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Gandhi Family Rebel Charts a New Role in India’s Politics : Elections: Maneka Gandhi stages a comeback to work for environmental causes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The cordless telephone in Maneka Gandhi’s lap simply would not stop ringing.

There were offers of cabinet posts, hearty congratulations and, of course, the inevitable nastiness of political horse trading--India-style--as the young leader’s newly triumphant political party scrambled desperately to form India’s new opposition government.

“What?” she demanded curtly of one of the scores of callers. “No. No, I haven’t decided yet. What? No, I told you, I’m still thinking about it. . . . What?"--and at this point her young freckled face turned to stone and her voice to ice and she sounded like she was talking to one of the 10 stray dogs she has taken in this year--"Oh, my dear friend. What can you possibly be thinking. My vote isn’t for sale.”

It was 10 a.m. Wednesday, the very hour that Maneka Gandhi’s estranged brother-in-law, the man she has variously despised, pitied, insulted and cajoled through the years, was across town in the palace of Indian President Ramaswamy Ventkataraman, humbly resigning the highest office in the land.

The moment seemed the ultimate vindication young Mrs. Gandhi. Brother-in-law Rajiv, her family nemesis, had finally led his ruling party down in defeat. And she, the family outcast, had finally won, taking her seat in Parliament by a 131,224-vote margin as general secretary of the Peoples Party that will help form the new coalition government.

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Yet all Maneka could think about that morning was what lay ahead--that, and a more universal message in a victory that meant far more to her than simple revenge.

“Imagine,” she said, angrily recounting the telephone conversation to a visitor, “this party man actually offered me money to support so-and-so for prime minister. One can only hope that we’re not all here for the wrong reasons.

“I mean, winning an election is no big deal. It’s what you do with the power afterward that matters. And, well, for me anyway, it’s proving you can do something entirely on your own, entirely your own way and for a commitment that is larger than yourself.”

At 33, it seems, Maneka Gandhi has finally come of age.

India’s most famous rebel daughter-in-law--the angry young woman kicked out of the family home by Rajiv’s mother, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, nearly eight years ago for trying to usurp the power meant for her son--is poised to become one of the nation’s new leaders.

She will be a cabinet minister in the government that just buried decades of dynastic rule.

As a symbol of India’s new political order, Maneka Gandhi appears tailor-made, at least on the surface. She is open, progressive, dynamic, young, honest and fervently idealistic. More importantly, the widow of Indira Gandhi’s younger son, Sanjay, has for years come to symbolize rebellion incarnate against India’s ruling Nehru family dynasty, which, until this week, governed modern India for all but 30 months of its 42 years.

Maneka, after all, invited her own eviction from the family house in 1982, after months of taunting her prime ministerial mother-in-law by denouncing her government at public rallies.

So if India’s recent watershed elections do indeed mark the fall of the family dynasty, then what better image for this moment in history than the woman who once dedicated her life to driving them out?

Wrong.

Here’s what Maneka herself has to say about such symbolism:

“I’m not a rebel of the Gandhi family. I love the Gandhi family, and I’m very proud of being a part of that family--the good side of the family, not my brother-in-law’s side. And I don’t become less of a Gandhi because I’m not in the family house.

“No, if my victory symbolizes anything, it’s that one simply has to do things one’s own way. This is what the last five years has taught me: If you follow your own heart, your own way, you cannot lose.”

And in that, perhaps, is a message that does indeed go beyond the Byzantine intrigues of Indian palace politics--which is not to say that those intrigues, and bitterness, do not remain strong and just beneath the surface in India’s youngest woman legislator.

In explaining her conflicting emotions for the family she married into at age 19, Maneka insisted she feels only affection and respect for Indira Gandhi, whose October, 1984, assassination opened the way for Rajiv’s ascension to power as the only heir. Sanjay Gandhi was killed in a 1980 stunt-plane crash.

“I still hold my mother-in-law in the very highest regard,” she said. “Whether she was wrong or right, she cared deeply about this country. We disagreed about many things, but not her basic commitment. Her commitment was always to India and its people.”

“And Rajiv’s?” she was asked.

“His commitment has always been to money. He sees this country as a market--as a toy shop--where things are meant to be picked up, broken, bought and sold.

“He’s someone who got things so easily that he never really grew up. Maybe he has learned now. Maybe he’s grown up now after this defeat. Maybe life has done him the same favor it did for me.”

Even so, Maneka explained that she is still ashamed of her unsuccessful 1984 election campaign against her brother-in-law in Rajiv’s parliamentary district of Amethi, a rural, ruling-family enclave about 400 miles southeast of New Delhi.

“I was young, and I was wrong,” she said of the race, in which Rajiv defeated her by a huge margin. “Rajiv campaigned as his mother’s son, and I campaigned as my husband’s wife. Looking back, I’m glad I lost. If I had won, I’d probably just be another one of our empty-headed politicians.”

Maneka’s defeat forced her to other pursuits.

“I got back to the things that were important to me,” she said. “The environment, animals, writing.”

Almost immediately, the defeated candidate took up ways that appeared eccentric to many. She began taking in stray dogs by the dozens as a symbol, she later explained, of concern for India’s unwanted, as well as of her love of animals. She opened an animal hospital. And she began writing books, free-lance articles and a regular magazine column--all crusading passionately against pollution and appealing for a massive cleanup of India’s poisoned environment.

“I feel that, in these five years, I’ve learned a great deal,” she said. “I’ve learned how to focus on the things that were important to me. I’ve moved away from trivial politics and learned how to make a commitment larger than me.”

So when Maneka launched her most recent election campaign--this time she ran in a remote region of northern India, not in her brother-in-law’s district--she was determined never to mention her in-laws, or even her last name.

“I’m not anyone’s widow or anyone’s in-law,” she shouted to crowds in more than 350 villages during grueling 18-hour days on the campaign trail. “I’m not even your leader. I’m just a road for your life. And, if you think I can be your road to a better life, then give me your vote.”

She took pains not to insult her opponent, the ruling party or even Rajiv during her speeches. She focused on the corruption issue--but differently than the opposition as a whole, which alleged that Rajiv had, at the very least, covered up tens of millions of dollars in kickbacks on a 1987 arms deal.

Instead, Maneka attacked India’s entire defense Establishment.

“We are spending 26% of our budget on instruments of death,” she told the crowds, “while we are spending just 1.6% on education and health.”

Now that she has come to power, Maneka insisted that she will not abandon such lofty idealism. Quite the opposite, she said.

“I’ve made it clear I will only accept one ministry--the environment,” she said. “But it will have to be expanded from what it has been. It’s not just going to oversee zoos, parks and museums. I want it to become the last stamp for any new industry or factory in India.”

Reminded that such power might be less than popular with Indian big business and the huge multinationals that have moved into India in increasing numbers under Rajiv, the would-be minister smiled.

“I’m willing to be unpopular,” she declared. “It’s not important to be popular. Popularity, you cannot control. What you can control is what you want and the amount of work you’re willing to put into it. And, as long as none of it is for yourself, you stand a 50% chance of winning in the end.”

Reminded that she had indeed just won her election, Maneka shook her head.

“I don’t know if this is a victory or not,” she said, hinting at uncertainty for the first time in the hourlong interview. “I don’t know anything about administration. I don’t know anything about government. I don’t know the nuts and bolts of it. I’ll spend the next five years learning.

“But in five years, come back and take a look around the country, around my constituency, and then we’ll see if it was a victory or not.”


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