India's Gandhi Problem Grows Before Our Eyes: The Ticker

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By William Pesek

"Welcome to Hazare-land." That's not what the pilot said as my flight landed in Mumbai recently. Yet somehow, "Welcome to India" didn't quite feel right -- not with Anna Hazare, the charismatic Gandhian carrying out the hunger strike that shamed a government and emboldened untold millions to demand change.

To underline the inspiration of Hazare's anti-graft campaign, he planted himself in front of giant posters of the incorruptible Mahatma Gandhi. Tens of thousands of onlookers waved flags, cheered, sang, danced and donned white "I am Anna" Gandhi caps. Yet the more Hazare channeled the father of modern India, the more I wondered where another Gandhi was.

I don't mean Sonia, India's president, but her son, Rahul -- the heir apparent. This week, Congress Party officials stepped up their campaign to see Rahul succeed his mother. Yet the 41-year-old was nowhere to be found as the party that forms the nucleus of his family dynasty was shaken by a frail, 74-year-old activist. Rahul offered zero leadership in lieu of Sonia, who was getting medical care abroad.

Hazare wants a new ombudsman agency that fights graft to police the prime minister and India's judiciary. (The government pledges to work on it.) More success might be had getting the Gandhis out of power.

A key reason Manmohan Singh has been a mediocre prime minister is that he's never been given real power. He's merely retained by Sonia Gandhi and her cronies. All that matters is seeing that the mantle of the presidency is passed to the next Gandhi.

Since 2004, Gandhi had the power to unleash Singh, the architect of India's 1991 economic coming-out party. The period offered a unique window of opportunity to attack corruption, improve infrastructure, increase competition and reduce poverty.

There's every reason to believe that 20 years from now, India could be a more impressive economic power than China. Its entrepreneurial spirit and yearning by its young population have the power to propel growth ahead. Yet India's leaders need to heed Hazare's message that change and clean governance are needed.

Young Indians are craving a new, more egalitarian nation. If you think another Gandhi is the way to realize it, your mind is more open than mine.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

-0- Oct/05/2011 16:02 GMT