By Sanjeev Miglani and Sruthi Gottipati
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - After years in the shadows as a reluctant heir-apparent, India's Rahul Gandhi is set for his own tryst with destiny, to lead the ruling Congress party in elections due by May that it has only a slim chance of winning.
Congress, in power for the last decade, is struggling in opinion polls with a string of corruption scandals and a reputation for poor governance engulfing its administration. A resurgent opposition and a neophyte anti-corruption party appear to have a stranglehold on public opinion.
Congress's response is likely to be to bring the 43-year-old heir of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to the forefront, in the hope that the charisma of the family can still bring in votes.
It holds a meeting on Friday where delegates are likely to formally choose Gandhi to lead the party in the election, although his mother, Sonia, is expected to remain the Congress chief.
Gandhi has much to prove but aides say he has thrust himself into the centre of the campaign, launching a series of moves to clean up the 128-year-old Congress party and stem the slide in its fortunes. They say he has asked for the right to name at least 100 of the party candidates to the 543-member parliament and that he will ditch many of the old guard powerbrokers who have given Congress a bad reputation.
"There are certain changes Mr. Gandhi has been wanting to do, they may come through. Changes whether dramatic or subtle, I don't know what you would call them, (but) they will be substantial," Sachin Pilot, corporate affairs minister and one of the stars in Gandhi's political team, told Reuters.
Critics say Gandhi has depended on his family name for power, that he is too lightweight and has barely registered his presence in parliament although he has been a member for the last decade.
"In a structured party, Mr. Rahul Gandhi would still have been struggling to get his first assignment as an office-bearer in the party structure or in a legislative body," said Arun Jaitley, a senior leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
"It is only in a personality and family-dominated set-up like the Congress that he can be nominated as the unquestioned supremo."
For decades after Jawaharlal Nehru, Rahul's great-grandfather, delivered his stirring "tryst with destiny" speech on the eve of independence from Britain 67 years ago, the Gandhi family has dominated politics in the world's biggest democracy.
The succession of prime ministers and Congress party leaders from the family echoed the right to rule of an English monarchy. And the assassinations of Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi when she was prime minister in 1984 and her son Rajiv as he campaigned for elections in 1991 brought an air of tragic glamour akin to that of America's Kennedy clan. Rahul is the son of Rajiv Gandhi.
He is a vice-president of Congress and was in charge of the party's campaign in state elections in 2013, in which it fared disastrously.
The Hindu nationalist BJP won three of five state assembly contests and its flag-bearer, Narendra Modi, remains the front-runner by a distance, campaigning on a platform of decisive leadership to revive economic growth that under the Congress fell to its slowest pace in a decade.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh conceded that the government had failed to generate employment in manufacturing, to control inflation and combat corruption. He said he would not be a candidate to retain his post after the election and strongly suggested that the reins be handed over to Gandhi.
"Rahul Gandhi has outstanding credentials to be nominated as the ... candidate and I hope our party will take that decision at an appropriate time," Singh said.
Gandhi has in recent months tried to style himself as a maverick and make clear he condemns corruption. In September, he denounced an executive order from the government allowing convicted lawmakers to stay in office and stand in elections.
But the new Aam Aadmi (Common Man's) Party (AAP), which formed the government in Delhi state after local elections last month, appears to have the lock on the anti-corruption and clean governance platform.
Hundreds of people from students to business executives are flocking to the party, inspired by its promise to clean up politics and the symbols of power that ordinary Indians have come to detest.
"The impact of AAP is there, their messaging has been brilliant. The issues that they are agitating about - simplicity in politics, austerity in politics, these are legitimate values," said Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, who is involved in formulating Congress strategy.
"Every establishment party is going to hurt."
In a symbolic move this week, Gandhi ditched the party corporate jet and travelled on a campaign tour by a budget airline.
At the airport, barely 20 people greeted him, in line with his instructions, a change from the usual sea of fawning partymen brought in by the busload to drape him in garlands.
But old Congress hands say it's hard to bring change in a party that has ruled for nearly 55 out of 67 years since India gained independence.
Tech entrepreneur R. K. Misra, who was tapped by Gandhi to work on a membership drive in the youth wing of the Congress, said Gandhi had struggled to revamp the gargantuan party because other leaders did not share his beliefs.
Gandhi's lack of proven success in elections was a hindrance, said Misra said, who is no longer with Congress.
"His desire to change things was there from the beginning," Misra said, recalling that Gandhi told him the reason he was starting with the youth wing was because he couldn't challenge the heavyweights in the main organization.
Now, with the party fighting with its back to the wall, Gandhi may have a chance. "He can say 'Now you let me run the battle the way I want.' He's going to retire the old generals," said Misra.
(Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Raju Gopalakrishnan)