NEW DELHI – The golden boy of Indian politics may be losing some of his sheen.
Rahul Gandhi — the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Indian prime ministers — has spent years positioning himself to seize what is almost seen as his birthright and take charge of the country.
But a series of electoral setbacks, an embarrassing Wikileaks revelation and his accusation, without proof, that police killed and raped protesting farmers in an opposition-led state has left some questioning whether Gandhi has the skill, experience or discipline to lead India.
A newspaper editorial titled "Rahul in Blunderland," depicted Gandhi as a political amateur stumbling from gaffe to gaffe, while party leaders follow behind him trying to repair the damage. Political opponents have begun calling him "the former future prime minister." A stalwart of his Congress party called for his sister, Priyanka, to jump back into politics to help rescue the family's legacy.
"He's been under immense pressure," said Aarthi Ramachandran, who is writing a book on Gandhi. "There has been a sense that the Rahul Gandhi brand of politics is not going anywhere."
Gandhi, who bears no relation to peace icon Mohandas K. Gandhi, grew up as the fawned-over heir to India's version of the British monarchy or America's Kennedy dynasty.
The family patriarch was Jawaharlal Nehru, a hero of the struggle for independence from British rule who became India's first prime minister.
Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, later took power, followed by her son Rajiv. Both were killed in political assassinations. Rajiv's Italian-born widow, Sonia, then took over the Congress party, becoming India's most powerful politician and setting the stage for her son to eventually take up the family mantle.
When Congress won the 2004 election, she gave the prime minister's post to Manmohan Singh, a respected economist of limited political ambitions. He steered the country to record growth, but since his 2009 re-election, Singh has been seen as more of a regent, running the country while Rahul Gandhi gained the experience and stature to assume command.
Earlier this month, Gandhi shook off most of his security detail, hopped on the back of a motorcycle and rode out to join a farmers' protest over land rights in the opposition-ruled state of Uttar Pradesh, which has an election next year. The maneuver cast him as a man of the people and brought national attention to the protests against the state's chief minister, a political rival. He even managed to get himself briefly arrested, a rite of passage for Indian political leaders.
But upon his return to Delhi, Gandhi accused state police of a rampage of rape and killing in the farmers' village and claimed there was a 70-foot (20-meter) pile of ash there with dead bodies inside. State authorities denied it and forensic tests on the ash turned up only melted plastic and burnt cow dung.
Gandhi said he was simply repeating what villagers had told him. His critics said he had transformed a political coup into an embarrassment.
During last year's elections in the state of Bihar, Congress, at Gandhi's behest, eschewed its usual pre-election coalition with a regional ally and decided to run on its own. Despite Gandhi's tireless campaigning, the party won a humiliating four seats out of 234.
In election results in a series of other states announced this month, many of the young candidates he hand-picked to bring new blood to the party were defeated.
Then there was the furor over the Wikileaks cable released last December, which revealed that Gandhi told U.S. Ambassador Timothy J. Roemer in 2009 that Hindu extremism could pose a greater threat to India than Islamic militants, including the Pakistan-based group blamed for the deadly 2008 siege in Mumbai. The Hindu nationalist opposition battered him as out of touch, and commentators slammed him as politically naive.
"Rahul Gandhi is yet to prove his intellectual ability to grasp issues and go deep into them," said Arun Sharma, a 75-year-old playwright in the northeast city of Gauhati.
Rashid Kidwai, who is writing a book about the Gandhi family, said Rahul Gandhi would be better able to weather these hiccups if he had more achievements to his name.
As it is, the presumed prime minister-in-waiting has never held a Cabinet post, almost never gives interviews and rarely addresses the more controversial issues facing India, such as how to resolve violence in Kashmir or tackle the corruption scandals roiling the Congress-led government.
"He is a well-meaning person, but it's not enough to become prime minister of India," Kidwai said. "He must have a social policy, he must have an economic policy."
That hasn't prevented the youthful-looking, 40-year-old bachelor from becoming a subject of fascination in India. When he stopped wearing glasses last year, gossip pages tried to guess whether he went for contacts or surgery. In his flowing white kurta shirt and hip dusting of 5 o'clock shadow, he tries to reach out to India's young, rising middle class, while simultaneously casting himself as the defender of its hundreds of millions of downtrodden.
"He talks to the poor, he meets poor people. He considers the problems of the poor. He is like a leader should be," said Usha Sharma, a 56-year-old woman who runs a small tea shop by the banks of the putrid Yamuna River in New Delhi.
During a visit to Mumbai, Gandhi was cheered when he left behind his motorcade and jumped aboard a train — security guards in tow — alongside the masses of daily commuters. When the government rejected a mining project that had inflamed residents along a remote mountain, he flew out to the area the next day, seized credit for the government decision, and promised the jubilant villagers he would continue to be their soldier in Delhi.
Sakaldeo Rai, a 61-year-old man in the city of Patna, questioned Gandhi's sincerity, accusing him of "shedding crocodile's tears" for India's poor.
In the city of Lucknow, teacher Shashi Kumar dismissed Gandhi's concern as simple politicking, but Ramesh Gupta, who sells tea on the roadside, broke in to defend him. "At least Rahul is trying to reach out to people. He is listening to people's woes. How many current politicians do that?"
Associated Press writers Muneeza Naqvi in New Delhi, Biswajeet Banerjee in Lucknow, Indrajit Singh in Patna and Wasbir Hussain in Gauhati contributed to this report.