After having been overseas for 30 years, I have now been back in my hometown for several months. It had, however, never struck me that the cause behind India’s rapid, albeit haphazard development is a set of initiatives that had first been put in place by former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. I knew him from the Delhi Flying Club where he was training to become a commercial pilot. That, of course, happened before he reluctantly agreed to join Indian politics. He became the prime minister who promised to bring India to the 21st century. Importantly, he delivered on that promise.
My old memories were suddenly stoked when I saw Rahul Gandhi become the Congress’s No 2 on January 20. Rahul spoke about how his father was worried that the benefits of India’s progress did not always reach the last man in the queue. He said that he wants to complete what his father couldn’t. Rahul’s speech was broadcast on almost every television channel. But for this, too, his father deserves much of the credit. Had the former prime minister not pushed for economic reforms, there would be only one television channel in India today, and that too a channel run by the State.
While talking, Rahul came across as a young leader with dreams of reformation. He sounded eager to change the age-old systems in his party and the country. “The voices of a billion Indians are today telling us that they want a greater say in government, in politics and administration,” he said. To change the deeply entrenched systems of India’s polity may sound like a lofty ambition, but if he works with a determination and sincerity comparable to his father’s, that dream can certainly be realised.
I first met Rajiv Gandhi in 1968. I was an assistant secretary at the Delhi Flying Club and in his very first encounter with me, the young and bearded Gandhi insisted that I call him by just his first name. In the same breath, he went on to say that he would not like to be given any preferential treatment for being the prime minister’s son. I was deeply touched by his sincerity. We parted ways a year later. He joined the national airline while I became a journalist and started working in Washington.
I saw him next on a television screen, lighting his assassinated mother’s pyre. His eyes were teary and the burden of the family and the country weighed heavily on his shoulders. India’s murky and ruthless political system proved to be difficult. Rajiv Gandhi found it hard to change a country that was still living in the 19th century. But when I interviewed him for a television documentary titled ‘Rajiv’s India’ the very next year, I found that he was determined to modernise the country. He spoke of computerising ticket reservations for the country’s two airlines and the rail system. He was determined to bring about permanent reforms, economic and otherwise. He said the philosophy he follows had been borrowed from the Geeta — “Do whatever you think is right, without being overly concerned about its consequences for you”.
I found the same determination on Rahul Gandhi’s face when he said that the Congress party would need to change if it wants to bring millions of impatient youth to the nation’s political mainstream. Though he talked of “completely transforming” the old system, Rahul seems to have taken a lesson from his father’s impatience. He has, for his part, cautioned his supporters against any unreal expectations of change.
We might not know how Rahul will eventually do, but if he is sincere and deft enough to deal with the shrewd, ruthless, selfish politicians surrounding him (which incidentally his father was not), and if he can also make the aam aadmi his constituency by giving them a voice, he definitely has it in him to fulfil his father’s dream.
Ravi M Khanna has covered South Asia for Voice of America as its South Asia bureau chief and also as the South Asia desk editor in Washington from 1986 to 2011. The views expressed by the author are personal.