Ex-pilot, out of 'duty to mummy,' may rule India

As she frequently does before taking key decisions, the leader of the world's largest democracy recently summoned her astrologers to the sprawling official bungalow at 1 Safdarjung Road.

After leafing through cracked, leather-bound volumes and consulting their charts, the wizened oracles advised the Indian prime minister of the most ''auspicious'' dates for national parliamentary elections.

Off in a corner, dutifully holding his tongue, sat Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi's only surviving son. Then the diffidence gave way to anger. He is, after all, his mother's campaign manager and heir presumptive to an awesome dynastic house. He and his coterie of advisers had been preparing election studies for the past 10 months.

It was 1984, he is reported to have told Mrs. Gandhi, and elections could be held scientifically. ''We aren't,'' he reminded his mother, ''living in the flintstone age.''

She is said to have listened quietly. Then, with the tirade exhausted, she said simply: ''Oh, do hush, Rajiv.''

''Well,'' shrugged one of Mr. Gandhi's advisers, a quintessential management type, ''we never thought we could operate without a few constraints.''

Four years have passed since the grooming of the soft-spoken Rajiv Gandhi began, after his far more ambitious and flamboyant younger brother, Sanjay, died in a stunt plane crash. That was when Mrs. Gandhi beckoned the highly reluctant Rajiv.

A pilot with Air-India, he had painstakingly shunned public life. Today, he appears equally reluctant, but he is trying to overcome a natural distaste for politics to sustain the remarkable legacy of his grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister.

Except for a brief 34-month period, his grandfather and mother have ruled this volatile nation for all of its 37 independent years. And, because his father was the Parsee parliamentarian Feroz Gandhi, he even has the Gandhi name. Though no relation to the Mahatma, that matters little to the Indian masses.

They expect Rajiv Gandhi to inherit the reins of power once his mother leaves office. They bask in his political grooming, are titillated by some of his occasionally extraordinary mistakes. And when the feisty Maneka Gandhi - Sanjay's widow who is now estranged from the family - announced that she would challenge Rajiv for his parliamentary seat, it was better than the Bombay cinema. It was dynastic intrigue.

But in the end he is a Nehru, and the Nehrus have always been considered a class apart. Thus, it is not all that anomalous that Mr. Gandhi - a junior member of Parliament and one of seven general secretaries of the ruling Congress (I) Party - is considered the second most important person in the country. He does live in ''mummy's'' bungalow, and is often at her side.

Rajiv Gandhi's political future, however, will soon face a key, and perhaps decisive, test. The coming parliamentary elections, which are most likely to be called for January, but could be deferred for six months, are his elections. Not only is he running against the charismatic Maneka, but he and his aides are charting what could be his mother's last political campaign.

There is more than muted displeasure among a growing number of veteran congressmen, who have long been returned to power on Mrs. Gandhi's coattails.

''He's untested. It could be a disaster,'' says a leader from Uttar Pradesh State, where the town of Amethi, Rajiv's constituency, is. ''You saw what he did with his blasted computers in Andhra Pradesh (State).''

Compelling evidence suggests that Rajiv and his advisers were responsible for August's abortive attempt to topple the popularly elected government of N. T. Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh. Unprecedented bribery was allegedly involved to buy potential defectors from Mr. Rama Rao's party, the Telegu Desam.

''Those blasted computers,'' Rajiv Gandhi said in an interview this week. ''We don't even have a computer. We only have a word processor, one simple word processor, but everyone's made such a fuss. A myth has sprung up that we're trying to run the country by computers.... '1984.' ... We can't even get any more word processors. If we did, God knows what they'd do.''

He added that he was out of town during the Andhra Pradesh uproar, and hadn't realized that Rama Rao's supporters were deserting him.

Along with his Italian wife Sonia, son Rahul, and daughter Priyanka, Rajiv's was a quiet suburban life, unaffected by the turbulence of the 1970s when the family name was disgraced by Mrs. Gandhi's fall from power and brief imprisonment.

''Well, he must put all that behind him,'' said a knowledgeable man from Amethi. ''You in the West must understand that here in India, we follow our destiny.''

One is not quite sure if the Cambridge-educated Mr. Gandhi, who disdains astrology and the ''sadhus'' (holy men) of the Hindu faith, would completely agree with the young man on the preordained nature of his destiny.

When asked if he really wanted power, he replied ''no'' almostly immediately. As an unwilling convert to politics, was he at least now enjoying it more?

''Enjoying? ... Perhaps that's not the right word. It's certainly very challenging ... in some ways fulfilling. I don't think I'm enjoying it, though.''

But was his ultimate desire to succeed his mother as India's premier? ''I don't see myself as being a prime minister tomorrow. We don't need another prime minister tomorrow. We have a prime minister now.''

The notion of a dynasty made him uneasy. He skirted the question, keeping his thoughts to himself. Then, he finally said, as if in answer:

''I don't see it like that at all. There's a very big challenge in front of us today - how to get India into the 20th century....'' He spoke of the need to eliminate the vestiges of ''colonialism,'' the social inequities. ''We really must get the poor and the weak of India out of their rut, out of the morass they're stuck in. I consider that a far more challenging job.''

Charged with party organization, his must be a lonely and often quixotic task. He seems genuinely shocked by the corruption and mediocrity that have transformed the grand old National Congress of independence years.

When asked what he would do if he had 365 days in power, Rajiv replied that his highest priorities would be population control and education, ''areas which got left behind.... Social reform is also extremely important,'' he said. ''So is a more equitable distribution of wealth.''

With a population of 720 million, India is a potentially explosive mix of religions and races, languages and caste. The philosophic Nehru was imbued with great dreams, and Rajiv Gandhi's supporters equate Rajiv with the founder of the dynasty.

He is certainly very unlike his mother, who exercises power with an assertive , strong-willed control. And, rather than projecting charisma, the scion of the Nehru family often appears rather bored.

For despite the voice and Hindi lessons, posture and gait, and raw political management at his mother's side, Rajiv is still essentially that nice young man, who, out of ''duty to mummy,'' is being buffeted by a political system whose rules he doesn't care to understand.

He disdains sycophancy, so dear to most Indian politicians' hearts, and has berated many a chief minister for their ostentatious shows. On a recent trip to Amethi, he winced at the idolatry all around as withered old women fell to the ground in homage, struggling to touch his feet. Young men, ragged and barefoot, chanted, ''You are the hope of India - Rajiv, Rajiv, Rajiv.''

Does Rajiv miss the life of a pilot?

''I sometimes get into the cockpit all alone and close the door,'' he replied. ''Even if I cannot fly it, at least I can temporarily shut myself off from the outside world.''

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