Push comes to shove for Rajiv Gandhi to join politics

By virtue of a name and bloodline that are electoral magic in India, an unassuming airline pilot is being pressed to try out for the role of second most powerful person in the second most populous nation on earth.

Rajiv Gandhi, the surviving son of Indian Prime Minister Indira GAndhi, insists he has none of the political inclinations or skills to take his late brother Sanjay's place as his mother's second in command.

But a "Draft Rajiv" movement is in full swing among members of Mrs. Gandhi's ruling Congress-I (for Indira) PArty, and most Indians expect it will be only a matter of time until Gandhi enters -- or is pushed into -- the political fray he has long shunned.

Sanjay Gandhi was his mother's closest and most trusted political confidant and strategist. His death in a stunt-plane crash in late June has left a gaping hole in the Indian political scene, particularly among Sanjay's handpicked young loyalists now floundering for lack of leadership in Parliament and state legislatures.

In two recent and rare interviews withn Indian news magazines, Rajiv Gandhi indicated he was not inclined to enter politics. He said: "When there are so many people available, why me?"

But acknowledging heavy political pressure on him to keep the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty going and his own sense of family obligations, he said he would consider entering politics if it would help his mother and the country.

"I have to do something," Gandhi said, "I can't any longer pretend that I can maintain what I was before. The question is -- what?"

While Gandhi continues to fly domestic runs in northern India, he has started taking on liaison chores for his mother at the official residence he and his family share with her and Sanjay's widow and child, joint family style. He meets politicians and petitioners Mrs. Gandhi has no time to see and funnels information and requests to her.

"The way I look at it," Gandhi told India Today magazine, "is that Mummy has to be helped somehow. She had a lot of support from Sanjay and now it's not there."

Mrs. GAndhi herself has kept silent as politicians flood her with memoranda and petitions urging her to induct Rajiv into political life. "There has to be an unbroken continuity to carry forward the mission," insisted a recent petition from 300 members of Parliament. "Bring Rajiv, save the country," has become a political slogan.

But his mother, Gandhi said, has never asked or tried to persuade him to enter politics. "I don't think she would ever force me to do anything," he said.

Few Indians doubt that Mrs. Gandhi was grooming Sanjay to succeed her as prime minister, as her own father, Jawaharlal Nehru, nurtured her to follow him eventually as prime minister. Nor do they believe she can resist the temptation to groom her only other son to carry on the dynasty that has governed India for most of its 33 years as an independent nation.

Both of Sanjay's old jobs remain vacant -- his parliamentary seat in the Amethi constituency of Uttar Pradesh state and his post as secretary-general of the Congress-I PArty.

Rajiv has said that if he must get into politics, he would rather be a "communication medium" to his mother than an elected official. Observers note that under Mrs. Gandhi's hihgly personal control of her party and Parliament, Rajiv needs no formal party or legislative role to become his mother's second in command.

They point out that Sanjay Gandhi had been a member of Parliament for only slightly more than six months and a Congress-I official for only 10 days before his death. But the influence he wielded as his mother's agent during her "emergency" rule of 1975-1977 and as her political strategist for her successful return to power in 1980 made him the second most powerful person in India.

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