In the closing months of 1980, Rajiv Ratna Birjees Gandhi got pitchforked into politics because of the death of younger brother Sanjay. The elder son of Indira Gandhi had bucked a tradition established by grandfather Jawaharlal in not holding down a steady job till high office was reached through politics. He worked hard as a pilot, and was hesitant at first when his mother told him that it was essential (no doubt not for the family but the country). He wanted to keep on flying, not just the Avros that he was captaining, but Boeing 737s as well. Finally he agreed, on condition that he be given time until he completed the training needed to qualify as a Boeing pilot.
For more than a year after joining politics, Rajiv refused to don the mindset of a neta, especially one from the clan that has, so unselfishly, allowed its name to be used in hundreds of thousands of schemes, roads, buildings and airports across the country. Such usage is the exclusive right of the family who (if one were to accept the superb prose of Sunil Khilnani, practically invented the very “Idea of India”. Which is presumably why our legal and administrative system sees no harm in such a promiscuous use of the Nehru names, even while getting vituperative about the far fewer statues of Kumari Mayawati replete with handbag. Poverty may still be a factor in the lives of four hundred million citizens, law and order a distant dream across most parts of the country, while the will to provide state-provided social security has yet to percolate into the labyrinths of South and North Block, not to mention the Central Block, aka 10 Janpath.
Although he got surrounded every morning by people in khadi whose first action was to leap for his feet, thereby putting at risk his expensive sneakers, Rajiv resisted immersion into the political culture of India. Unlike other darbars, that were filled with other politicians, high officials or businesspersons, Rajiv ensured that scientists, distinguished professionals and social workers got seated in the main reception room of his 1 Akbar Road office, while ministers and other VVIPs had to mill around at the back, often getting denied an audience. During the first year and more of his plunge into politics, Rajiv Gandhi paid a lot of attention towards those who came up with ideas, not for winning elections, but for improving the wretched condition of the lives of the people of the country that his grandfather and mother had ruled for most of its post-1947 history as an independent nation.
It was too good to last, and it did not. From the beginning of 1982, AICC general secretary Rajiv Gandhi began herding the professionals, the scientists and the social workers to the back of 1 Akbar Road, reserving the front for politicians, high officials and businesspersons. That year, he got fully acculturated to the culture of politics, with its emphasis on fund collection as the primary purpose of existence. Arun Nehru, who took over his office, ensured that Rajiv was kept far away from riffraff, i.e. those with neither power nor money. Soon, clusters of white khadi surrounded him everywhere, thick as fog, blinding him to the reality of India and bringing him onto the same sterile track that his mother followed all her life.
Indira Gandhi, barring the Desai-Charan interregnum, ruled India from 1966 to 1984. During this time, South Korea and Singapore became advanced economies, while India remained poverty-ridden. Garibi was certainly “hatoed”, but only in the case of those close to the politically powerful. The biggest handicap in India was to be honest, and the family of several such officers languished in poverty, while their shrewder colleagues began lives of luxury on salaries that remained derisory. As for Jawaharlal Nehru, his reign was marked by a rate of growth of 3%, or just enough to keep the population in its miserable state, without the leap in lifestyles seen elsewhere.
Dropcap OnThe problem with the rulers among the Nehrus is that they seem not to trust the people of India. They seem to view the immense population of the country as a grey mass that was dangerous if given freedom. Hence, they continue to improve — if such a word can be used — on the British, by coming up with regulation upon regulation, restriction after restriction, to make sure that the people of India needed a babu’s permission for undertaking almost any productive task. Such permissions are often denied, usually for want of the money to pay a sufficient bribe, and hence the economy continued to move forward at a pace far below that which was possible in a country with such a vibrant population. Give credit to Sonia Gandhi, she may have been born to Stefano Maino and Predebon in faraway Orbassano, but she has mastered the regal tradition of the Nehrus, taking the servitude and acquiescence of others as her due. And she has got both in fair measure. This columnist still remembers the scenes broadcast across the country when Sonia Gandhi declined the crown of prime ministership. The wailing, the ranting, the hysterical beating of breast (and chest) by Congresspersons devastated at the news was worse than a horror movie. It caused considerable alarm among his admirers in Pakistan and India when Mani Shankar Aiyar temporarily became demented at the news of his Dear Leader refusing to be PM. It was a spectacle to watch his mien, as well as the visages of the many others who disported themselves in a similar way.
Perhaps such frenzied loyalty is why Sonia Gandhi has thus far not deigned to inform the people of India about the exact state of her health. There are reports that doctors of Indian origin were kept off the treatment regimen she underwent in the United States, though such reports may be fiction. In a world where most democratic leaders have been upfront about their health, from the time Lyndon Johnson bared the scar from his gallbladder operation to Manmohan Singh enlightening us about the state of his heart, Mrs Gandhi’s silence is out of step. Madame Chairperson, trust the people of India with the truth, as is normal in a democracy. Don’t make the country (and especially its non-inquisitive media) an international laughing stock by adopting the privilege of silence that is the right only of Very Insignificant Persons, not someone who controls the government that runs India.