Gandhi’s reluctant heir

MARY JANIGAN November 12 1984

Gandhi’s reluctant heir

MARY JANIGAN November 12 1984

Gandhi’s reluctant heir


He was born on the cusp of time— in the waning days of the British Empire while world war raged in the Pacific and the British held his grandfather in an Indian jail. And from his birth in August, 1944, Rajiv Gandhi has straddled the chasm dividing the old India from the new, the India of ancient problems which defy modern

remedies. His grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was an agnostic, an elite Kashmiri Brahman who openly rejected Indian ritual. But when his only child, Indira Gandhi, gave birth to her first son, Nehru wrote from jail to ask that a holy man draft the child’s horoscope. Then he named the baby Rajiv— a word that, like the name of his wife, Kamala, and his daughter, Indira, means “lotus.”

With that, a dynasty was nurtured from a British prison cell inside Ahmednagar Fort, 200 km east of Bombay.

Ruthless: That dynasty’s durability was displayed last week when,

12 hours after his mother’s assassination, Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as prime minister—a role that his grandfather and his mother had filled for 32 of India’s 37 years of independence. The charismatic Nehru, as independent India’s first leader, dominated his office and his country until his death in 1964.

His shrewd and often _

ruthless daughter assumed power in 1966 and, except for three years in opposition (1977-1980), she ruled—more than governed—730 million Indians, the world’s largest democracy. Now, Rajiv, the former commercial airline pilot with a passion for computerized flow charts and sophisticated machinery, has inherited the chalice of leadership and with it the myriad problems that afflict his vast and varied country.

Both in India and abroad, the central question was whether the soft-spoken

and unassuming “lotus” has also inherited the family skills for toughness and conciliation needed to preserve India’s democratic core and guide his nation into the 21st century. “He has the choice of being an effective leader thrust upon him,” said a Canadian external affairs official last week. “He is a solid and quite decent man, a man who does not

have a lot of interest in ideological factions. He will govern the country on the basis of what works. The question is: will he be given the chance?”

Enemies: There are few doubts about his political bloodlines: they are thoroughbred. His great-grandfather, Motilal Nehru, was a rich lawyer who lived in a sumptuous Allahabad mansion and who abandoned his practice to follow the politics of the mahatma (teacher), Mohandas Gandhi, the apostle of Indian freedom through nonviolence. Before his death in 1931 Motilal had served time in British jails.

Rajiv’s grandfather, Jawaharlal, languished nine years in British prisons for his efforts to obtain independence for his homeland. His mother, a political prisoner for eight months, championed the rise of the

0 central government at $ the expense of the states,

1 accumulating great in“ fluence and dealing sum-

_ marily with enemies.

“Let us remember about the Nehrus,” Indian novelist Salman Rushdie remarked last week, “that when it comes to power, they make the Kennedys look like amateurs.”

At the heart of the suspense about Rajiv are doubts about the man himself. He was raised in privilege but he is unaccustomed to power. Except for his British schooldays and his mother’s three years in opposition, he has dwelt for all his 40 years in the splendor of a prime ministerial home. By all accounts, his childhood was idyllic. His

father, Feroze Gandhi—no relation to the mahatma—was a journalist and, after 1950, a member of India’s parliament in Nehru’s Congress Party. Rajiv’s parents lived apart for most of their married lives, while Indira played official hostess for the widower Nehru, until Feroze’s death in 1960. With his younger brother, San jay, Rajiv watched

history unfold in the company of their famous elders. On Jan. 29, 1948, Rajiv visited Mahatma Gandhi with his mother and two relatives, and, while the adults bantered, the child decorated Gandhi’s big toe with a chain of flowers. A day later the mahatma was assassinated.

Throughout their childhood Indira lavished attention on her sons. A disciplined woman, she insisted on discipline in return. Once, she bluntly told Rajiv that a minor medical operation was going to hurt him—even though the surgeon had assured the family that the

procedure would be painless. “Rajiv never once cried or complained,” she recalled proudly, “but bore the pain smilingly.”

Those lessons in stoicism were less successful with the volatile Sanjay. A poor student who dropped out of the Rolls-Royce mechanic’s training school in England, Indira’s younger but more favored son made up with bullying and bravado what he lacked in talent. He tried first to set up a car manufacturing plant and, when that failed, threw himself into politics, relying on simple slogans and ruthless tactics. Still, he had his mother’s trust and he was her choice to continue the dynasty. But in June, 1980, Sanjay put his stunt plane into an

illegal loop and crashed not far from the site of his mother’s murder last week. His death changed the course of his brother’s life.

As reserved as Sanjay was flamboyant, Rajiv had attended India’s prestigious Doon School, spent two years at the Imperial Scientific and Technical College in London—failing to finish—and another two at Cambridge University. Back in India he trained as a commercial pilot, flying twin-propeller aircraft for Indian Airlines. He

and his Italian wife, Sonia, whom he had met studying engineering at Cambridge, had a son, Rahul, and a daughter, Priyanka. He also indulged his interests in amateur photography, ham radio and European classical music, especially that of Tchaikovsky. At the same time, he learned to speak fluent Hindi, a skill neither his mother nor his grandfather possessed.

Mr. Clean: Rajiv’s lifestyle changed gradually as Indira groomed him to maintain the dynasty. She urged him to leave his beloved airplanes and become her adviser. Out of “duty to Mummy,” as he put it, he complied. In 1981 he won a byelection with a massive majority in rural Amethi, Sanjay’s former riding.

His lack of cabinet rank did not matter. He had daily access to the prime minister. More than that, it was clear that he was Indira’s heir apparent. At his mother’s side, Rajiv travelled widely. He lunched with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He organized the Asian Games of 1982 in New Delhi. He dismissed Sanjay’s more disreputable friends—including New Delhi’s police commissioner—from public office and revelled in the resulting nickname of Mr. Clean. Then, he became fascinated

with applying management theories to his mother’s decaying Congress (I) Party.

The experiments were not always successful. Computerized forecasts used in recent elections were frequently inaccurate. More seriously, Rajiv was blamed for poor advice in counselling his mother in August to topple the democratically elected state government of Andhra Pradesh. The attempted ouster failed, leaving Gandhi’s party vulnerable to opposition gains during elections that had been scheduled for January. Recently, Rajiv had been vetting candidates for the approaching vote.

Rajiv’s political naïveté and his concentration on management flow charts

have raised questions about the manner in which he will govern. Before Indira’s death,he declared that his highest priorities if he became prime minister would be population control and education. “Social reform is also extremely important,” he added, “and so is more equitable distribution of wealth.” He is expected to ease government financial controls and provide more incentives for private business. The West, too, may find him more accommodating than Indira. “There is no reason that countries like Canada would not find him a reasonable prime minister,” said one Canadian official.

Indulgence: Still, it is unclear whether the lowkey technician is capable of subduing the political opposition, reinvigorating the party, controlling the army and healing India’s tragic divisions. In an interview after he entered parliament, Rajiv said that he wished he had had more time to study the people before he entered political life.

“The people are not going to put up with

a bad performance. I will have to deliver, and if I don’t then we lose our position,” he added. More telling, Rajiv confided recently that he sometimes climbs into the cockpit of his plane and closes the door: “Even if I cannot fly it,” he said, “at least I can temporarily shut myself off from the outside world.” That is no longer an indulgence Rajiv Gandhi, or India itself, can afford.


David North

Eric Silver