Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Parliament's Gandhi Makes Populist Play

The next generation from India's top political family. Nehru, Indira, Rajiv, and now Rahul .

Mr. Gandhi is part of a family that is privileged and powerful, and dogged by tragedy. He is the great-grandson of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the grandson of its first female prime minister, Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated by her bodyguards in 1984. He is son of Rajiv Gandhi, who also served as prime minister and who was also assassinated, in 1991.

It won't be easy sledding.

The 38-year-old scion of India's most powerful political dynasty, the Nehru-Gandhi family – who is often mentioned as the next prime minister – was shouted down. "I decided that it is important at this point not to speak as the member of a political party but to speak as an Indian," he began. But as Mr. Gandhi described his visits to the countryside, where he saw the positive impact a secure energy supply would have on farming families, jeers erupted. When the Speaker of Parliament couldn't quiet the chamber, he adjourned it for lunch.

Different that the US Congress where members call each other "the gentleman from the great state of" or "the gentlelady".

Over the past few months, Mr. Gandhi has been introducing himself to ordinary Indians through high-profile speeches and tours of the country's most impoverished regions. In the process, he has received a real-time tutorial on just how different he is from the people he may soon govern.

In the US we have the Rockefellers, Bushes, Kennedys, among other family dynasties, but the Gandhi clan is quite different.

Like the Bhutto family in Pakistan, the Gandhis have long served as a unifying political force, mainly by virtue of the family's devotion to politics and its bloody sacrifices. Because of his political pedigree, Mr. Gandhi is seen as someone who can boost party membership, stave off defections and mobilize the grassroots.

Though it is possible Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will stand again for the post, many are now looking to Mr. Gandhi as the new standard-bearer for a party in disarray. In a nation where two-thirds of the population is under 35, the fresh-faced Mr. Gandhi is seen as an appealing contrast to India's familiar elderly politicians. L.K. Advani, the likely prime-ministerial candidate from the other national party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is 80 years old.

PM Singh is 75.

The nation's disparities are becoming increasingly stark. India has more billionaires than Japan, but it also has 200 million people below the poverty line. The nation's world-class engineers have underpinned a global outsourcing boom, but 80% of the country's children drop out of school by the time they reach 15. India's skilled surgeons have fueled a lucrative medical-tourism industry, but at rural public-health clinics, doctors frequently fail to show.

Telling numbers. Wonder what the poverty line is?

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