12:00 AM, January 27, 2013 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, January 27, 2013

Sunday Pouch

Remembering Rajiv, profiling Rahul

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Ashfaqur Rahman

In 1985, when Rajiv Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru dynasty of India and the then prime minister, came to Dhaka to attend the launching of Saarc, he was greeted like a rock star. Thousands of people lined up the routes where he went. Here was one handsome head of government, immaculately dressed and distinguished for his impeccable manners, in town. The people were also keen to have a glimpse of his beautiful Italian born wife. Unfortunately Sonia Gandhi did not come. But Dhaka society ladies came out in large numbers, along with others, to see this distinguished guest.
Rajiv was literally mobbed. Rajiv seemed to represent a hope for the people of South Asia.
We who chaperoned him around Dhaka had a delightful time conversing with him. Coming out of the Saarc inaugural function, he seemed impressed by the remarks made by the then Sri Lankan President Mr. Jayawardene. The wise man of South Asia in his speech had said: "Today six small boats have tied up with a big boat (India). Let us see whether we sink or float."
Visibly impressed, Rajiv asked us whether we shared President Jayawardene's perceptions. We told him that the role India would play would be critical to the success of this nascent organisation.
Rajiv appreciated the point and then said, "Do you know that all the member states of Saarc are destined by God to cooperate. Look how the mighty rivers like the Indus cascades down the Himalayas and instead of flowing straight south into India, it veers west into Pakistan and then empties itself in the Arabian Sea. The same is the case with the Ganges. It does not flow from the Himalayas only through Nepal, it meanders through to India and then flow east to Bangladesh before it ends in the Bay of Bengal."
It was evident that he was passionate about regional cooperation.
Referring to the biggest obstacle to regional cooperation, he put the blame squarely on the entrenched bureaucracy in all the member countries. He recounted his own experience with the Indian bureaucracy with whom he had to struggle so that India could stretch its hand of friendship to the other leaders in South Asia.
He recalled the horrific disaster wrought by cyclone in Urir Char, an off shore island in Bangladesh in 1988. Over breakfast with Sonia, his wife, on the day after the disaster, they agreed that they would make a quick dash to Bangladesh and show solidarity with the suffering people.
During the course of the day he totally forgot about the programme, as he was immersed in other duties. Next morning, when Sonia asked Rajiv the time for their departure to Dhaka, he immediately picked up the phone and asked for the information from his principal secretary. He was told that he could not go to Dhaka as there were "no adequate security arrangements there for the prime minister of India."
They were both thunderstruck -- here was the prime minister giving a direct order and it was disregarded by a paid employee without even any communication.
The matter did not end there. The same day news came that the Pakistani President Ziaul Huq had flown to Dhaka and not only visited the disaster area but had also given aid. India therefore missed out on being first to extend sympathy to Bangladesh. It also allowed Pakistan to take lead even though it was the Indian leader who had first wanted to do all this.
Rajiv however made the visit later, accompanying the Sri Lankan president.
Rajiv's political career was not stellar. But he prepared the country for the 21st century. He sought increase in Indian investments in modern technology. He began dismantling the "license raj" -- government quotas, tariffs and permit regulations on economic activity.
He modernised the telecommunication industry as well as the education system. He also took the initiative to expand science and technology in all walks of life. One of his important steps was improving India's relations with the US.
However Rajiv was counseled by his close friends and "cronies." One of his grave misjudgments was sending the Indian Peace Keeping Force to bring peace to strife ridden Sri Lanka. This led to open conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE).
In mid 1987, the Bofors scandal broke his honest, corruption-free image. This resulted in his defeat and a major defeat for Congress in 1989 elections. However, he continued as congress president until the elections in 1991. But while campaigning, he was assassinated by the LTTE.
Last week, Rajiv's son Rahul, in a game changing move, was anointed to the second highest rank in the Congress party, just below the rank of his mother -- current president of Congress. As vice president it is generally expected that Rahul would be finally nominated to fight elections for the prime ministerial post.
So what kind of a person is Rahul and what are the policies he is likely to pursue?
Rahul Gandhi, 43, is a bachelor. A handsome man in his own way, he seems to be dedicated to India and her people. Yet Rahul has several difficulties.
First, like Obama he is born with an identity crisis. His mother is Italian and his father Indian. The opposition therefore call him an Italian prince. This gives him less legitimacy before his critics.
Second, an uncertain fate shadows him everywhere. He played badminton as a young boy with two security guards who later went on to kill his grandmother; Indira Gandhi, the late lamented prime minister of India. His father was assassinated when he was relatively young. So he lives under the shadow of terrorism and death.
Third, Rahul has to carry on the political legacy of the Nehru family which is very demanding.
Finally, he has to disprove the accusation of corruption made against his father, Rajiv Gandhi. Rahul is always reminded by political pundits that he owes his position due to his lineage and not because of his merit. So he behaves always as a "reluctant" leader.
At Jaipur, where the Congress High command met to anoint him, he gave an acceptance speech. In an emotional tone, he revealed some of the political agenda he normally keeps close to his chest. He focused on the divisions within the Congress party. He also focused on what needs to be done to overhaul the system so that the Congress becomes more effective, transparent and accountable.
He spoke out on behalf of the alienated, the marginalised and the voiceless. This inclusive approach he combined with an emphasis on democratic conduct. He made a call to nurture 50 leaders across India who can aspire for the top job.
The question is: Can Rahul translate all these into policies and action on the ground?
It is a tall order. Besides, Rahul is not a good communicator. He hardly speaks inside the parliament nor does he participate in debate in the public media. His Twitter account is used very seldom. The youth in India is restless and is rearing to be led by someone who understands their aspirations and is responsive.
The "reluctant" leader must also gear up to contend the likes of Mamta from Bengal, Modi from Gujrat and Yadav from Uttar Pradesh.
Can Rahul succeed? An effort to understand his persona in the coming days could therefore be rewarding.

The writer is a former Ambassador and a regular commentator on contemporary issues.
E-mail: ashfaque303@gmail.com

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