Rahul Gandhi's triumphant foray into Mumbai on Feb. 5, where he successfully challenged the street power of Maharashtra's chauvinist Shiv Sena politicians, was a significant step forward in his emergence as a national figure. By using local trains instead of a planned helicopter to cross the city, he showed more courage than most of India's prestige-oriented politicians would contemplate.
Together with his message that "India is for all Indians," this undermined the Shiv Sena's sometimes-violent campaign to exclude north Indians from jobs in booming Mumbai.
This underlined the political standing of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, led by the family trio of Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress Party and the governing coalition, Rahul, and his sister Priyanka. The strength of this trio, supported by top politicians who now do not dare challenge their dominance, was well illustrated by an intriguing list of the 100 most powerful Indians published on January 31 by the Indian Express newspaper.
The Indian Express list is noteworthy – for two main reasons. One is the extent to which the dynasty is embedded, which leads on to the thought of why the family still apparently feels unable to give Narasimha Rao, the Congress prime minister from 1991 to 1996, his rightful place in history – especially as the instigator of India's 1991 economic reforms, and the initiator of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's political career.
The other noteworthy reason is the absence near the top of the list of foreign policy experts. At number 30, there is political newcomer and star tweeter Sashi Tharoor, a former senior United Nations official and now a junior minister in the External Affairs Ministry. Then at 36 there is Shivshankar Menon, a former foreign secretary who has just become national security adviser. Neither the foreign minister or foreign secretary are included, which underlines Manmohan Singh's intention to be his own foreign minister, aided by Menon, especially on India's relationship with Pakistan, where India has just offered talks.
But the absence of any broader-based top foreign policy makers or strategists underlines India's problem that, while it wishes to have a significant and positive influence internationally, it has had no coherent long-term policies since the fading of the Non-Aligned Movement, nor the necessary diplomatic manpower in the external affairs ministry.
Going back to the dynasty or "the family" as it is frequently known, at number 1 in the Express list there is Rahul Gandhi, 39-year old heir apparent to the leadership of India's Congress Party and thus in line to be prime minister in the not too distant future. Sonia is at number 3, with Manmohan Singh, a family loyalist, slotted in between them. Then there is Rahul's 38-year old sister Priyanka at 14, and his 39-year old closest aide, Kanishka Singh, at 23 – the latter, it's worth noting, three slots ahead of the prime minister's veteran principal secretary T.K.A.Nair.
Rahul has had the No 1 slot for two years. I'd have put Sonia there because of her potential veto power over any government policy though the Express's senior editorial team, who drew up the list, have however presumably spotted Rahul's growing influence over what Sonia says and does, and the space that she is leaving for him to occupy. Rahul has sensibly refused to be locked away in a government department and is busy rebuilding Congress's tattered organization at the grass roots in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – a good thing to do while he can spare the time before taking on bigger responsibilities – as well as making Mumbai-style forays elsewhere.
Also significant is Priyanka moving up from number 30 to her 13. The Express says she's there because she is close to her brother, and her influence grows with his. I'd have added her emergence in running the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, which focuses on development issues. Founded in 1991, it has also operated as a policy think tank but, along with its stylish modern building in central Delhi, it has decayed and needs reviving. Priyanka's very active involvement there, along with her organizational activities in Sonia's and Rahul's political constituencies, indicates a steadily growing public role.
So why, now that the family's current and future role at the centre of India's politics is so secure, can't they acknowledge Narasimha Rao's important role in India's history, especially since he neatly filled a dynastic void between Rajiv Gandhi's assassination and Sonia's acceptance of a political role?
At the Congress Party's 125th celebrations just over two months ago, all of India's Congress prime ministers – those from the dynasty plus Lal Bahadur Shastri and Manmohan Singh – were paraded in pictures and mentioned in speeches, except for Rao.
Instead, Sonia Gandhi emphasized the role of Rajiv when he was prime minister from 1984 to 1989 and said that he "left his personal imprint on the party's manifesto of 1991." While it is correct that Rajiv, who was assassinated during the 1991 general election campaign, expanded the reform path tentatively started by his mother Indira Gandhi, his role was far less significant than Rao's.
It was Rao who had the political courage to launch wide-ranging reforms when India was hit by a major financial crisis in 1991, instead of just tinkering enough to keep the international financial community content. He then picked Singh to lead the reforms as his finance minister. He should also be remembered for two important initiatives in foreign affairs – introducing India's "look east" policy, and seizing an opportunity to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.
Of course, he also made mistakes – most importantly in the context of this post, not keeping Sonia Gandhi as an ally, or at least making her feel secure. He also failed in 1991 to curb the Bharatiya Janata Party's yatra ( Sanscrit: pilgrimage to holy places) that resulted in the demolition of a mosque in the city of Ayodhya, sparking religious riots across the country. And he initiated a self-defeating crisis over corruption and hawala (illegal international money transfers) just before the 1996 general election.
It might be understandable if Rao's portraits do not stand as high at Congress Party functions as the dynasty's, and that praise is less fulsome. But the negatives do not warrant his exclusion from the Congress leadership's version of history.
Surely Rahul Gandhi, who is trying to attract new young talent into a more democratically run Congress Party, will understand this. Recruits might be attracted more if he can show that praise for achievements goes to all Congress leaders, maybe even to critics – and what better way to demonstrate that than to rehabilitate Rao.