Letter from India: For a Gandhi who waits, tributes keep mountingNEW DELHI As acts of political sycophancy go, it's hard to beat the adulation ritual performed by 300 or so youth members of the ruling Congress party who recently decided to get Rahul Gandhi's name tattooed on their forearms.
"If you hang a leader's portrait in your office, you can easily remove the picture when the politician changes. You can't change a tattoo: it shows your loyalty is permanent," said Vishnu Prasad, the leader of the party's youth movement in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, who organized the mass tattooing session. "I went home to my wife and told her I had married a second time and would be loyal to Rahul like I am to her. We all see Rahul as our future leader and as the man who will make India into a superpower."
Congress Party members are racing to pay tribute to the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty's heir apparent. Hand-painted posters of the handsome politician appear mysteriously in the capital; newspaper advertisements paying homage to him are taken out by local party delegates; calendars depicting his face are hung in regional offices; enormous birthday cakes are delivered to his door by people he has never met.
If the sycophants are increasing their oleaginous behavior, this is just a reflection of their belief that Rahul's time is drawing near.
All things being equal, this passionate hero worship would be hard to explain. Since being elected to Parliament last May, the 35-year-old hasn't said very much and doesn't appear to have done very much either. But with Gandhi as a surname, all things are not equal.
Ask anyone in the capital's political circles and they agree that Rahul Gandhi is on course to follow his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, his grandmother Indira Gandhi, his father, Rajiv, and his mother, Sonia, to a controlling position in Indian politics. The question is not so much "Does he deserve it?" but "Does he really want it?" and "When?"
Gandhi is currently undergoing a crash course in Indian politics designed to transform him from a suave Cambridge and Harvard-educated management consultant, who has spent large chunks of his life abroad, into a homegrown leader of the Indian masses. This grooming process has recently intensified.
First there was his trip to Afghanistan at the prime minister's side - his first foray onto the international stage. This week he completed a tour of village life in the south, familiarizing himself with heartland India. On Friday he was to learn about the problems facing his constituents in Amethi, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which has long been the Nehru clan's political base. These recent appearances have reignited speculation that Gandhi Little is soon to be promoted.
"The top leadership is there for him to grab if he wants it," said Salman Khursheed, president of the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh. Even the finance minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, said last week that he would be "very happy" to see him elected as leader of the Congress party.
It's not yet clear whether Gandhi is planning to step forward. During his 17-month political career, he has hardly astonished the parliamentary sketch-writers. He has yet to make a maiden speech and has only made one, brief intervention in Parliament (on the fate of sugar cane farmers in his district). He spends his free time go-karting with friends.
All of which has been interpreted as a reluctance to do his dynastic duty.
"People keep saying I am shy," he said in a rare interview (which party officials later tried to dismiss as an off-the-record chat) last month. "I am not at all shy. I am not reluctant." He revealed that he was aiming for the top, but hinted that he was in no hurry to get there. "What is my goal? My goal is to take India to the number one slot," he told the weekly paper Tehelka.
His political education had to come first. "I am still learning," he said.
Gandhi has no spin doctor, but his party colleagues are all singing from the same hymnbook, and the refrain of the month is "humility." His retiring nature is not the result of his political inexperience, they chant, but a sign of his innate modesty.
"He is very humble. He doesn't want to come across as arrogant," Milind Deora, a fellow young Congress member of Parliament, says. "It's much more important to change the lives of the people who elected him than to make sound bites for television. He is a very humble person," adds Sachin Pilot, another young Congress politician.
Certainly the little that is known about his political convictions suggests a fascination with humble, grass-roots movements - things like rural empowerment programs and women's self-help groups - rather than Machiavellian networking.
This meekness is not enough to ward off his critics, who are depressed to see yet another member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty - which has ruled India for most of its post-independence history - being readied for power.
Patwant Singh, a political historian who is researching a book on the fault lines within Indian democracy, says he is appalled by the promotion of the Gandhi dauphin: "This dynastic principle is unacceptable. The idea of a fifth member of one family coming to power in India completely undermines the democratic ideal."
Even supporters concede simmering concerns about his suitability. How swiftly can he pick up on the nuances of Indian political life after so many years spent studying and working abroad?
Is there any truth in the gossip column rumors about plans to marry his Latin American girlfriend against the wishes of the family? Should the family have promoted his dynamic sister Priyanka in his place?
Within Congress circles there's a stubborn attachment to this figure who combines the celebrity allure of the Gandhi name with youth and glamour. In a country where 70 percent of the population is under 35 (and much of the political leadership is past retirement age), party officials realize the urgent need to court the coming generation. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is 73.