Rahul Gandhi
In spotlight: Rahul Gandhi Reuters

Rahul Gandhi, the heir to India's most successful political dynasty, launched a campaign for key state polls on Monday, increasing speculation that he may soon take over from his ailing mother as leader of the Congress party.

Gandhi, 41, needs to rally voters in polls due by May next year in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous and one of the poorest states, to strengthen his case to lead at the national level. A key plank of Gandhi's outreach efforts is to convince the poor, once a loyal support base for the Congress, but now increasingly fragmented into supporting regional parties seen as amplifying their specific concerns.

The anguish and helplessness of the poor angers me, Gandhi said at a large rally in Phulpur, once the constituency of his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister following independence from the British in 1947. I have learnt that a leader will never understand the plight of poor unless he eats at a poor man's house or drinks dirty water from a well in a village and upsets his stomach, he said at the rally on the anniversary of Nehru's birth.

In Uttar Pradesh, Gandhi needs to beat Chief Minister Mayawati, whose Bhujan Samaj Party (BSP) who has wide support in the state that sends the most seats to the national parliament and is a grooming ground for future prime ministers. He has a tough job on his hands. The national government coalition led by the Congress has floundered in its second term, with high inflation and anger at corruption scandals paralyzing economic reforms and souring support.

Gandhi has spent the last few years travelling across the country to take up the cause of poor farmers, and spent nights in impoverished village homes to gain a deeper understanding of the country's social ills. But as an elected member of parliament since 2004 from Uttar Pradesh, he rarely speaks on national issues and has spent much of his time of organizing the party's youth wing.

His few forays into national politics have mostly fallen flat - most recently an attempt to mediate during massive anti-corruption protests flopped and he looked indecisive. His mother Sonia Gandhi is party chief and seen as the real power behind Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But she has barely been seen in public since undergoing surgery for an undisclosed illness in the summer and many in the party say Rahul will soon take the lead.

As well as Nehru, the family has produced prime ministers in Indira Gandhi, his daughter, and her son Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul's father. Both were assassinated.

But Mayawati, an agile politician who hails from the low Dalit caste, remains popular and accuses Rahul of theatrics rather than true concern for the poor.

To counter her appeal, Congress party leaders at the rally voiced a new slogan tying Gandhi to his most venerable relative. Remember Nehru and walk with Rahul, and posters bore the image of the two men. Gandhi used the launch to rip into Mayawati's record, saying in the now BSP stronghold of Phulpur that the chief minister was ruling the state like a mafia boss, guzzling funds sent by central government for development.

Mayawati is often ridiculed nationally for using funds donated by supporters to fund a lavish lifestyle. Central funds meant for Uttar Pradesh being eaten up by BSP workers and criminals, he said. While the rest of India is developing, Uttar Pradesh is moving backwards.