Gandhi's death brings to an end India's long dynasty Rajiv Gandhi third in family that tried to make India a leader in the Third World.

May 22, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

NEW DELHI, India -- As the mother died, so has the son, in a brutal assassination that now has ended one of the democratic world's longest-serving elected dynasties.

Rajiv Gandhi, dead at 46 after a powerful bomb exploded in a remote south Indian village, represented the last of three generations of Indian leaders committed to socialism, secularism and the promotion of the Indian nation as the vanguard of the Third World.

In his youth, Gandhi was the black sheep of the family that had led India from centuries of colonial repression into nearly a half-century of democratic -- although often chaotic -- freedom. He had dropped out of university in London and gallivanted around Europe, where he met his future wife, the elegant, Italian-born Sonia Maino. Ultimately, he chose a career as a commercial pilot with the state-run domestic airline.

But the political fate of the only surviving grandson of the father of the Indian nation, Jawaharlal Nehru, was sealed just a decade ago. And it began then as it ended yesterday -- in sudden death.

At the age of 36, Rajiv was thrust to the forefront of India's dynastic politics when his younger, but far more politically active, brother, Sanjay, died in the crash of a stunt plane. Reluctantly, the deeply shy Rajiv ran for Parliament, winning handily, and set himself up for the job he hoped he would never have to take. In less than four years, again, he found himself with no choice.

His mother, Indira, who had run the Indian nation with a tough and only sometimes benevolent hand, was shot more than 40 times in her garden in October 1984 by two Sikh bodyguards seeking revenge for her order six months before to send the Indian army into the Sikhs' holiest shrine to free it from the grip of militant Sikh insurgents.

It is said that Rajiv Gandhi, who at the time of his mother's murder was on tour in eastern India, shed no tears at the news. He returned to New Delhi with full army escort that night, and, within hours of his mother's death, was sworn in as prime minister in an act that defied the Indian constitution.

Not a single one of India's 840 million people, though, challenged their new leader or his right to rule, and, just two months later, they used the polls to return him to office in a massive wave of sympathy and support that gave his long-ruling Congress-I Party an unprecedented ruling majority.

It was not to last. Gandhi served his full term, five years of unchallenged rule that ended in bitter defeat in November 1989. The young leader was finally seen as incompetent, corrupt and incapable of managing the nation that calls itself the largest democracy on Earth.

In the last interview before his death, he told the New York Times, "A tremendous frustration is building up in the people, which is causing these swings from one party to another. They are frustrated that the system is not delivering, not meeting their aspirations."

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