Future Indian leader deserves more attention

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September 01 2010

by Oliver Stuenkel

Last week's row over China's refusal to grant a visa to India's General Jaswal and India's tit-for-tat response were emblematic for the continued uneasiness of Sino-Indian relations.

Despite growing economic ties between them, it seems unlikely that the two Asian giants will be able to engage in a strategic partnership in the short term.

Yet India has turned into such an important actor that China can no longer afford to be on difficult terms with the country that is bound to become the world's third largest economy in a few decades.

Now is the time to lay the groundwork for a harmonious and mutually beneficial partnership.

One individual the Chinese leadership needs to focus on is Rahul Gandhi, in all likelihood India's future prime minister.

When Rahul Gandhi celebrated his 40th birthday two months ago, political insiders in New Delhi did not discuss whether, but rather when the political heir of the Nehru- Gandhi clan would become Indian's top leader.

His great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, grandmother Indira Gandhi and father Rajiv Gandhi were all Prime Ministers, and Rahul looks set to inherit the throne once Manmohan Singh, the current Prime Minister, is ready to move on and assume the Presidency, a largely ceremonial post.

After some rather uninspiring years as a member of parliament, Gandhi has begun to market himself more aggressively, organizing his party's highly successful election campaign in 2009.

He has traveled more across India than any other politician, focusing particularly on the aam aadmi, the common man, who has increasingly defected to regional caste-based parties, weakening the Congress Party's standing among the underprivileged.

Yet, despite his growing presence on billboards across India, and his widely documented visits by helicopter to poor villages, virtually nothing is known about Gandhi's political views. Gandhi turned down a ministerial post in Singh's government and rarely comments on delicate political issues. He categorically refuses to give interviews and has never been tested in a live debate.

This aloofness makes it difficult for those opponents to attack him, and it preserves a certain mystique about his persona.

Rahul's effortless rise despite his lack of political experience points to the power the name Gandhi still has in India.

Yet it also underlines the dearth of alternatives of resourceful young leaders, and a danger that a nuclear-armed world power may soon be led by an inexperienced politician.

After all, the incumbent prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was no charismatic Gandhi, but a quiet and modest technocrat who stoically pushed through reforms that allowed India to rise economically.

But Gandhi will be the first Indian leader to be born after the Sino-Indian War in 1962, and willing to leave past animosities behind.

Rather than waiting until Gandhi is in office, the Chinese government should reach out to him now, strengthen ties to India's future leader and lay the foundation for a lasting, open and beneficial bilateral partnership.

Oliver Stuenkel is a Visiting Professor of International Relations at the University of São Paulo (USP) and Fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin.