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It was apt that Jawaharlal Nehru ushered in India's independence with his memorable 'freedom at midnight' speech. Though Mahatma Gandhi was by far the most charismatic leader of the freedom movement, it was taken for granted that Nehru would become independent India's first prime minister. Much of what is right - and some of what is wrong - in India today can be attributed to India's first PM. Perhaps his most important contribution was being able to resist the temptation to turn an autocrat - a fear he had once expressed in an article written under a pseudonym - unlike most other leaders of anti-colonial freedom movements. If he had succumbed to the charms of authoritarianism, India's history could have been closer to Pakistan's. Nehru didn't want to found a dynasty. But after his and Lal Bahadur Shastri's death in quick succession, it was Nehru's daughter, Indira, who took on the mantle of prime minister and the Congress's supreme leader by sweeping aside potential rivals. She had much earlier acquired India's most famous surname by marrying the relatively unknown Feroze Gandhi. Surrounded by fawning retainers, who coined slogans such as 'Indira is India, India is Indira', she quickly showed an authoritarian streak first by centralising power within the Congress and then by imposing a nationwide Emergency in 1975. But democracy and fate combined to defeat her. She was thrown out by the people in the elections following the Emergency;then her anointed heir and political enforcer, Sanjay Gandhi, died in an air crash in 1980;and finally she herself was gunned down by her bodyguards in 1984.
That meant that Indira's other son - a selfeffacing, former Indian Airlines pilot - became the natural candidate for PM in a party that can't think beyond the Nehru-Gandhi family. The Congress came back to power riding a huge sympathy wave and the reluctant politician was now the leader of a party with the biggest-ever majority in Parliament. But the cycle of violence and death would continue to haunt India's first family. In 1991, a still-young but Bofors-battered Rajiv was blown up by a Tamil suicide bomber.
It was then that the script took an unexpected turn. Sonia Maino, Rajiv's wife and daughter of a construction worker from a small town in Italy, had never wanted anything to do with politics. She had objected in vain when Rajiv entered politics after his brother's death. So it wasn't unnatural that she withdrew from public life after her husband's death. But six years later, she gave in to persistent demands by Congress leaders to resurrect a sinking party.
The rest, as they say, is history. The woman who spoke halting Hindi and whom Time magazine once derided as "devoid of charisma" turned around a moribund Congress to win the general elections in 2004 and then again in 2009. Crucial to the Sonia story was her turning down the PM's chair in 2004 in favour of Manmohan Singh, an act of renunciation that won over detractors.
Cut to the present and everybody knows that Sonia and Rajiv's son, Rahul, will take over as PM one day. The 40-year-old who first saw his grandmother, and then his father, being assassinated, spent several years away from the spotlight living under false names in American universities and later in England. All that has changed now.
The 2009 Congress victory was seen as a personal triumph for Rahul who crisscrossed the country in his trademark white kurta-pyjama and sneakers, speaking at an astonishing 125 rallies in six weeks. One day he is seen spending a night at a dalit village and another standing next to tribals. He seems to have a clear agenda both in making an impact on voters as well as on the Congress, where he is trying to shake up an ossified party.
The question is not if but when India's most eligible bachelor will take over as PM. Clearly, we haven't seen the last of India's first family.
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