The Rajiv Gandhi I Knew

When Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister of India in 1984, one of his first acts was to reduce the import tax on cameras for news photographers. It was a trivial gesture, given the appalling problems the country faced in the wake of his mother's death. But for better or worse it was typical Rajiv: he was modern, he was gadget-minded, he knew how to manipulate the media.

He was also strangely innocent in polities. Rajiv often felt outside the main stream of Indian society. Where his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru's brilliance and his mother Indira's gift for political infighting ensured-and to some extent justified-the survival of the Nehru dynasty, Rajiv was in many ways proof of the flaws in hereditary rule masquerading as parliamentary democracy.

The family knew the problem. Four years ago I was in the home of the late Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Nehru's younger sister. She was less famous than her relatives, but I had always found her particularly sharp, even at 87. She spoke of her greatnephew with affection tinged by condescension. "Lacks a political instinct," she sighed. The phone rang. It was Rajiv. He was then beset by a corruption scandal and I assumed he wished to consult her. But he simply wanted news of "Auntie's" frail health. "He's such a sweet boy, really," Vijaya Lakshmi said as she hung up.

It was impossible to dislike Rajiv. He could overwhelm you with ingenuous charm. When his brother was killed in 1980, and he was thrust into the role of heir apparent, he declared disarmingly: "Someone has to help Mummy." He was boyishly handsome. He could inspire hope. Many of us who watched him take his oath of office in 1984 believed the great days of the dynasty might be at hand once more. There was a hint of John Kennedy-style charisma, a sense that Rajiv and his beautiful Italian-born wife, Sonia, could usher in a new Indian "Camelot."

We were wrong. The dream soon dissipated. Both Nehru and Indira, in their time, had worked out an unspoken but highly effective formula for ruling India, taking votes from the poor and money from the middle-class industrialists, using the trappings of democracy and a docile bureaucracy to mask their autocratic ways. The heir to the dynasty failed to perpetuate the system: he alienated the poor (his was identified as a "rich man's government"), the bureaucrats(by pushing them too hard) and the middle class (which was incensed by stories of corruption).

In truth, he inherited the worst Nehru characteristics: arrogance, petulance and a natural predilection for operating through small groups of trusted henchmen. Jawaharlal Nehru, all his life, treated his closest colleagues with barely disguised disdain. Indira eventually surrounded herself with dubious gurus and second-rate yes men. Rajiv's chosen companions were Western-educated "golden boy" types-hardly representative, alas, of modern India.

In the last 18 months, in opposition, Rajiv was changing. He became more reflective, more tolerant, aware of his shortcomings and determined to overcome them. Once again he raised hopes-desperately needed in his virtually ungovernable country. Now that hope is only a memory.