Sun, May 23, 2004 - Page 5 News List

The mythic family that is always there for India


Power, tragedy and celebrity collide with the mundane at the former home of Indira Gandhi, a colonial-era bungalow with a manicured lawn where buses disgorge thousands of tourists every day.

They admire the late prime minister's Scrabble set and peer into her son Rajiv's toolbox. Their children pose for photos in front of Rajiv's clothing, charred by the bombing that killed him in 1991.

The last stop on the tour: The walkway where Indira was assassinated in 1984 by her own bodyguards, and where her blood spatters are preserved under glass. To the family's millions of fans, it marks the martyrdom of yet another Gandhi who died for India's downtrodden.

After more than 100 years in the spotlight, the Nehru-Gandhi clan is more than a political dynasty. The Gandhis are India's Kennedys -- a circus and a soap opera, a stable of power-brokers, a deeply private family living almost completely in public.

Earlier this month, after a stunning election upset, Rajiv's Italian-born widow Sonia Gandhi sparked a frenzy when she declined to become India's first foreign-born prime minister and the fourth in the dynasty to lead the nation.

Thousands converged on Sonia's heavily guarded New Delhi compound, demanding she take the job.

A former member of Parliament put a gun to his head, threatening to kill himself live on TV if she didn't change her mind. Some young men sat under a banner pledging to Fast Unto Death."

When Manmohan Singh, the distinguished 71-year-old economist she hand-picked to be prime minister stopped by, the mob attacked his car with its fists.

"The people are so crazy, they are so in love with her personality said Mahavir Singh, a lawyer watching the melee. "They can think of nothing else."

Cult-like displays of reverence are not unusual in India, which prizes melodrama from the coy swaying of actresses in Bollywood musicals to the way supporters lavish politicians with fatuous praise.

It can reach deadly extremes.

When popular actor Amitabh Bachchan fell ill in 1982, two fans committed suicide, hoping to trade their deaths for his life. In 2001, when actor-turned-politician M.G. Ramachandran died, dozens of people killed themselves in grief.

"We're very passionate and very emotional," said Abhilasha Kumari, a sociologist at the Indian Institute of Mass Communications, searching for an explanation for such excesses.

The love of theatricality is partially rooted in Hinduism's thousands of gods and elaborate rituals, as well as cultural laws requiring children to revere their parents.

All that comes together with the Gandhis -- right now, with Sonia, as well as her son Rahul, newly elected to Parliament.

While historians debate how much good the Gandhis have actually done, their supporters see them, Kumari said, as "the mythic family that is always there for India."

The aura has been magnified by tragedy: the assassination of Indira, the 1980 plane crash death of her powerful, thuggish son Sanjay, the assassination of Rajiv.

It was further magnified by Sonia, a woman desperate to guard her family's privacy who finally took up the family's mantle.

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