TALWANDI SABO, India - Rahul Gandhi's speech may have been wooden and the applause sparse, but that didn't matter for dozens of party cadres who trailed his every move on a campaign stop in northern India.

For the man speaking is heir to the powerful Gandhi dynasty, a prime minister-in-waiting and the poster boy who may give the ruling Congress party a winning election edge.

The lukewarm crowd response highlights the uncertainty that surrounds Gandhi, 38, in his biggest political test: an election in which a Congress-led coalition is battling the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance.

Congress's official candidate is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but at 76 and undergoing heart surgery this year, many in the party see the youthful Gandhi as his replacement.

Despite campaigning only as a party youth leader, the election is testing his national appeal and whether his fame and family heritage can translate into winning votes from the kind of ordinary Indians who attended this Punjab rally.

To his supporters, he is an honest, tech-savvy politician appealing to the two thirds of Indians that are aged under 35. He comes from an excellent political bloodline as his father, grandmother and great grandfather were all prime ministers.

For critics, his prominence highlights Congress's dependence on the Gandhi trademark and underscores his lack of experience and difficulty in communicating with ordinary Indians.

The opposition says he would be incapable of leading this country of 1.1 billion, facing the massive challenges of an economic slowdown, a rising fiscal deficit and tension with neighboring Pakistan over last year's Mumbai attacks.


Gandhi himself has played down any role as a prime minister, focusing on introducing more grassroots democracy into the Congress party, especially its youth wing.

India is a young country. What India youth wants is empowerment, he told reporters after the rally.

We are not going to see it after three months, but give it seven years, he added, referring to the rise of a new generation of younger politicians in the Congress party.

The party plays on his youth, contrasting him with 81-year-old BJP leader L.K Advani.

He has zigzagged across India in the last few years, often staying the night in farmers' homes under the glare of camera lights, in what has been his political apprenticeship.

But even some supporters say his time may not have come.

I don't think he's ready yet. He needs more administrative exposure, said Raninder Singh, a Congress candidate who accompanied Gandhi on the rally. But the time will come when he's ready. To his credit, he's already managed to carry a cross section of the party with him.

If Congress wins the election, Gandhi could first take a ministerial post, perhaps in education which has been one of his major political interests.

Some analysts predict that both Congress and the BJP could fare badly in the election, leading to a weak coalition of regional parties that may only last two years.

That may herald an end to the elderly leadership of both BJP and Congress, giving Gandhi the chance to introduce a fresh generation.

This election is like the semi-final, said Yashwant Deshmukh, head of the C-Voter Polling Agency.