Faith in Gandhi dynasty wavers in family fiefdom

Faith in Gandhi dynasty wavers in family fiefdom
Rahul Gandhi, India's ruling Congress party vice president and son of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, waving to his supporters during a road show ahead of the 2014 general elections at Samuguri village in the northeastern Indian state of Assam.

AMETHI, India - School teacher Arun Singh says he'll vote once again for Rahul Gandhi as his member of parliament in India's election, but more out of loyalty than conviction.

"The roads are bad, water is scarce and power fluctuates - not much has changed in the last 10 years," Singh says.

"Despite that everybody, including myself, will vote for the Gandhi family, not particularly because of Rahul."

For more than 30 years, the people of Amethi, a poor wheat-growing region dotted with hamlets, have turned out to elect different members of India's most famous clan.

Would-be prime minister Rahul Gandhi followed in his uncle, mother and father's footsteps in becoming the area's member of parliament, winning thumping victories there in 2004 and 2009.

But even here, in the most partisan of spots in Uttar Pradesh state 600 kilometres (370 miles) east of Delhi, echoes of the doubts raised in the capital about the 43-year-old's leadership can be heard.

Many say the mild-mannered bachelor is inaccessible and a rare visitor. Others wonder what he has achieved over 10 years of representing his 1.2 million constituents.

With some surveys predicting the worst-ever result for the ruling Congress party in elections which begin on Monday, its vice-president and unofficial prime ministerial candidate faces unprecedented pressure.

Few would predict the demise of a family that has rebounded from defeats before, yet there are warning signs for a bloodline that has run India for most of its 67 years since independence.

In Uttar Pradesh state elections in 2012, Congress lost three out of five assembly seats in Amethi, and all five in neighbouring Rae Bareli, represented by Rahul's mother Sonia, president of the party since 1998.

'I am against dynasty rule'

A recent poll found only 50 percent had a favourable view of Rahul compared with 78 percent for election frontrunner Narendra Modi, a hardline Hindu nationalist from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

And as he seeks a third term in parliament, Rahul faces a challenge from a new anti-corruption party whose candidate has been touring Amethi with a yellow truck fitted with loud-speakers.

"I am against the dynasty rule," Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party candidate Kumar Vishwas, a well-known poet, told AFP.

"I am against the imposition of that man who has done nothing for his constituency as well as for the country."

The BJP has named its candidate in Amethi as Smriti Irani, a popular former TV personality who made her name playing a righteous housewife in an award-winning soap opera.

Despite the competition, Rahul's campaign manager is confident of victory.

"The Gandhi family has a relationship with this constituency for 40 years," said Chandrakant Dubey. "They have a very close bond and the people of Amethi understand this."

From Bollywood to business and politics, families dominate India's public and private spheres and Rahul has put himself in the awkward position of being both a critic and beneficiary of this system.

He told an interviewer in January he was "absolutely against the concept of dynasty" but that "power is an instrument that can be used for certain things".

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