NEW DELHI, May 22: Just a few months ago, Rahul Gandhi, scion of India´s famed Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, was widely tipped as a future prime minister -- and the only question was when he would take over the job.
Now his appeal appears to be fading amid a stumbling performance in his campaign to be champion of the nation´s poor and a string of corruption scandals that have rocked the ruling Congress party to which he belongs.
Gandhi, 41, drew headlines last week when he accused police in India´s most populous state Uttar Pradesh of mass killings of farmers who had been demonstrating for greater compensation for land sales to the state.
Gandhi, son of Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi, described 74 mounds with "dead bodies inside" after clashes between farmers and state police.
"There are quite severe atrocities taking place there. People have been killed," he said.
Days later, Congress was forced into an embarrassing retreat with Uttar Pradesh forensic officials calling the allegations nonsense.
"Common sense" should have told Gandhi "there is some distance between an inflamed accusation made by agitators and reality," noted veteran commentator M.J. Akbar.
The incident, along with the poor performances of many of his handpicked candidates in recent state elections, raised fresh questions about whether Gandhi is prime ministerial material.
"Rahul in Blunderland," said The Hindu newspaper in an editorial, commenting that the "predilection" of Congress´s crown prince "to shoot from the hip is proving to be a challenge for the party."
Since India´s independence from Britain in 1947, power in Congress has threaded from Gandhi´s great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, India´s first prime minister, to his grandmother Indira Gandhi, shot dead by Sikh assassins, and then in dynastic succession to his father Rajiv, slain by a suicide bomber.
It now rests with his Italian-born mother Sonia, seen as India´s most influential politician. She has carefully managed her son´s career, making sure he has had time to carry out his aim of learning politics "brick by brick."
Congress Party president and chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), Sonia Gandhi (L) talks to son Rahul Gandhi.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 78, a Gandhi loyalist picked by Sonia to lead the government, is seen as keeping the premier´s seat warm for Rahul.
But his record has been lacklustre. He is not a natural orator like his younger sister Priyanka, who has opted to raise her children and keep out of the political frame.
He has never dealt with such thorny issues as Pakistan or the economy, preferring to be a grassroots activist embracing populist causes.
"Rahul does not have the fire in the belly... for ruling the nation," wrote Aditya Sinha, editor of Mumbai´s DNA newspaper, in a recent column.
Many pundits are betting that Rahul is not going to be running to be prime minister in 2014 when the next national elections are due, he added.
Corruption scandals, including a telecom scam alleged to have cost close to $40 billion and last year´s graft-plagued Commonwealth Games, have taken the sheen off the mother-son duo Sonia and Rahul, commentators say.
"Much of the muck has stuck to the Gandhis as Manmohan Singh is considered to be personally honest and a figurehead prime minister appointed by the Gandhis," said G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, managing director of think-tank Development and Research Services.
Rahul, who never has stated outright he wants to lead India, has said becoming premier is not the only "job" in the world and there "are many other jobs a person can do."
But Congress billboards drill home the message he is the chosen successor, showing elderly Singh, proud mother Sonia -- and in front a handsome Rahul, poised to take the reins.
However, "with the gloss wearing out, Rahul Gandhi´s political flight seems to be sputtering on the tarmac before a take-off," commented Rao.