Sanjay Gandhi: India's restored crown prince

The amateur mechanic pulling up in the lime-green minibus may be the next prime minister of India, the pundits say -- and the ultimate victor of last January's national election.

He wants India to grow from the village up. He favors birth control, slum clearance, and tree planting. He dislikes communists about as much as he likes cars -- which is a great deal.

And he is the son of the present Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.

His name is Sanjay, and his apparent political vindication in January is even more stunning than his mother's. In the dark days of Mrs. Gandhi's "emergency rule," her son's name had been linked with controversial excesses such as forced sterilization and the bulldozing of slum areas.

It was never clear whether the young Gandhi was directly responsible. His supporters say any overzealousness was the fault of individual officials who found it convenient to blame the Prime Minister's son.

Indeed, fueling the anti-Gandhi forces' rancor was the fact that Sanjay's only official position was the "son of the Prime Minister," not the stuff of which democratic exercise of power is supposed to be made.

No matter. The controversy of the past seems all but forgotten, at least for the time being. As India returned Mrs. Gandhi to the prime minister's post -- tired, it seems, of nearly three years of nongovernment -- it elected Sanjay to the new parliament.

"One of the remarkable phenomena of the January election . . . is that Sanjay Gandhi has ceased to be an albatross around his mother' neck," writes a commentator in the current issue of India Today magazine. Another political analyst comments privately: "I can't figure out what happened to Sanjay-phobia."

But like most political commentators here, he offers some suggestions:

* Whatever Sanjay's shortcomings, his political priorities make a good deal of sense. India is overcrowded. A new housing policy is needed. And if India is to develop, the village must be its base.

* The Indian political somersaults of recent years have been as much a power struggle, both within and outside Mrs. Gandhi's Congress Party, as a truly national political debate. As Mrs. Gandhi's rising fortunes met opposition from Congress veterans in the late 1960s, so her son faced resentment among establihsed political figures in the late 1970s. But most of the "old guard" has now either passed away, or melted into obscurity

Many Delhi political analysts seem to agree with this assessment. Sanjay Gandhi, they say, has moved from political pariah into a good position for the future prime ministership.

Pundits have developed a curious knack for being wrong over the past three years. But an additional argument for their latest prophesy appears to make sense: There is no one but Sanjay to fill his mother's shoes, when they are vacated.

Along among India's politicians, the two Gandhis seem capable of drawing huge -- if not always unanimously adoring -- crowds throughout India. "They have a national constituency," a prominent Indian journalist comments. One of the factors that marked the downfall of anti-Gandhi politicians last January was the lack of just such a constituency.

The green bus, with Sanjay at the wheel, pulls into the driveway of his New Delhi bungalow.

"Sanjay," cries one of about a hundred well-wishers or petitioners who have crowded in for the new legislator's daily public audience. Mrs. Gandhi had canceled her own that morning, and more than a few from her constituency had decided to opt for her son.

He wears a white, village-cloth kurta -- or long shirt. He speaks quietly, occasionally joining his hands in the traditional Indian greeting, namaste. Will he be prime minister, I ask a visiting state official from the Congress Party youth wing that provided Sanjay's original power base.

"Naturally," says the party man. "Is there anyone else of his age with such strength, such appeal to all India?"

A wrinkled farmer in a colorful turban presses through the crowd to hand Sanjay an almost illegible note "signed" with a thumbprint.

Sanjay's "age" is 34. He has shunned most interviewers in recent months. When he does speak to journalists, he deftly brushes aside the inevitable question of prime ministerial aspirations.

Yet over the past few years, he has made clear his aspirations for India's development -- also his aversion to communists of the local variety, although it si unclear whether this extends to foreign, particularly Soviet, specimens.

Outside politics, his first love is mechanics. Like his grandfather and mother, he spent some time studying in Britain -- not philosophy, history, or law, but the insides of Rolls-Royces.

Mrs. Gandhi, for her part, is loath to talk about her son's political future. But when pressed by a state minister to rein him in, she replied in February: "Sanjay Gandhi is an MP [member of parliament] in hs own right. His relationship with me does not restrict his freedom to express his views."

Commentator S. Nihal Singh, writing in India Today, has no doubts that Mrs. Gandhi will maneuver that MP into position as her successor, "to be catapulted to prime ministership at the right moment."

And at least a few of Mrs. Gandhi's own Cabinet ministers, speaking to another Delhi news magazine, have made it clear they think Sanjay is qualified for the top post, and may well make it.

In words that could just as well have applied to Mrs. Gandhi a little more than a decade ago, Home Minister Giani Zail Singh commented:

"He [Sanjay] is a daring, young leader. . . . When the time comes, every old person has to step down and make way for his children."

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