 49 in Economics, a 41 in Math. Family friend Suman Dubey had to defend the teenager in print: cite his eight shooting medals, fourth rank in the 32nd National Shooting Championship as justification for his admission under the sports quota.
Long hiatus thereafter. Primarily because young Rahul wasn't there. He quit Stephens a year later, went off to the US for a degree in economics. And then another assassination, another appearance. A grim-faced, newly lean, more angular Rahul sat on his father's funeral carriage. Intense, set-jawed silence for the most part. Then pent-up emotion got the better of him and he clambered off, ran now ahead into the cortege, now behind. Once again, destiny permitted only a private grief extending into a public space, for a nation's prying eyes.
Images, yet more images. That's all we have of this young scion of the charismatic Nehru-Gandhi family. So who is the Real Rahul?Below-average student keeping the family record of undistinguished stints at distinguished institutions? A degree in economics from Harvard, another in development economics from Trinity, freelance assignments with British management consultancy firm? Or playboy with red car, London address, Colombian girlfriend and corporate ambition? Or politician in waiting with Amethi Today, All India Tomorrow ambition? Neither. By all accounts, Rahul is your regular 27-year-old, naturally loyal to both his lineage as well as a life of his own.
Super-status has been both the boon and the bane of his life. At Delhi's Junior Modern School, Rahul was once humiliated in a public assembly by a principal whose sense of duty triumphed over her sense of discretion. Modern alumnus Monsoon Bissel, 27, recalls with some distaste: "As monitor, I used to march down the line during morning assembly and confirm whether everyone was wearing a vest as per stipulations. I'd raise my hand each time I encountered an un-vested torso. Rahul squirmed as I reached out to touch him, raise my hand... Mrs Chandra, the principal, boomed out: 'What does Rahul Gandhi think? Just because his grandmother is the prime minister, he doesn't have to wear a vest to school?' It was insensitive."
Just a child "who loved nothing more than playing langdi taang" ( trip-a-leg) with other kids. "He clapped gleefully when his father tripped and fell flat on his face in the Papa's Race held one PTA Day," recalls fond teacher Manju Khullar. By all accounts, Rahul tripped right along through his school and college days in India.
The one year at Doon School, alma mater to father Rajiv and uncle Sanjay, was not altogether trouble-free. Though he submitted cheerfully to 'Dosco' rites of passage. "I believe he was locked in the bogs and chaps poured mugloads of cold water on him," recalls school senior, Delhi businessman Ratan Kapur. Run-of-the-mill schoolboy fun? Spiteful schoolboy envy for a child celebrity status? Pure fluff or pure Freud? Gandhi ambled right along. "Chaps that committed misdemeanours had to wait on tables. Rahul waited on tables quite often," chuckles Kapur.
At St Stephens, conscious undoubtedly of the resentment generated by his jumping the admission queue, he tried to sweeten the opposition by passing Gems chocolates around, gamely arm-wrestling mates in the college canteen. "He was slight in school," remembers Kapur, "but he'd started weight training, shooting, become much chunkier in college." Not weights alone. Also harpooning, golfing, squash, badminton, tennis.
AND lately women. Or so whispers the Delhi grapevine. There's unsubstantiated rumour about the Colombian girlfriend he intends marrying, the party circuit he inhabits with friends Abhishek Bachchan, Satish Sharma's son Sameer and Suman Dubey's son Amitabh. London gossip rags talk of the red car, the somebody-else's-girlfriend he's occasionally seen with in Hampstead. "If only he was three inches taller he would be devastating," sighs a college contemporary. Longtime family friend, Delhi art restorer Rupika Chawla breaks what she calls "the Gandhi friendship code of conduct" to laugh out just one line—"He does have the most delicious dimples."
In July '95 the wise men of The Times of India categorically stated he was fighting elections from Amethi. 1998 now, he's back, but perhaps only temporarily—to "help out", fuelled by a sense of family and duty and at the behest of the sister he's close to. "They grew up in isolation, under stifling security cover," says a family friend, "which explains their closeness. Sonia as a mother has never interfered with his life and career choices."
Meanwhile, the media attention continues. He appears by Sonia's side in Amethi. "Ekdum Rajivji ki moorat hai (looks exactly like Rajiv)," roar the crowds. In Rajasthan, he says: " Congress ko vote do, desh ko tagda banao (vote for the Congress, strengthen the country)," and all Dausa turns delirious. Next he surfaces in Guntur. "He belongs to the family that once ruled the nation. It's his right to rule," declares a politician. And what of Priyanka? "She, yes. But only if he, the son, refuses." Simple logic, wrung out in just three appearances. Partymen have joined the chorus. "He should become the Youth Congress president. That's what we all want," says a starry-eyed Congressman.
No one, of course, asks Rahul Gandhi what he wants. As college fresher he once sportingly jumped up and down in accurate imitation of a tennis ball when being ragged by a gaggle of female St Stephens sophomores. Indications are he might be a little less than willing to jump through hoops at the bidding of Congress lackeys who see him as their passport to an election victory. For now, Rahul seems content to follow rather than lead his illustrious family into the mined terrain of Indian politics.