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Mrs Gandhi and Mrs Gandhi

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-05-19

NEW DELHI - When Mrs Sonia Gandhi called on President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam yesterday (Tuesday) to formally hear his invitation to be India's next prime minister, she became the fourth member of the legendary Nehru-Gandhi family asked to lead this ancient but rapidly modernizing nation. After exactly two decades, Indians will once again have another 'Mrs Gandhi' as their political steward, even if Sonia decides that her leadership role is best exercised behind the scenes and not in South Block, the massive sandstone edifice housing the prime minister's office.

The first Mrs Gandhi was Sonia's mother-in-law, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was murdered by Sikh bodyguards in 1984 as she walked in the garden of her home here. Sonia Gandhi cradled Mrs Gandhi in her lap as their car sped toward a local hospital, where the prime minister was soon declared dead, despite spirited efforts to save her. Seven years later, Sonia's husband, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi - the older of Indira Gandhi's two sons - was also assassinated. The killing was attributed to a supporter of Tamil rebels in neighboring Sri Lanka.

The murders of two loved ones surely seared Sonia Gandhi. It's a tribute to her resilience and character that she stayed on in her adopted homeland of India instead of seeking solace in her native Italy. That Mrs Gandhi decided to enter public life underscores her commitment to India's progress. She could easily have led the life of a recluse, enjoying the wealth of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and savoring the wellbeing of her handsome son, Rahul, and sprightly daughter, Priyanka.

She has surprised everyone with her grit. She has an extraordinary treasure trove of family history to draw upon as she shapes the governing of India. But whether she takes office as the 16th prime minister of this nation of 1.1 billion overwhelmingly dispossessed people, or whether her trusted aide, Dr Manmohan Singh does, the one figure from whose experience Sonia Gandhi might best benefit is the other Mrs Gandhi, Indira.

Rajiv Gandhi hadn't been in office long enough to make a significant mark on the Indian polity. But Indira Gandhi served as prime minister for a total of some 18 years - and the ethos of today's India is largely shaped by what Indira did in office. Her emphasis on promoting socialism, expanding the reach of government bureaucracies, insistence on a bewildering system of licenses for manufacturing and industry, and on a centralized style of political management - all these elements continue to hinder India's economic and social progress even as the world around it is galloping ahead in this era of globalization.

The Indira years were 'the lost years,' says Dr. Arvind Virmani, director and chief executive of the influential Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations in New Delhi. Annual economic growth rarely rose above five percent, exports were flat, and the cohort of poverty widened as India's population grew at the rate of 19 million a year - that was like adding an Australia each year to this already densely populated country.

They were 'lost years' because Mrs Gandhi failed to sufficiently push for primary education, health care in rural areas, and employment opportunities for women. They were 'lost years' because every governmental decision concerning economic growth and social development was subject to political calculus. States that were controlled by opposition parties were simply excluded from that math.

The Indira years were also 'lost years' because India missed the opportunity to build on the relatively corruption-free political system that Indira's father, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, had fashioned. Mr Nehru and his associates were mostly men and women who'd fought for India's independence from the British. They had sterling characters and weren't enticed by the accouterments of power. Moreover, their ruling Congress Party was largely unchallenged in political hegemony, and so elections didn't cost a whole lot of money.

But things changed during Indira's time. Other parties came into their own in several states such as the Punjab, where a Sikh separatist movement flourished. Elections became expensive. And so Mrs Gandhi devised a system under which industrialists and others seeking governmental favours were asked to make surreptitious payments into party coffers. Large sums of money were also squeezed from lucrative foreign contracts for building India's infrastructure as well as the defence apparatus. The rot spread. Everything had a price.

It was all done in the name of the common people. But, as the poverty cohort grew, it was apparent that during Indira Gandhi's time the people drew the least benefits from her secretive, cabalistic rule. No one ever said that Mrs Gandhi was personally corrupt. But the system of bribes and financial tributes that she encouraged for the welfare of the Congress Party soon became all pervasive.

And the lessons for Sonia Gandhi and her United Progressive Alliance, the Congress-led alliance now about to assume power?

That transparency and openness in policy-making are absolutely essential in today's globalized world where international capital has vast choices for investment. That a prime minister of a federal entity that includes 29 states needs to be inclusive. That government must be a benign regulator of the economy, not a manager of companies. That India's leader must never pass up the opportunity to implement a driving vision for rapid economic growth, a corruption-free society, an all-encompassing secularism, and social egalitarianism.

Twenty years ago, as a young foreign correspondent for the New York Times, I covered the assassination of Indira Gandhi. I remember thinking at the time how sad it was that a prime minister with so much power had ended up doing so little for her people - that how much everyday Indians were prepared to trust a leader who would be honest and forthright in her governance. And now, a new Mrs Gandhi is coming into her own along with a new generation of politicians, but the lessons of Indira's time are no less true.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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