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Gandhi: woman of destiny, arranger of flowers

It is 8:30 in the morning outside the treeshaded, cream-colored bungalow at 12 Willingdon Crescent, New Delhi, personal residence of Indira Gandhi, just hours after she learns that she is heading for a runaway victory in the Indian elections.

A local political pooh-bah dressed in stiff gray Nehru jacket is holding one limp red rose in a cellophane package.

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"She loves flower arranging. Why else would I bring her a rose?" he explains.

Outside the gates swarming with police and gawking spectators, a flower seller is doing a roaring trade selling victory garlands of orange marigolds that the party faithful and other hangers-on will press on Mrs. Gandhi when she emerges.

There is only one problem. She doesn't like marigolds. She doesn't like their smell.

A sari-clad aide wearing the distinctive red Hindu spot on her forehead dashes out of the house to whisper an instruction to some official standing on the circular driveway.

On her return, she is intercepted and asked by a visitor what she can divulge about the private Mrs. Gandhi, a very private person who loves her family, enjoys reading, going to the theater, and, of course, flower arranging.

"Hold on a moment," she says, detaining the visitor with a hand on his arm. In minutes she returns holding what looks like a Christmas card. "Put it in your pocket," she insists.

It is, in fact, Mrs. Gandhi's personal New Year's greeting card. On the cover is a sketch of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, the nation-builder and first prime minister of independent india. The sketch is by one of Mrs. Gandhi's favorite artists, Elizabeth Bruno.

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Inside is a quotation from "The Mother, Shri Aurobindo Ashram [a Hindu temple ], Pondicherry." It reads:

"Those who want to follow the true path will naturally be exposed to the attacks of all the forces of ill-will which not only do not understand, but generally hate that which they do not understand."

On the facing page, written with a flourish in fountain-pen ink, the words: "Greetings of the season and good wishes for 1980, Indira Gandhi."

The quotation by the Mother, Shri Aurobindi Ashram, is very telling about the kind of person Mrs. Gandhi is: a leader who feels she is destined to rescue India, but who believes she has been so maligned by the Indian press she is misunderstood.

Just 33 months before, she was drummed out of office in political disgrace because of the excesses of her 20-month state of emergency, which ended in early 1977, and charged as a criminal because of alleged constitutional violations. She has extricated herself somewhat from that legal morass and now is hailed as India's political savior.

Suddenly Mrs. Gandhi emerges. TV cameramen and party officials surge forward.

The initial impression on seeing this autocratic, tough political leader is astonishment that she appears so small, almost frail. A slightly harried look runs across her face as she sees the advancing crowd. But she quickly beams with pleasure and presses the palms of her hands together in namaste.

Namaste is the traditional Indian greeting -- both hands pressed together, fingers to fingers, palm to palm. She raises her hands to the level of her chest, denoting she is greeting equals. Her fans respond by raising their hands to their foreheads and even above their heads to show they are in the presence of someone they greatly respect.

She is wearing black shoes, a black and maroon gold-bordered sari that elegantly enfolds her, and a large gold wristwatch. A dramatic streak of genuine silver hair runs through the center of her wavy black hair, adding an aristocratic touch to this upperclass Brahman lady whom the uneducated masses adore.

The press is herded by overwhelmed aides to an area in the side garden where a pen with metal poles has been specially constructed. It looks like a cattle auction. Mrs. Gandhi mounts the rostrum erected for her as a phalanx of people from all classes of society smother her with garlands and greetings.

An awed, turbaned Sikh touches her foot. She immediately withdraws, feigning ignorance of his obsequiousness.

She parries all questions on future policy decisions by saying she must await the full election results even when the outcome is a foregone conclusion: victory by an avalanche.

Was she surprised by the result? "Certainly not." Then borrowing a phrase, she adds: "You can fool people some of the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time," jutting out her chin sufficiently so you catch just a glimpse of the Gandhi steel underneath.

Now she is returning to her home. No, she stops to talk once more to reporters. Now finally she is going back in. No, she decides to come out to the side entrance of her house and meet a select group of reporters. Later she will go out and meet the masses again.

It seems that Mrs. Gandhi, who has been a political pariah, cannot resist savoring this moment. She is like an overthrown momarch asked to return to the throne.

The garden in which she receives a band of journalists is immaculate, with broad green lawns and a circular bed of red roses in the center. But in range of the photographers' lenses is some bedding that is airing on a clump of chairs.

Mrs. Gandhi is displeased. She scolds the servants, who move at the double. She removes a towel and chivvies the rest of the servants. Then she returns to her seat, all composure, smiles for the photographers.

There is a shove from behind. "You ask her a question. You're from the foreign press. She won't talk to the Indian press," says an Indian reporter.

Mrs. Gandhi is not in an interviewing mood, and she returns to the rostrum again. By this time the crowds have swelled. Drums beat. There is a frenzy of excitement throw themselves into a dance of joy. Mrs. Gandhi retreats.

