A dynasty in doubt

Rajiv Gandhi fights for political survival

ANDREW PHILLIPS November 27 1989

A dynasty in doubt

Rajiv Gandhi fights for political survival

ANDREW PHILLIPS November 27 1989

A dynasty in doubt



Rajiv Gandhi fights for political survival

By all appearances, the village of Partosh is an insignificant speck on the vast, dusty plain of northern India. Amid its few dozen mud-walled houses, women shape cow dung into patties, which they will dry and burn to fuel their fires, while men lounge under trees to escape the fierce midday sun. This

week, the people of Partosh and their neighbors in the surrounding district of Amethi will play a special role in the world’s largest display of democracy. As India’s half-billion voters hold their ninth general election since the country’s independence in 1947, they will pass judgment directly on Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, their member of parliament. And with Gandhi fighting for his political survival in the three days of balloting—Nov. 22, 24 and 26—the villagers of Amethi district will be helping to decide whether their country continues the rule of his family dynasty.

That rule appeared increasingly threatened last week as India’s chaotic election campaign underlined the problems dogging Gandhi and his ruling Congress (I) party. After governing India for 39 of the past 42 years—under Gandhi, his mother, Indira, and his grandfather

Jawaharlal Nehru—the Congress party has become unwieldy and riddled with corruption. Opposition groups, which once spent most of their time squabbling among themselves, have forged an unexpectedly strong alliance in their attempt to defeat him. India is in the throes of a wave of violent clashes between its Moslem

minority and newly militant Hindus, who maintain that the nation has been too tolerant of minority demands. Those incidents have undermined the Congress’s claim to be the only force that can unite the country’s disparate ethnic and religious groups. And the new prosperity of India’s fast-growing middle class has served only to draw attention to the grinding poverty that at least half of its 835 million people still endure.

At the same time, faith in Gandhi’s own leadership has been severely shaken. In October, 1984, after the assassination of his mother by her Sikh bodyguards, Gandhi became prime minister at the age of 40 and was immediately hailed as a new young hope for India. Since then, however, his image has been badly tarnished, partly by the extravagant lifestyle that he and his Italian-born wife,

Sonia, have enjoyed (page 37). But most damaging have been revelations that a Swedish company, Bofors AB, paid as much as $50 million in commissions and bribes to win a $ 1.6-billion arms contract from India in 1986. Although there is no proof that the prime minister himself accepted money, many Indians have concluded that several members of his inner circle—or even his wife’s family— have enriched themselves. The result, said Prannoy Roy, a leading opinion pollster in New Delhi, is that “Rajiv is in deep trouble.” According to a magazine poll published on the weekend, Congress will win a maximum of 215 of the 526 seats in India’s Lok Sabha, or lower house of parliament, that are at stake—and the figure could be as low as 180.

The poll projected no totals for individual opposition parties, but their potential strength

is considerable. In the past, opposition parties have been hampered by their own members’ participation in illicit fund-raising and bribetaking. But this time, they are aided by the clean image of the man leading the coalition of forces trying to topple the Gandhi dynasty: Vishwanath Pratap Singh. Singh, a 58-yearold former finance minister in the Gandhi government, is president of the Janata Dal party, which is united with four smaller groups in an alliance called the National Front. It, in turn, has reached an electoral agreement with both left-wing forces and the right-wing Bharatiya Janata party, which represents militant Hindus. The various groups have little in common aside from their determination to oust Gandhi. But they have agreed to run a single candidate in about 400 of the 526 districts, and that unprecedented unity

may well be the key to Gandhi’s undoing.

In the Amethi district, the Janata Dal party is further dramatizing the corruption issue by fielding a symbol of moral rectitude to challenge Gandhi in his own constituency. Its local candidate is Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of

India’s pre-eminent modern hero, Mahatma Gandhi, whose campaign of civil disobedience helped coerce the British into granting independence. Rajmohan Gandhi is unlikely to win, but his candidacy accomplished a major goal of the opposition: severing the link that the Con-

gress party has tried to make between the revered Mahatma and the family of Rajiv and Indira Gandhi. The two families are not related, but the Congress has often tried to leave the impression that Rajiv Gandhi is some how a descendant of the Mahatma, as well

as the heir to his potent political legacy.

But as Rajmohan Gandhi toured the rutted back roads of Amethi district last week, he did his best to sweep away that impression. A tall, bespectacled author and onetime magazine editor of 54, he spoke quietly to small groups

of villagers at a time, addressing the men directly while the women squatted inconspicuously in the background, their saris pulled over their faces. He never failed to remind them who his grandfather was, and his clear message was that their government has betrayed the Mahatma’s promise of honesty and social justice.

