NEW DELHI: Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi has never been a minister in a federal or state government, has not led his Congress party to a general election victory, and quit as party chief after it was demolished in the last parliamentary polls in 2019.
Yet he remains at the centre of India’s opposition politics and the main target of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu- nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Now, his conviction and two-year jail sentence in a defamation case, and consequent dismissal from parliament on Friday, could galvanize his party and its allies to step up their opposition to the BJP government a year before the next general election is due.
The conviction on Thursday came barely two months after Gandhi, 52, concluded a 4,000-km cross-country march from India’s southern tip to Kashmir in the Himalayas in a bid to revive his party and refurbish his image in what he called a Bharat Jodo Yatra, or unify India march.
Gandhi’s jail sentence has been suspended for 30 days allowing him to appeal to a higher court but he will also not be able to contest the next general election unless he gets his conviction suspended or overturned.
At the heart of his central role in opposition politics is the fact that his party has ruled India for 54 of its 75 years since independence from Britain, and his father, grandmother and great-grandfather were prime ministers for more than 37 of those 54 years.
Congress was the largest national political party with a footprint across the country of 1.4 billion people until it was overtaken by the BJP in 2014.
Although now a shadow of its former self, the Gandhi family - which includes Rahul’s Italian-born mother and former party chief Sonia, and his sister Priyanka - still dominates Congress and commands fierce loyalty.
It is this potent lineage and legacy that Modi and his party seek to attack when they say dynastic politics has no role in a democracy, analysts say.
Even though Congress withered in 2019, winning less than 10 per cent of the 545 seats in the lower house, it commanded nearly 20 per cent of the vote - the largest for any opposition group - against the BJP’s 38 per cent.
Congress is the ruling party, or the main opposition in about half a dozen important states.
Gandhi entered politics and was first elected to parliament in 2004 from his family borough of Amethi in the northern heartland state of Uttar Pradesh.
He repeated that victory in 2009 and 2014 but suffered a shock setback in 2019 when he lost the seat. However, he had also contested a seat in the Kerala state and won there to return to parliament.
Gandhi’s attendance in parliament has been far below the average. His frequent absences from the chamber, and the country, have been the focus of the media and drawn BJP accusations that he is a “non-serious” politician.
Outside parliament, he has often reminded his supporters of his family’s commitment and sacrifices, talking about the assassinations of his grandmother, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and his former prime minister father, Rajiv Gandhi.
Of late, he has been stirring controversy with criticism of the BJP.
In Britain last month he said in a speech that democracy was in danger under Modi, angering the BJP whose members demanded an apology or said he should face exclusion from the chamber.
On Thursday, after his conviction, he simply posted on Twitter some words in Hindi from freedom movement leader, Mahatma Gandhi, who is not a relation.
“My religion is based on truth and non-violence. Truth is my God, non-violence the means to get it. - Mahatma Gandhi”.
Single at 52, Gandhi is known to be a fitness and martial arts enthusiast and has been seen cycling in New Delhi accompanied by security men.
His conviction and disqualification from parliament is now “make or break” for him, said Neelanjan Sircar, a senior visiting fellow at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research.
“Will he be able to make the argument that ‘I am being targeted by a government that does not necessarily represent the interest of all Indians’, or is he going to be seen as somebody who is not a capable politician and therefore has been outplayed by the BJP,” Sircar told Reuters.
Rahul was born in 1970 into India’s equivalent of the Kennedy clan in the United States, with its own history of elite prestige, political power and tragedy.
At the time his grandmother Indira Gandhi — daughter of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and no relation to fellow independence hero Mahatma Gandhi — was premier.
Indira was shot dead by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 in retaliation for ordering a military assault on the Golden Temple, the faith’s holiest shrine, earlier that year.
She was succeeded by her son Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul’s father. Rajiv was assassinated in 1991 by a Tamil suicide bomber when Rahul was 20.
Rahul was enrolled at Harvard but dropped out after a year following his father’s death. He later graduated from Rollins College, Florida and in 1994 earned a master’s degree from Cambridge.
While in his 20s, he lived in London, where he worked at a management consultancy for a time as his mother Sonia, Rajiv’s widow, took charge of Congress.
She worked to groom her son for top office but by the time he was ready to lead, the political fortunes of the charismatic Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party were fast on the rise.
He steered Congress to two landslide election defeats, with Modi openly mocking his privileged upbringing at campaign rallies and comparing it to his own humble origins as “a son of the soil”.
His exhortations of religious tolerance and India’s secular traditions also failed to dent the BJP’s muscular advocacy for the Hindu majority.
Gandhi stepped down as opposition leader in 2019 after the second loss and his mother also vacated the party presidency last year.
But analysts say the family remain in de facto control of the party and are still its most recognised faces.
And Gandhi remains the most likely candidate to defeat Modi in next year’s election, even if political experts consider another BJP landslide a near certainty.