The crowds will keep vigil until dusk, when the crisp night air of New Delhi will send them back home or huddling around small fires that burn on the sides of the streets.

Inside the house, Mrs. Gandhi will probably relax with her two grandchildren, Rahul and Priyanka, children of her lesserknown son, Rajiv Gandhi, a pilot with Indian Airlines. (Mrs. Gandhi's husband, Feroze, also a politician, died in the early 1960s.)

Her other son, Sanjay, is a household name in Indian politics, but for nefarious reasons. Not only has he been under a cloud and in the courts for alleged financial improprieties, he has also been held responsible for some of the worst excesses of the emergency, such as enforced sterilization and slum clearance.

The men around Sanjay, whose strongarm tactics have appalled newspapermen and the intellectuals, have been dubbed "thugs," "goons," and "the Mafia."

It is only a partial view. Many apparently do not see Sanjay in this light. He staked his own honor in the election and carried his own seat by more than 100,000 votes.

The close mother-son relationship is a matter of high political speculation and low Sunday newspaper gossip. Says M. B. Lal, editor of the New Delhi newspaper, the Statesman, of this formidable relationship:

"Her son Sanjay has become a kind of inseparable attachment for her. Her sense of defiance [at not reining in Sanjay] is not just blind mother's love. She is an obstinate woman, and since she has been challenged on this front, she is determined to prove them wrong. The ego problem is here. It has become a fixation for her."

One of the reasons people believe Mrs. Gandhi is so intent on shielding Sanjay is that she sees in him at continuation of the Nehru dynasty. Sanjay would be the fourth generation.

The patriarch was Mohilal Nehru, a very prominent lawyer and leading figure in the Indian National Congress organization in its pre-independence fight against the British colonialists.

His son, Jawaharlal Nehru, the nation- builder, is one of the founding fathers of the nonaligned movement, along with President Sukarno of Indonesia, President Nasser of Egypt, and President Tito of Yugoslavia (the sole survivor).

Mrs. Gandhi is thought to have developed her political acumen through osmosis by being around the family home when politics was discussed with visiting dignitaries.

She became a low-profile prime minister more out of politicians' deference to the memory of her father. The assumption was that she would be a cat's-paw for the "old guard" Congress leadership. She proved the pundits and the political syndicate wrong by taking firm control. Soon they were dancing to her tune, although it was not until 1971 that she truly emerged from under the Nehru shadow.

"My personal assessment of Mrs. Gandhi," says newspaper editor Lal, "is that her greatest advantage is that she is Nehru's daughter. He is builder of the nation and unconsciously everyone is aware of it."

But mr. Lal's characterization of Mrs. Gandhi is not flattering, although he credits her with upholding her father's commitment to secularism in a Hindu-dominated society.

"She is not a patch on her father. She doesn't have his vision, his statesmanship. She couldn't have. She doesn't have his intellectual capacity, his academic qualifications. He was Nehru, the Cambridge don, the fighter for freedom. He was also a romantic, a bohemian, and a philanderer. At the same time, he was a visionary.

"She is not a democrat the way her father was. Nehru, for instance, measured his strength by the amount of criticism he could take."

Many a politician would be quick to see the latter dissimilarity. Mrs. Gandhi is viewed by those who have been summarily dismissed by her as peevish, petulant, and even vindictive. She wants her own way and gets it.

One Indian journalist who has followed Mrs. Gandhi around the country offers an interesting theory, through, that in some respects Mrs. Gandhi might have been better for India than Mr. Nehru.

He cites the time of the India-China war back in the 1960s when Chinese troops were massing on the border. "Nehru hesitated. He didn't really think that China would attack. He was more concerned about world opinion. He was more concerned about world opinion. He was an idealist; she is a realist. She would have acted because she is decisive."

Whatever her detractors, and they are legion, nobody faults Mrs. Gandhi on lack of courage, sheer stick-to-it-iveness in the face of overwhelming adversity , and gritty determination. She is fearless, willing to take on all risks.

Her gutsiness has earned her the reputation through successive administrations of being the only one in the Cabinent who wore the pants. A woman politician recalls how Mrs. Gandhi called up a woman member in her Cabinent in the middle of the night and informed her she must go.

The fact that she dismisses her appointees with as much tact as a Roman emperor has earned her a reputation for ruthlessness. Some see in her a potential dictator.

Her views are indelibly imprinted on everything she controls. When the old Congress Party didn't fit into her scheme of things, she formed a party of her own.

Congress-I (I for Indira), the only political party in the world named after a political figure, is Mrs. Gandhi. If she were suddenly removed from the scene , there would be nothing left. Her party is her personal instrument. But it is an instrument she wields like a rapier.

Perpahs that helps explain why Mrs. Gandhi is always striving to be at the very top. Though she plummeted to the very bottom, she is up there again.For the fourth time. Critics just hope she won't stay there for ever.


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