On a blisteringly hot Friday morning in the summer of 2011, Rahul Gandhi was hiking through the fields of western Uttar Pradesh.
Dressed in traditional Indian clothes and followed closely by a team of perspiring police bodyguards in black nylon safari suits, he brushed off suggestions that he had selected a perilously hot day to pursue his campaign march, or yatra, through the villages. “It’s not the hottest day of the year,” he insisted.
Later, in the course of a 40 minute conversation with The Independent as he continued his walk, Mr Gandhi outlined some of the changes he wanted to bring to India and his Congress party. He talked about spreading democracy at the village level, the need for land reform and inclusive development, and about anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare whose supporters had recently protested in Delhi.
Mr Gandhi, who was campaigning ahead of state elections the following year, was friendly, earnest and seemingly well-intentioned. The only question that seemed to catch him off guard was when it was suggested to him that for all his talk of spreading democracy, people in the villages he was walking through actually received very little from politicians such as himself.
Reeling on the spot, Mr Gandhi, his face sunburned and bearing several days of stubble, took his interlocutor by the shoulder, led the way to a onlooking farmer and quizzed the villager as to whether or not he ever got to see politicians. The startled farmer’s coy response was that he did sometimes see the elected village head, an answer that Mr Gandhi chose to interpret favourably rather than as proof that MPs such as him rarely met their constituents.
The conversation, as with all of Mr Gandhi’s rare interactions with the media at that time, was on a background basis. His spokesman has repeatedly failed to respond to requests that the interview be placed on-the-record.
But the answer to one question still rings out. Asked whether it was ironic that those most interested in increasing grass roots democracy in the country were from privileged backgrounds and had inherited their positions, he responded: “For the sake of helping the people of India, I don’t think it matters who my parents were.”
This week, Mr Gandhi is facing another humiliating defeat. His campaign in UP two years ago failed to stop his party being decimated. Now he is faced by the prospect that his efforts in the general election campaign, the results of which are to be announced on Friday, could result in Congress’s worst ever showing.
If the polls are correct - and they have been wildly off in the past – Congress’s coalition, the United Progressive Alliance, could secure just 101 seats and by itself India’s oldest political party could be reduced to fewer than 80. The prospect has raised fresh questions about the very issue Mr Gandhi referred to when he mentioned his status as the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Could it mark the end of India’s first political family?
“This defeat offers the opportunity for the Congress to regroup and to revitalise. This needs to be the priority during the next few years,” said Professor Katharine Adeney, a South Asia expert at the University of Nottingham. “For Congress to move away from dynastic politics, and to revitalise itself effectively, other leaders than those within the Gandhi family need to be promoted.”
Little more than a decade ago it appeared Mr Gandhi, 43, the great grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, the grandson of Indira Gandhi and the son of Rajiv Gandhi, was content to remain in his rather anonymous career as a management consultant. But seemingly unable to escape the destiny others were fixing for him, in 2004 he contested and won the UP constituency of Amethi, occupied before him by both his mother and father.
His rise was assured and most assumed he would at some point take over from Manmohan Singh as India’s prime minister. Yet as the possible day of reckoning became nearer, more people questioned whether or not Mr Gandhi actually wanted the top job. Even observers such as David Miliband, the former British foreign secretary who spent a night in a village hut with Mr Gandhi in 2009, became aware of his reputation as the “reluctant prince”.
“He does not seem to be in a great hurry. Partly because of the enormity of the past,” said Rasheed Kidwai, a biographer of Sonia Gandhi, referring to Rahul Gandhi’s father, Rajiv, who was killed by a suicide bomber.
Mr Gandhi himself raised his concerns about taking the top job when he was officially appointed deputy leader of the Congress party in January last year. “Last night each one of you congratulated me,” he told party delegates in Jaipur. “[But] my mother came to my room and she sat with me and she cried because she understands the power so many people seek is actually a poison.”
This January, the party announced Mr Gandhi would head its election campaign against Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Yet it stepped short of naming him as the prime ministerial candidate, something many took as more evidence of both his uncertainty about becoming premier and the party’s anticipation of a defeat.
Mr Gandhi, who is sometimes found in the gymnasium of an high-end Delhi hotel, threw himself into the campaign, travelling across India and attending more than 100 rallies. But his labour paled in comparison with Mr Modi, who spoke at more than 400 events.
After ten years in power, the Congress party was already facing widespread feelings of anti-incumbency. But Mr Gandhi’s often lacklustre performances, when he talked about the welfare schemes Congress had organised for the poor, compared poorly with Mr Modi’s dynamic, slick appearances when he spoke to enthusiastic crowds about how he would help them to help themselves.
Mr Gandhi failed to see that hundreds of millions of Indians aspired to more than handouts from the elite. He was even upstaged by his own sister, Priyanka, who proved to be a far more natural campaigner, though her message also fell flat with many.
“These are rich people. They arrive, they leave and we are left with nothing,” said Savita Singh, a 23-year-old college graduate who recently watched Mrs Gandhi campaign for her brother in the UP village of Musafirkhana.
In Delhi, Mr Gandhi surrounds himself by a small team of advisers and gatekeepers, among them Kanishka Singh, the US-educated son of a late senior bureaucrat, Kaushal Vidyarthee and Meenakshi Natarajan, a member of parliament. He is accused of not listening to other voices, many of them senior figures.
On the campaign trail, he often seems remote and awkward. Akhilesh Pratap Singh, an elected representative from UP who is close to Mr Gandhi, said when he returned to the family’s compound after a day’s campaigning he would jog for an hour by himself or his police guard.
In the aftermath of the Congress’s trouncing in the 2012 local elections in UP, Mr Gandhi spoke up and took the blame. Even though a flurry of sycophantic party members tried to suggest it was their fault, he declared: “I accept responsibility. After all, I was the main campaigner.”
This time, the Congress has already stepped forward to take “collective responsibility”. Outgoing minister Kamal Nath, told reporters: “Rahul Gandhi was never part of the government. Election results are a reflection of the people’s perception about the government’s functioning.”
In most political environments, two successive defeats would spell the end of any leader. But Rahul Gandhi and his mother, who has suffered health problems, are likely to endure because while they have shown their ineffectiveness as vote winners, the Congress believes they are the glue that binds the party together.
This is the limiting logic that deadens ambition for anyone with aspirations for the top job, but which creates a structure of power around which the various layers of the party can build themselves. The opposition BJP, whose candidate rose from a poor background, claims this is a major difference between the two parties.
“They are the knot on top,” said Lord Meghdad Desai, an Indian born member of Britain’s House of Lords. “If you undo it, the whole thing will dissolve and break up into many smaller regional parties...I think they will try and soldier on for now, perhaps with Priyanka taking over her mother’s seat because she is ill.”
Some senior leaders in the Congress have expressed frustration about Mr Gandhi’s performance during the campaign trail and admitted that Priyanka Gandhi’s role was intentionally limited in order not to overshadow her brother. Yet the belief of many is that the Congress would struggle to survive without them.
In the aftermath of the exit polls published this week, one senior party figure considered very close to the family, was still trying to sound optimistic. He said the party could win 135 seats, considerably more than the total of 80 being predicted by some polls.
“Rahul believes very strongly we are are going to better than that. He says ‘the polls have been wrong before’,” said the politician who asked not be named. “We will only know on Friday, once we get the numbers.”