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Rajiv Gandhi and the `two Aruns in waiting' -- a new way of running India

THERE were some embarrassing setbacks. Millions of metallic bindis -- the dots that Hindu women fashion on their foreheads -- were mailed to prospective voters bearing the symbol of India's ruling Congress (I) Party, a hand.

But there was no conceivable way to make the bindis stick. The Rediffusion advertising agency had forgotten that metal does not adhere with glue.

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There were also full-page campaign ads in newspapers which some found offensive. Others were baffled by their subtlety, and just could not understand.

For the first time, a high-powered Bombay advertising firm was hired to help in the Congress's $100 million election campaign, blending, sometimes competing, with the noise, color, and controversy that are integral facets of modern Indian life.

Responsible for selecting Rediffusion, which is associated with Ted Bates Advertising in New York, were Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's two most powerful personal aides -- Arun Nehru and Arun Singh. Both former executives, the ``Aruns in waiting,'' as they are being called, are now in the eye of the Indian storm.

One is a trusted cousin. The other, a former schoolmate from Cambridge University and India's elitist Doon School. One used to sell paint, the other, shoe polish.

They are in some ways the antithesis of each other, in other ways, the same. Both, like the new prime minister, are pragmatic technocrats who believe in market research surveys, business school theories, and computer read-outs.

Both are scions of royalty in a fashion. Arun Nehru is the great grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru's father's brother, making him a third cousin of Rajiv. Arun Singh is descended from the former Kapurthala royal family.

They have been with Rajiv Gandhi from the beginning -- since the 1980 death of his far more ambitious younger brother Sanjay which propelled him into public life, and then, when the October death of his mother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, took the former airline pilot directly to the top.

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Both, like Rajiv, are 40, and have put their T-shirts and blue jeans away to sport the Nehru jacket, favored by India's political class.

They were there Dec. 31, when the 20-foot-high gold brocade curtains opened in New Delhi's majestic Rashtrapati Bhawan, the presidential palace, and Rajiv Gandhi entered to take the oath of office as India's eighth prime minister. He won an unprecedented election victory last month, carefully nurtured every step of the way by Mr. Singh and Mr. Nehru.

The two Aruns have bewildered, though no longer bemused, Congress (I)'s old-guard politicians who once dismissed them as Rajiv's ``computer boys.''

The shy, mustachioed Singh sat quietly with the prime minister's family in the first row. He had been sworn in as parliamentary secretary in November. The post, with powers tantamount to deputy premier, was revived by Mr. Gandhi when he first took office, after an absence of 18 years.

Singh is also a member of the upper house of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha, disdains being photographed, and maintains as invisible a public profile as possible.

Not so with the impetuous Nehru. With his sheer physical bulk and his often abrasive personality dictate, one cannot fail to know he is present whenever he is about.

Sworn in as a minister of state for power -- the energy variety, one must quickly add -- he seemed surprisingly uncomfortable in the Rashtrapati Bhawan, twitching a bit nervously, and slapping the backs of other Cabinet ministers perhaps a bit too hard. He nearly toppled the dignified former Foreign Ministry official, Natwar Singh, to the ground.

Beyond him, a galaxy of some of the new faces in Congress's parliamentary bloc -- scions of former maharajas, film stars larger than life, a glamourous dancer, and, just for safe measure, without provoking too dramatic a break with the past, a smiling mafia chieftain from the impoverished Hindi Belt.

One characteristic they shared was that they were rich enough to avoid the temptation to be politically corrupt.

Perhaps best personified by Amitabh Bachchan, a phenomenon without parallel in the history of Indian film and one of Rajiv Gandhi's closest friends, the changing face of Congress (I) was there for the swearing-in.

``If I am elected,'' Mr. Bachchan had told the crowds before the elections, ``then I am committed, with Rajiv, to take India by the shoulders and shake the dust and dirt from its public life.''

It has all been said before in Indian politics, but Bachchan said it so well.

Yet it was this same commitment to weeding out corruption, and bringing efficiency to India's moribund public sector and vast bureaucracy, that, if permitted, will distinguish Rajiv Gandhi's government from that of his mother's, in substance, manner, and style.

Not only Rajiv but also all of his closest advisers, with the possible exception of the corpulant Nehru, are far less imperial than Indira Gandhi was. They are less authoritarian and rely on consensus more.

There have been lapses, however, as Mr. Gandhi's critics are quick to point out. Flushed with their success in organizing the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi, the two Aruns and Mr. Gandhi, aided by a small inner circle of like-minded technocrats, were placed in charge of the January 1983 state elections in southern Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. It was a total disaster, and the ruling Congress Party was trounced from power for the first time in India's independent years.

They were reined in by a bewildered Mrs. Gandhi, then brought forward again to organize the 1983 nonaligned and Commonwealth summits. Both proved another phenomenal success.

Thus emboldened, Makhan Lal Fotedar, once described as ``Rajiv's man in Indira's inner court,'' went off to Kashmir and overthrew the government of India's only Muslim chief minister.

This led the feisty Arun Nehru to try to emulate the feat this summer in the opposition stronghold of Andhra Pradesh. The unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the eccentric N. T. Rama Rao, whose party now leads the opposition in Parliament's lower house, not only rebounded badly during last month's election, but also proved the Congress Party's most acute embarrassment of the year.

A chastened Rajiv said this week that his government would not overthrow opposition state governments.

Distancing himself from such peccadilloes, inbred in Indian politics, Arun Singh, the donnish executive is far more interested in opening the economy to private firms.

He was instrumental in amassing unprecedented sums to back Rajiv Gandhi in the elections, from the distinguished business houses of Calcutta and Bombay.

Like Rajiv Gandhi, his friends wondered how he could survive in Indian politics, whose seaminess he despised. But he was instrumental in winning this election -- and that seems enough for now.

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