As his campaign car bumped along between two village stops, Rajmohan Gandhi spoke of the historical irony of his challenge to the prime minister. “My grandfather and his grandfather, Nehru, were the closest allies,” he declared. “They built independent India together. But Rajiv Gandhi has left that path. For me, this is a righteous duty.” Under Rajiv, he said, India’s government has become more corrupt and authoritarian— centralizing power, manipulating the news media and exploiting rivalries between religious and ethnic groups for political gain. “The most tragic thing is the communal polarization going on now,” he said. “Each community and caste is retreating into its own shell—and there is no leadership to overcome it.”

The upsurge in communalism, as the Indians call those rivalries, is a danger signal in a country that is as diverse as any on earth, with 15 major language groups as well as numerous religious, racial and caste divisions. The latest outbreak has been most severe in remote towns in the northeastern

state of Bihar. By official count, at least 260 people have been killed in bloody rioting between Hindus and Moslems in the past month—and unofficial estimates range as high as 1,000. The worst incident occurred in a small Moslem village called Chandheri, where soldiers had handed 125 Moslems over to the local police for protection. The next day, many were found dead, and the rest had disappeared, the victims of a Hindu mob apparently acting in league with police.

Almost every day last week,

Indian newspapers reported fresh outbreaks of rioting, killing and arson.

For both Hindus and Moslems, the flash point is a squat, crumbling mosque on a dusty hill in the Ganges River town of Ayodhya in northern India. The Babri Mosque was built in 1528 by the Moslem Moguls who then ruled India. Hindu fundamentalists, however, claim that the Hindu god Rama was born at the site 900,000 years ago and that a magnificent Hindu temple once existed there. Disputes over the site have gone on for many years, but they escalated earlier this year when Hindu priests called for the construction of a new temple where the mosque now stands.

On Nov. 9, tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims journeyed to Ayodhya carrying sanctified bricks for the new temple. In the end, a court ordered them to lay the building’s foundation outside the disputed area surrounding the mosque, and there was no violence in Ayodhya itself. But a newly militant Hindu movement has aroused concerns among India’s Moslem minority, which forms about 12 per cent of the population. Traditionally, they have backed Gandhi’s Congress party, but this time many accuse the party of mishandling the issue and as a result they are expected to desert it. “Congress has always used the Moslems as a vote bank,” said R. R. Gupta, an authority on Hindu-Moslem relations from the northern city of Lucknow. “But they have bungled it and they cannot count on the Moslem vote this time.”

Disenchantment with Gandhi’s government is not limited to Moslems. For many other Indians, the key issue is the corruption that many say has become more pervasive in the past five years. Indians have long accepted petty corruption, bribe-taking and tax evasion as facts of life. They have also assumed for years that Indira Gandhi, Rajiv’s mother and predecessor as prime minister, accepted large

sums from industrialists to finance her party’s electoral campaigning. But many Indians maintain that the situation has since grown a great deal worse, partly because of the widespread entry of organized crime into political life.

In some parts of India, especially Bihar, many elected officials and key political organizers have long criminal records or are known to police as crime bosses. And most are members

of Gandhi’s Congress party. One police report from Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, found that at least 18 Congress MPs were cited in criminal cases. In Lucknow, so many known underworld figures turned up for Congress party celebrations that the city’s police listed the meeting in its daily crime bulletin. New Delhi’s Times of India reported recently that in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, “political reporting is rapidly becoming part of the crime beat.” Even Prime Minister Gandhi, in his Independence Day speech to the nation last Aug. 15, complained that “criminals and traitors are roaming parliament.”

Rajni Kothari, a leading political scientist in New Delhi, said that the “criminalization” of Indian politics is a sharp departure from the traditional practice of all parties of employing local toughs at election time to stuff ballot boxes or intimidate their opponents. “Now, we have the situation of mafia elements actually

getting into politics themselves,” Kothari said last week in an interview. “Many of them have enough influence to avoid convictions, but they are basically criminals.” At the same time, many other elected representatives depend on known gangland figures for electoral support and often flaunt their connections with crime bosses. Said Chandra Mohan Misra, a former legislator from Bihar: “Today, it is virtually impossible to be elected without

the help of criminals and warlords.”

