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A new Gandhi debuts on India's political stage

Priyanka Gandhi stirs expectations by helping her mother on the

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 20, 1999



AMETHI, INDIA

Everyone in India knows her face. Not yet a politician - but a potent political figure, feared by the opposition.

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Like members of the Kennedy clan in the United States, she doesn't need polls, recognition surveys, orchestrated media exposure, or speechwriters. She is a Gandhi.

Now Priyanka Gandhi, statuesque daughter and granddaughter of assassinated prime ministers, whose mother is a candidate for premier in the current national elections, has stepped quietly but clearly into the political limelight of the world's largest democracy. The move may have one of the longest-term implications in the sprawling month-long elections that end Oct. 3.

Ms. Gandhi is not running for office herself. But here on a tiny patch of northern India that has produced four prime ministers and a political family that dates to India's early freedom struggles in the 1920s, the symbolism of a Gandhi daughter stepping in and campaigning amid ecstatic crowds suggests the Nehru-Gandhi "dynasty" will reach into the next century.

"You will see her enter very quickly into active politics after this election," says Manu Singh, a family friend. "She has been preparing for 29 years."

If Sonia Gandhi wins both seats she is running for, she will likely give the Amethi berth to her daughter. It would be an extension of a dynasty in a part of the world, south Asia, that has such a powerful traditional ethos of family rule and blood loyalty that states here are sometimes called "feudal democracies."

Often, strong women who are relatives of rulers gain power. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Malaysia all have women from family dynasties as prime ministers, former prime ministers, or chief opposition figures.

But the longest political dynasty is in India. "You and I have the same thing in our hearts today: my father, Rajiv," says the young Gandhi from a low-riding parade platform covered in rose petals.

In Amethi, Rajiv Gandhi is a hero for trying to turn this district into a model constituency for his family, building roads, bringing in electricity, jobs, and so on. Only 50 miles away lies Allahabad, where Rajiv Gandhi's grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, chosen to lead India by Mohandas Gandhi, hails from - and where his father, Motilal Nehru, handed the leadership of the Congress Party to his son in the 1930s.

Even closer is Rae Baraelli, where Feroze and Indira Gandhi, Rajiv's parents, both stood for Parliament. Yet the idea of another Gandhi entering the political arena irritates some Indians. Some say "Gandhi" is a name for the former ruling Congress Party to exploit.

Certainly the name has been the glue that kept bickering members of the party together, one reason Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv's Italian-born widow, has stepped in as head of an often corrupt and lethargic party in decline two years ago.

Even author Salman Rushdie has gently parodied the Indian ruling family by referring to its similarities to American TV shows, calling it a "dynasty to rival 'Dynasty,' in a Delhi to rival 'Dallas.' "

Others, however, see the emergence of Priyanka as a positive sign - marking a new generation and a striking persona on a political landscape criticized for lacking both. They also look to Priyanka to carry on the flagging Congress Party ideals of reform, regard for minorities, and a secular India at a time when Hindu nationalist feelings are on the rise.

Priyanka Gandhi says she is busy trying to help her mother get elected. But her fresh face and transparent warmth in the crowds already have changed the dynamics of an election notable for its rancor, mudslinging, and pettiness. When she sits amid a sea of hardened Congress politicians, Gandhi stands out, with her pink saris and distinct features.

In practical terms, these elections are important for the Gandhis. If Sonia Gandhi does not bring a significant victory, then Congress leaders may demand that Priyanka step in more quickly.

Early this month when voting started, many pundits predicted disaster for the elder Gandhi. But things may be shifting, particularly in the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh. Part of the reason is the appearance of the younger Gandhi.

Friends say Priyanka, whose privacy has been jealously guarded, wears her mantle lightly and is very down-to-earth.

One old family friend remembers picking up an eight-year old Priyanka at a dance class where the teacher didn't show. There were only two girls left, and Priyanka insisted the other girl come along. The girl said her parents told her never to do that. Priyanka said, "The school is closed, and you can't be left alone. Your parents would be more worried if we don't take you."

In the US, celebrity culture and instant name recognition now play an important role in a US version of "Dynasty" - as the current campaigns by George W. Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton suggest. But they don't hold a candle to south Asia's ethos of handing over power. The family name is the family business. What happens next largely depends on the children. Even Supreme Court justices in India are often chosen from the same family.

"In an area ruled for hundreds of years by monarchs and princes, there is a deeply entrenched feudal outlook," says Delhi political writer Inder Malhotra, author of a book on the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty. "Here the liberal traditions of the West don't always hold. People want to know where you've come from. What's your pedigree?"

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society