Rajiv Gandhi: India's new heir apparent likely shoo-in for election

Ten months of intense will-he-or-won't-he speculation have ended now that Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's reluctant heir apparent has formally entered the political arena.

Rajiv Gandhi was already a powerful -- if unofficial -- force in Indian politics before his announcement that he would run for his late brother Sanjay's parliamentary seat. His election to that seat, vacant since Sanjay's death in the crash of his stunt airplane in late June 1980, is seen as a foregone conclusion.

So is his elevation to crown prince of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

One of the few elements of surprise is that young Gandhi has resisted the "draft Rajiv" campaign conducted by officials of his mother's ruling Congress-I (for Indira) Party and its Young Congress wing for so long.

Sanjay Gandhi had been widely regarded as Mrs. Gandhi's intended political successor and heir to the post-independence dynasty established by her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister. Since Sanjay's death, politicians have been clamoring for Rajiv to step into his younger brother's shoes.

But Rajiv made it clear he preferred his career as a pilot for Indian Airlines, India's domestic air service, and his quite domestic life with his Italian wife and their two children. Professor no inclination to enter politics , he said he would do so only if it would help his mother and country.

Observers believe that Mrs. Gandhi neither pressured her son into running nor kept her party from appealing to Rajiv to pitch in. Meanwhile, as he continued his domestic flight schedules, Rajiv assumed more and more political and official liaison chores for his mother. He has become known as a communications channel for political petitioners.

Politics is a highly personal game in India, and as the prime minister's son, Rajiv needed no official party or government position to become a figure of power and influence.

After all, Sunjay had been a party official for only 10 days and an elected member of parliament for just over six months at the time of his death. Yet as his mother's political confidant and strategist, he had played a leading role in her assertion of authoritarian "emergency" rule between 1975 and 1977 -- after which she was turned out of office -- and i n her successful comeback in January 1980.

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