Like Father, Like Son?

There have been several defining moments in India’s political history since its independence from British rule in 1947. Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination by a Hindu fanatic was one, as were the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and that of her son, Rajiv. I believe the speech that Rahul Gandhi, Rajiv’s 42-year-old son, made in Jaipur could be another, marking a radical departure in the Indian polity. This speech was at the brainstorming session of the ruling Congress Party. A day earlier he had been made Vice-President of the party (his Italian-born mother, Sonia, is its President), thereby virtually announcing that he will lead the party in the general election due to be held by April 2014.
What Rahul said reminded me of the rousing words of his father in 1985 in Mumbai at a party session, just after he had become Prime Minister. He had got the largest mandate of any Indian Prime Minister, including his grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru. Rajiv had railed against the “power brokers” in the Congress Party and strongly indicated that he intended to dismantle the notorious “license permit Raj” of bureaucratic controls that were meant to promote “socialism” but had actually become means of corruption. His intentions were widely acclaimed by the public, but the old guard of the Congress was alarmed that their hold over the party and the ways of making money were under threat. They asserted themselves and the politically inexperienced Rajiv retreated. It was back to business as usual. Rajiv had lost his chance to reform the system and bring in better governance and less corruption. The rest of his tenure as Prime Minister was a big disappointment, despite sitting on a huge majority in Parliament. Then, he foolishly got embroiled in the imbroglio surrounding the import of the Swedish artillery “Bofors” guns. Even though the courts later cleared him of any wrongdoing, his earlier “Mr. Clean” image took a beating and he lost the next election.
I got to know him somewhat – we went to the same Cambridge University in the UK and had common friends – and accompanied him in the Press party on his first major trip overseas after he became Prime Minister. When I later criticised him in the paper I was editing, he made his displeasure felt. After he had lost power I happened to be in Delhi and, on the spur of the moment, invited him to my 50th birthday party. His secretary was non-committal but, to my surprise, he turned up. He was his old, charming, modest self, mingling easily with my guests. I felt that he had become more politically mature and would make a much better Prime Minister if his party won. A few months later, in the midst of campaigning, he was blown up by a Tamil Tiger assassin, carrying explosives in her belt.
His son, Rahul, has been in politics since 2004, when he was elected to the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of the Indian Parliament. Rajiv, on the other hand, was a relative novice, when he was catapulted into politics. What were the main points made by Rahul in what could be a historic speech?
“All the public systems – administration, justice, education and political – are designed to keep out people with knowledge,” he said. Why should a Chief Minister be responsible for the appointment of a teacher and why should the Supreme Court do the work of lower courts, he added. In other words, there was a dis-connect in governance between those who held power and the voters. In an emotional aside, he said that he could not sleep the night after he was made Vice-President of the Congress and when his mother came to his room, she was crying. “Power,” she told him, was “poison”.
Rajiv had much the same sentiments soon after he became Prime Minister, almost three decades ago. But he could not walk the talk. Will his son be able to do so? Recently, something unprecedented happened. A former Chief Minister of Haryana, Om Prakash Chautala, and his son, were sentenced by a court to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment for cheating and forgery, in a case concerning the illegal recruitment of 3,000 teachers, going back 12 years.
Chautala did not belong to the Congress Party. However, there are plenty of politicians, even former Chief Ministers, from the Congress or its allies, with similar charges of corruption against them. Will they ever be prosecuted – and convicted? That will be the real test for Rahul Gandhi.
(Rahul Singh is the former Editor of Reader’s Digest, Indian Express, and Khaleej Times.)


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