But the issue that has focused most attention on corruption in politics is the scandal over the Bofors arms deal. In March, 1986, Bofors, an arms manufacturer, sold the Indian army 400 155-mm artillery pieces for $1.6 billion. Since 1987, opposition politicians and Indian newspapers have charged that Bofors paid hefty bribes—as much as $50 million—to obtain the contract and that some of the money went to Congress party insiders. Gandhi at first insisted that no bribes or commissions were paid, but a subsequent report by Sweden’s National Audit Bureau found that Bofors did pay commissions to an agent in India. And in late October, the Madras newspaper The Hindu published documents that, it claimed, point a finger at Gandhi himself. Gandhi’s aides countered that the documents were forgeries.

Although there is no firm evidence that Gandhi or any of his associates received mon-

ey, the issue has taken on a life of its own. Even among rural voters, twothirds of whom are illiterate, word of mouth has turned “Bofors” into a synonym for something corrupt or dirty. In Partosh village in Gandhi’s Amethi constituency, a mention of Bofors produced nods of recognition from a group of farmers, many of whom lacked even shoes. The village’s grizzled chief, R. N. Sharma, said through an interpreter: “Everyone knows Bofors. It means the benefits go to rich people, not to people like us.” Another man, his teeth stained bright red by habitual chewing of betel nuts, added, “It means if you have money, you can always get your way.”

For the opposition parties, Singh’s personal reputation as an honest, austere man, along with their newfound unity, has allowed them to mount a powerful attack on the Gandhi government. Singh has cultivated a simple style that contrasts sharply with Gandhi’s often luxurious tastes. He often cycles to political meetings, refuses to accept campaign funds from business and even spurns an air conditioner in his home despite New Delhi’s oven-like heat in the summer. “Most of the opposition is considered just as corrupt as Congress,” noted Prannoy Roy, the New Delhi pollster. “But

V. P. Singh is seen as basically different, so there is a clear choice on the issue for the first time.”

Less clear is how an opposition government would differ in economic and social policy from

the Congress administration. Neither Congress nor the National Front alliance has a clear-cut ideology. Both are essentially centrist forces that try to reconcile India’s conflicting regional, religious and caste interests. But some observers predict that a Singhled government would tilt to the left. Singh has criticized Gandhi for favoring economic growth at the expense of social justice. As a result, he would probably slow the process of economic liberalization begun by Gandhi and take a more skeptical attitude towards foreign investment. Said Yashwant Sinha, one of his chief aides: “The first priority must be to see that everyone has the basics, like clean drinking water, not importing more luxury goods.”

For Gandhi, the mounting troubles are a depressing contrast to his first years in power. After his mother was I assassinated five years ago, Rajiv S' Gandhi rode the ensuing wave of pubis lie sympathy to the Congress party’s 1/1 biggest-ever victory: 415 of the 542 seats then at stake. The new prime minister talked enthusiastically about the need to bring high technology to India and sweep away long-established power brokers, and, at first, he had some solid successes. He lifted many restrictions from India’s highly regulated economy, helping to spark an un-

precedented boom in a country traditionally plagued by low growth rates. As a result, India’s middle class, estimated at anywhere from 100 million to 200 million people, prospered under his government. Production of televisions, refrigerators and other consumer goods soared, while the demand for imported electronics goods also increased.

But by mid-1987, Gandhi’s fortunes had soured. The first allegations in the Bofors affair had been made, his attempts to reach a political settlement with militant Sikhs in the Punjab region had failed, and he appeared isolated within his tight security net. His early attempts at reforming his own party produced few results, and his political skills came under heavy criticism. Gandhi constantly

shuffled his cabinet ministers and alienated some of his closest supporters—including Singh, who quit the government in 1987 after being shifted from the finance to the defence ministry.

Many observers note that Gandhi had little political experience when his mother’s death thrust him suddenly into the prime minister’s post. He had been a member of parliament for only two years, had never held a cabinet position and had shown little political ambition for a member of India’s most prominent family. “He was not in any way ready for leadership,” said Bhabani Sen Gupta, a research professor at Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research. “He had no political training.” And, Gupta added, Gandhi failed to learn on the job. “Rajiv was never an insider in the Congress party,” he maintained. “And he never learned how to make it work. He centralized power in his own office and allowed himself to become isolated within his own small circle.”

By last week, the betting in New Delhi was that those problems would be enough to defeat Gandhi and the Congress party. If that happens, Gandhi is expected to face strong challenges from within his own party for its leadership. And with no other member of his famous family to succeed him, India’s remarkable modem dynasty would come to an end.