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Has 21st century overtaken Rajiv? Keeper of his flame welcomes sparks

In a country ruled by the party he headed,a party that very self-consciously keeps his memory alive...

Written by Mihir Sharma | New Delhi |
February 17, 2009 4:11:39 am

In a country ruled by the party he headed,a party that very self-consciously keeps his memory alive,it might be considered strange to ask if Rajiv Gandhi is still relevant.

That is a topic typically associated with Mahatma Gandhi,and seminars held by Gandhi study circles everywhere. But Mani Shankar Aiyar is never afraid to ask questions that others might consider strange; and thus,as India goes into an election likely to be as epochal as any it has faced,Aiyar has chosen to frame his collection of essays — and the very,very high-powered study circle that will debate it at its release today — in terms of Rajiv Gandhi and the present: Has the 21st century overtaken Rajiv Gandhi?

For Aiyar,the answer to the question would almost certainly be obvious. The roots of the central questions we face today,he believes,lie in the 1980s; and the “Time of Transition”,the title of his book,begins with the final breaking of the Congress’s monopoly on power in 1989.

The years immediately following that were the years in which Rajiv Gandhi’s updated Nehruvianism may have metamorphosed seamlessly into Manmohan Singh-era globalism; or it may have been discarded completely.

That’s one of the issues that exercises the essays in the book,and it will almost certainly be the central focus of the panel that discusses it: a panel that features,among others,Chandrika Kumaratunga,former president of Sri Lanka; Khurshid Kasuri,former Pak Foreign Minister; Arun Jaitley of the BJP,Sitaram Yechury of the CPM,M S Swaminathan and N R Narayana Murthy,ideas men-at-large; Pratap Bhanu Mehta,president of the Centre for Policy Research and a contributing editor with The Indian Express and Shekhar Gupta,Editor-in-Chief of the The Indian Express.

The book,published by Penguin India and the Express Group, consists of essays which first appeared as columns in The Indian Express from 1996 to 2004,when Aiyar stopped writing because he entered the Cabinet.

Aiyar’s choice of subjects were,of course,pegged to the news of the day; but,when asked how they were relevant to the news of today,his answer was that,in the end,he was “always worrying away” at the same five fundamental questions,five questions that he believes are the basis of the Nehruvian conception of India,five questions that Rajiv Gandhi laid out in his Nehru centenary lecture in November 1989,his last major speech as PM.

Democracy,socialism,secularism,nonalignment (one word,and positive,not two,and negative),neighbourliness: these were the five things Aiyar always wrote about,and he believes they were relevant today as when Rajiv Gandhi spelled them out in 1989.

Indeed,Aiyar tells the story of how that five-fold organisation,and the speech containing it,came to be: because of a request from Mikhail Gorbachev,the USSR’s last leader. How was it,he asked Rajiv in 1988,that India,so formidably diverse,was surviving,when the Soviet Union was so endangered? Rajiv’s response,says Aiyar,was to try and lay out the many ways in which India’s political process moderated internal threats; and,also,to ask the then-head of the Intelligence Bureau — and current NSA — M.K. Narayanan to write a detailed report of how those threats were handled.

Rajiv was a perfectionist about speeches and public statements; he worked on the letter to Gorbachev for a year,and then reworked it as,with Aiyar’s assistance,into the Nehru lecture. Two years later,the USSR had passed on,and so had Rajiv; and the times of transition were on us,with nonalignment and Congress alike trying to find new roles.

All today’s issues,Aiyar seems to say,were first faced in their present form in those two years. And are we,then,at the end of a time of transition? Does this election mark the beginning of a stable period,when the central questions about Indian identity and the directions of its policy have been largely settled? When Aiyar wrote the introduction,in the week last year that the UPA government survived a vote of confidence,he seemed to think so.

The time of transition was at an end; Manmohan Singh began it,Manmohan Singh ended it.

But now he’s not so sure; and maybe the panel won’t be,either. When he wrote that introduction,he could say,wistfully but with a certain determined pride,that he was probably “alone among my peers in proclaiming myself a socialist”; today he is thinking of framing the Newsweek cover that says “we are all socialists now.” Perhaps,he says,twinkling expectantly with a view to the battle to come,the time of transitions isn’t over after all.

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