issue 160 - June 1986
The fallible messiah
LIFE for Ram Prasad has moved closer to the brink. He's a labourer in India's capital Delhi and he and his wife and children have to live on about $30 a month. The price increases announced earlier this year came as a body blow.
They arrived couched in officialese - 'additional taxes', 'deficit budgeting', 'withdrawal of subsidies' - but what they meant to Ram Prasad and millions like him was near starvation. The family's weekly vegetable bill more than doubled. Meals - already frugal - would have to be skipped.
Millions of ordinary Indians responded to the price rises with rage. Mobs rampaged through the streets. Government buses were burned. It was a rage that had been building up for more than a year, suppressed only by the hope, by the promise, of Rajiv Gandhi as their new Prime Minister. Thousands were arrested.
Rajiv Gandhi was elected in December 1984 and hailed as a messiah who would deliver his country from stifling poverty, from the all-permeating corruption, from unemployment, from bureaucracy and from the strife between the country's religious communities that threatened to tear the federal structure apart.
His mother's years of rule had been marked by the criminalization of politics, by nepotism and the centralization of power. And Rally Gandhi, like the four Indian Prime Ministers before him, had promised change. The only difference this time was that people believed him. His 'Mr Clean' image inspired genuine hope. He stood for integrity, accountability and the revitalization of the bureaucratic monolith. His would be the government which not only worked but 'worked faster'.
And the electorate's choice did, at first, seem to have been amply vindicated. The early days in office were marked by rapid decision-making that paid scant attention to political expediency. Gandhi, as the new head of the Congress-I party, began to refurbish its corroded core. The power brokers from his mother's regime were summarily dismissed. And, with a vast majority In Parliament - over 75 percent - it seemed that India finally had a Prime Minister who had no need to watch his flanks.
The world's youngest Prime Minister undertook sweeping reforms. He managed to hammer out an accord on the seemingly intractable problem of the Punjab, where a group of fundamentalist Sikhs were demanding a separate state.
He also succeeded in pushing an 'anti-defection' bill through Parliament. Indian politicians are notorious for defecting to another political party after they have been elected.
His aim was to transport India into the 21st century within the decade. Despite all the criticism and jesting he invested heavily in computers and recruited a fresh group of technocrats. India finally had a leader, it seemed, who cared little for personal fortunes or aggrandisement
India's image abroad soared. European and American public opinion rooted enthusiastically for the handsome Rajiv and his attractive Italian wife Sonia during their visits to various Western countries last summer. The Western media felt that under this charismatic leader India was 'well on its way'.
But after little more than a year in office the euphoria has given way to harsh reality and an uncomfortable gap between performance and promise. His reforms have hardly touched the lives of the common people whose financial fleecing by organs of the State continues.
And there is now resentment in India that the old power cliques of Indira Gandhi's time have merely been replaced by a new, tighter concentration of power in the hands of the 'public school mafia'.
Some of the old problems have started to reappear. Violence has resurfaced in the Punjab, where the Accord signed among much political fanfare last year has not been Implemented. The entire area Is once again under a nightmarish state of siege by the security forces.
There are not, it seems, the easy solutions that Mr Gandhi promised. And what was once appreciated in the Prime Minister as a spirit of conciliation is now being seen as vacillation and a readiness to appease any assertive group. His control over the country's affairs is beginning to waver. Recent losses in Parliamentary and State Assembly elections indicate that his vote-catching ability is slipping too.
Honesty and noble intentions sit uneasily in the devious maw of Indian politics - and the harsh world of realpolitik returns repeatedly to haunt his initiatives. His honesty of intention and his disinclination to become a political creature remain. But Rajiv Gandhi's future, indeed in part India's, will depend upon his comprehension of India's reality and his dexterity in working the political process.
Rahul Bedi is a journalist on the Indian Express who is currently on a Reuters Fellowship in Oxford, UK