A young Gandhi shows India the way

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2007, 12:00am

A new generation of politicians is the best guarantee that India's rapidly expanding economic and military networks will be used to improve stability and create prosperity in the region. They are internationalists by birth, education and inclination - and they are held accountable by democracy.

In parliament sit about a dozen young MPs who will become the leaders of the ruling Congress and opposition Bharatiya Janata parties. They understand the aspirations of a young population - the majority of Indians are under 35 - and their vision for India reflects a globalised upbringing which eschews narrow parochialism. Foremost among them is Rahul Gandhi, who entered parliament three years ago, aged 34.

He is heir to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which has ruled India for 40 of its 60 years. By setting a personal example, he is trying to transform a highly stratified society where professional titles are paraded and a misplaced notion of respect deters criticism, stifles innovation and perpetuates inequality.

That approach is to be expected from a man whose father - former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi - was himself unwilling to be hemmed in by traditional boundaries.

Educated at Cambridge, Harvard and in India, Rahul Gandhi's elite background, foreign-born mother and modern mentality could easily have formed an unbridgeable gulf separating him from India's poor, uneducated masses. It did not. He secured an impressive 66 per cent of the votes cast in his first election.

On the one hand, sceptics insinuate that the victory was a product of Mr Gandhi's pedigree, not his electoral platform. On the other, loyalists enthused by his victory expect him to become prime minister after the next scheduled elections, in 2009.

Mr Gandhi's campaign revealed a new strategy. Intended to provide the means to create economic, social and political freedoms across the traditional divisions of caste and religion, it indicates the possibility of a new politics - one that stops perpetuating millennia-old divides. If indeed his name rather than his politics carried the day, it does not condemn the man. Rather, it is a sorry symptom of a society refusing to abandon its feudal mindset.

As for the prime ministership, Mr Gandhi has repeatedly said he is too young and inexperienced. But he has been endorsed by Oxbridge-educated Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who said: 'Rahul Gandhi is your future; he is sweating it out for you.' It bodes well that the architect of India's opening to the world supports him.

The new internationalism is not about projecting power. Democracy - no matter how corrupt and inefficient - ensures that it is about learning from the world to better everyday Indian life.

Dr Singh's practical internationalism fostered the Indo-US nuclear deal. It is opposed by left-wing coalition partners simply because it is a link with the United States. Such narrow parochialism is exactly what Mr Gandhi and the next generation are avoiding. Autarchy is not for them.

Deep Kisor Datta-Ray is a London-based historian and commentator on Asian affairs. dattaray@gmail.com