The Next Generation

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She has been the one bright spot in India's dullest ever general election. When Priyanka Vadra, daughter of Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi, began campaigning for her mother in Amethi, the family constituency, crowds lined up on rooftops and streets just for a glimpse of her. Poets sang flowery verse in her honor, while men with megaphones shouted her praises. Priyanka is a natural leader, says Rajesh Pathak, a party worker in Amethi. She loves to talk to people and makes quick decisions. She will definitely be prime minister one day. That's a lot to expect of a 27-year-old housewife and political neophyte, even one who belongs to the clan that has produced three generations of prime ministers--Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi (Sonia's late husband). Priyanka herself insists she has no such plans. People expect us to be in politics because that is what my family has been doing for years, she told Time. But I am not interested. Instead, Priyanka, who married Delhi businessman Robert Vadra two years ago, says she wants to manage the Amethi constituency for her mother and work with the people.

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She stood tall with her arms outstretched in the back of a Land Rover, then ignored her machinegun-toting guards and plunged into the crowd (9/19/99)

Having failed to capitalize on Kargil, the BJP is once again targeting the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi in a foul presidential-style campaign
Few take her at her word, in part because she seems ideally suited for the family profession--just as elder brother Rahul, 29, seems a political misfit. Charming, good looking and confident, Priyanka plainly enjoys the hustle and bustle of campaigning. While Rahul appears uncomfortable with the crowds, his sister flouts security to shake hands with children and embrace old ladies. Unlike her mother, she speaks fluent Hindi and often talks to ordinary people about their problems; gushing journalists have compared her to the late Princess Diana. Sonia's Italian birth may have proved a political liability in this election--how much so will become clear when the votes are counted this week--but Priyanka is seen as impeccably Indian. To some voters, she's even a spitting image of her grandmother, Indira. Priyanka knows that the party will try to force her into politics as it did her mother. For now, she says she won't yield: My mother thought it was her duty to our family. I don't believe that I can solve every problem.

Congress sees things differently. Long accustomed to piggybacking on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, the party has great plans for Priyanka. Some senior officials are already looking past Sonia and fantasizing about a Priyanka-led return to power in the not-too-distant future. She represents our best hope, says Jairam Ramesh, a Congress leader. Nobody else can unite and energize the party.

Reared from birth in a prime minister's house, Priyanka and Rahul are used to attention and sycophancy. In school, the teachers always said we were the best--the best dancers, best gymnasts, Priyanka says with a laugh. Later we realized this was not true. These days, Priyanka is known for being impatient with fawning party members, and assistants say she has a fiery temper that sometimes erupts in public. But Priyanka is also protective of her allies. When Amethi police roughed up some of her campaign workers, she marched into the district administrator's office and yelled at him. The bureaucrat was just standing there saying, 'Yes sir, yes sir,' says a witness to the dressing down. Now we are all ready to lay down our lives for her.

Priyanka is also tireless. At Amethi, she campaigned all day and then held meetings with party workers until dawn. Yet she admits to being a little cynical about politics, and not just because she has been surrounded by it since birth. I was very enthusiastic and joined the party when I turned 18, she says. But then I forgot all about it.

Priyanka has good reason to avoid politics: she has seen the horrors it can bring. She and Rahul were pulled out of school in 1984 when Indira was murdered by her own bodyguards. Rajiv, forced into politics, faced ugly corruption charges that are yet to be resolved. Then he too was killed, by a suicide bomber during an election campaign in 1991. Priyanka had to take care of her distraught mother and organize the funeral. It has not been an easy life, she says, but many people have a much more difficult time.

Sonia--who cradled her dying mother-in-law in her lap as she was rushed to the hospital, and later saw her husband blown to pieces--is said to be concerned about her children's safety. Priyanka says her mother often scolds her for abandoning the bodyguards and wading into crowds. But the violent deaths in the family seem to have inured the younger woman to fear. When you set out to do something, you have to take risks. I don't think death is such a bad thing, she says.

Like a true politician, Priyanka even uses the family's tragedy to tug at voters' heartstrings. I am the daughter of the man who died for you, she has said at election rallies. Our family has a tradition of service and love. That is why my mother is coming to you. Please give her a chance to continue that tradition. Does Priyanka think her mother would make a good prime minister? Why not? she says. I think she will. But it may be difficult to promote Sonia when it is Priyanka who charms the crowds--and inspires the poets.