| NEW DELHI
NEW DELHI The rise of Rahul Gandhi to India's top office is now more a question of when, not if.
The handsome 41-year-old great-grandson of India's first ever prime minister has long been tipped as a future leader of the country, and incumbent Manmohan Singh said on Wednesday the party had not discussed him stepping down before his term ends in 2014 but he was ready for that.
"I don't mind young leaders taking over," Singh was quoted as saying in response to a question on Rahul replacing him.
The son of Congress party president Sonia Gandhi and heir to a dynasty that has ruled independent India for almost four decades of its 64-year history, the premiership isn't just Rahul's for the taking, it's almost his birthright.
Despite Rahul's venture into politics so far yielding only mixed electoral results for Congress, senior party figures have in the past few weeks renewed calls for him to succeed Singh.
The 78-year-old Singh has been battered and bruised by corruption scandals and a yawning disconnect with the public has undermined his leadership and his party's standing, leading some to call for a change at the top before 2014.
Rahul is being cast as a youthful rejuvenator of a party and government drifting in the political doldrums.
Rahul's great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru announced to the world at midnight on August 15, 1947, that India had re-awoken. He was born during the first premiership of his grandmother, Indira Gandhi, and saw his father, Rajiv, rule for five years.
And when his mother, the Italian-born Sonia who married into the family, led Congress to a surprising victory in 2004, Rahul's ascension seemed inevitable. He is already a year older than his father was when he assumed the premiership in 1984.
A general secretary of the ruling party and its campaign manager in India's most populous state, Rahul has kept his true political ambitious close to his chest.
Aides say he is intent on reviving the party in the populous heartland states in northern India, where Congress has been out of power for decades, before considering the top post.
But despite the public support of senior party figures such as Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh, questions abound whether he has the abilities to revamp and lead a listless Congress party.
His much-vaunted political career has struggled since he left a job in London as a financial consultant to join the family trade, with a mixed record as an election strategist, a sense of political immaturity and a reputation for gaffes.
The teenage Rahul studied at the prestigious Doon School in the foothills of the Himalayas, following in his father's footsteps at the "Eton of the East" favoured by India's upper crust and boasting alumni across the political spectrum.
Home-schooled due to security fears after his grandmother was assassinated in 1984, Rahul was forced to abandon his studies at Harvard and take on a pseudonym at the University of Florida when his father was killed seven years later.
An member of the lower house of parliament since 2004, Rahul was elected to a seat that has been held by a Gandhi family member for 23 of the past 31 years, and unlike several other young Congress lawmakers considered close to him, has never held a ministerial portfolio.
A Congress general secretary in charge of the party's youth and student wings, the beaming, fresh-faced Rahul features prominently on huge party hoardings and in publications, flanked by the wrinkled Singh and his proud, poised mother.
But in news conferences he often appears nervous and uncomfortable, and on stage at political rallies he lacks the charm and self-confidence of his mother -- crucial failings in a country where personality can often trump politics at the polls.
Tactless comments on Hindu extremism, Pakistan and his family's influence raised fears over his political acumen, while a U.S. cable published by WikiLeaks in March labelled him "a neophyte who does not have what it takes to be prime minister."
Like his father before him, Rahul was given charge of party campaigns in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state whose 80-strong block of lawmakers can make or break governments. His record is patchy.
He failed in his first test, as Congress vastly under performed expectations in 2007 state elections. But two years later the party rebounded in a federal poll, winning 21 seats. Rahul won his constituency by more than 300,000 votes.
Much will rest on the state election next year.
That poll, pitting Cambridge-educated Rahul against chief minister Mayawati, the "Untouchable Queen" whose support is based around former low castes considered untouchable, will be his sternest political test, and set the stage for the 2014 general election.
He was briefly arrested in May for joining a farmers protest against land acquisition for a highway in the state, drawing plaudits for mirroring the "Aam Aadmi" (common man) campaign that his mother used to beat the Bharatiya Janta Party in 2004.
But his unsubstantiated claims that the Mayawati government had burnt farmers to death reignited a debate on his suitability for office, and prompted an editorial titled "Rahul in Blunderland" in a prominent daily newspaper.
And some party insiders cited in the March U.S. cable have even talked of ditching Rahul in favour of his sister, Priyanka, who ran their mother's 2004 campaign, boasts the trademark Gandhi assuredness and bears a striking resemblance to Indira.
(Editing by Paul de Bendern and Robert Birsel)