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As Crisis Worsens, It Appears He Can Do No Right : It’s Season for Gandhi-Bashing in India

Times Staff Writer

In a heated moment of debate this week, V. Narayanaswamy, a loyal and long-suffering member of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress Party, shouted out on the floor of the Indian Parliament: “This is the leaking government . . . the leaking ship. Please save it before it sinks!”

At a cocktail party the same evening, a prominent newspaper columnist who has long supported Gandhi and earlier his mother, the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, blurted out, “Sometimes I think Rajiv doesn’t have a single political brain cell in his body. He’s self-destructing. No doubt about it.”

But, at garden party nearby, M. J. Akbar, a staunch Gandhi supporter and prominent author and newspaper editor, found another context for the political turmoil that this week has thrust Gandhi’s four-year-old government into one of its worst crises.

“It’s just the usual Rajiv-bashing,” said Akbar, who runs one of India’s most respected newspapers, the Telegraph of Calcutta. “It’s the fashion now. The pack journalists in Delhi have decided it’s time to gang up on him, and, this week, they’re bashing with a vengeance.”

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Such cocktail politicking is typical of springtime in New Delhi, the party season in this otherwise bland Indian capital. But this spring, with key national elections coming up in December and the prime minister already battered by scandal after scandal, it is open season on the 44-year-old Gandhi.

The current bitter controversy climaxed Monday when Gandhi was forced to release a long-secret government report linking one of his closest personal aides to his mother’s assassination in 1984.

As the scandal unfolded, though, it quickly became a case study in the political gamesmanship and palace intrigues that many analysts now say threaten to topple Gandhi in the upcoming polls.

The analysts say the leak that started it all came from within Gandhi’s own inner circle.

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In reversing himself and announcing that the report would be made public, Gandhi conceded that he was forced to do so because a partial leak of the report to the national daily Indian Express was “fueling willful distortion, malicious innuendo and irresponsible character assassination.”

Indian Watergate

As it increasingly takes on the appearance of an Indian Watergate, the debate that has filled the halls of Parliament and the garden parties of New Delhi’s elite has focused less on the murky details of the leak than on who leaked the report and why.

“As a Congress Party member, I am very much disturbed,” said Gandhi loyalist A. G. Kulkarni during Wednesday’s heated parliamentary debate. “I want to know how this matter, which is called a top-secret matter, goes out, how is it published in the newspaper.”

“Fotedar has leaked it,” declared opposition member Satya Pal Malik, referring to Rajiv Gandhi’s trusted friend Makhan Lal Fotedar, who serves as minister of steel and mines. Malik said this was disclosed in an interview with Kalpnath Rai, another Congress Party loyalist. Ironically, Rai himself is a suspect, according to published speculative accounts on the leak.

Another suspect is Gandhi’s minister of internal security, Buta Singh, who has been loyal both to Gandhi and his mother before him throughout his political career.

Cousin Is Prime Suspect

And finally, the prime suspect, according to editor Akbar and others, is Gandhi’s first cousin, Arun Nehru, who split from Gandhi’s inner circle to join the opposition in 1986.

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All of them deny having leaked the report--Nehru has publicly threatened to sue India’s largest daily newspaper for blaming him. But, at the heart of the palace intrigues is the man who, aside from Gandhi himself, was damaged the most by the report--Gandhi’s newly appointed personal assistant, Rajinder Kumar Dhawan.

Dhawan, according to Gandhi insiders, was known as “the most powerful man in India” under Indira Gandhi’s long rule. As her appointed special assistant and official doorkeeper, he controlled all access to the late prime minister.

As he did nearly every day, Dhawan was standing beside Mrs. Gandhi in her garden on Oct. 31, 1984, when two of her Sikh bodyguards fired more than 40 bullets into her. Ever since, rumors of his personal involvement in the slaying have stayed alive.

When Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in to succeed his mother, one of his first official acts was to replace Dhawan with Fotedar and other younger personal confidants.

In describing the tension between Rajiv Gandhi and his mother’s former special assistant, the Calcutta-based weekly magazine Sunday declared, “Crown princes never get on with court chamberlains.” Gandhi himself was quoted extensively at the time as saying Dhawan’s departure was part of an overall change in style from one generation to the next.

It was just such a change in style that alienated many of the old stalwarts of the Congress Party, eroding Rajiv Gandhi’s support.

In an effort to woo back the support of the party’s political bosses last month, Gandhi rehired Dhawan. It was only then that the controversy over his alleged role in the assassination resurfaced, culminating in the leak of the report.

Political pundits have asserted that only Gandhi’s powerful insiders had access to the secret report, which was completed by Indian Supreme Court Justice M. P. Thakkar in February, 1986. They say those insiders had a strong motive to leak the report, which, largely through innuendo, strongly implicated Dhawan in the crime.

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Cabinet ministers Singh and Fotedar were both concerned about losing power to Dhawan, political pundits have speculated, and Arun Nehru, Gandhi’s estranged cousin, was known to dislike and distrust Dhawan even when both were faithfully serving Indira Gandhi.

What is more, editor Akbar added, Nehru had been deputy minister of internal security at the time Thakkar was conducting his inquiry and so was in a position to pressure the justice into focusing his investigation on Dhawan.

For analysts such as Bharat Waliawalla of the Indian Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, the palace intrigues are a reflection of deep political changes in India during the past decade.

“It is a result of the decay of institutions and the rise of cult of personality under Indira Gandhi,” he said. “Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru (Mrs. Gandhi’s father) were builders of institutions. Indira Gandhi, through the years, destroyed those institutions and made personality all important. So now, you have these palace intrigues dominating political life, rather than real issues.

“A more fundamental problem, though, is the secrecy of government that has been highlighted by this Thakkar Commission affair. Where you have secrecy, you have intrigues, and, although India is the largest democracy in the world, it is also the world’s most secretive democracy.”


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