A ‘national’ leader

RAJESH PILOT (1945-2000)

A boy born to a poor Gujjar family used to cut grass from the great lawns around New Delhi's India Gate monument, to feed his family's buffaloes. He supplied milk in little cans to VIP bungalows where ministers and Members of Parliament were ensconced. In the end, he came to occupy one of the bungalows himself, as a youthful stalwart of the Congress Party.

This boy-who-studied-under-the-streetlamps-made-good story was no myth. It was lived by Rajesh Pilot, who died when a jeep he was driving collided with a Rajasthan Roadways bus on 11 June, robbing his party of a rare breed of a leader. Pilot, who took his name after service in the Indian Air Force, was a national leader of India who was unique because he had dynamism, integrity, as well as a mass base.

In a moribund party given to a culture of sycophancy before the altar of dynasty, Pilot provided a fresh breeze. He spoke his mind, knowing that while the short-term exigencies of inter-personal rivalry would deny him the positions he wanted, the long term turn-of-wheel would be in his favour. Unfortunately, he was not to live long enough for the wheel to turn.

The most recent and running cause celebre, of course, was Pilot's willingness to put himself up as a candidate for the party president's post after Sonia Gandhi had decided to take over the reins. In a political arena where the open declaration of intention and ambition is frowned upon, he unhesitatingly declared on BBC's Hard Talk that he would like to be prime minister some day.

Whether he would have been able to revive the democratic traditions of the more-than-century-old party, and rejuvenate its ranks to present a viable liberal alternative to the right-wing Hindu-centric BJP, will now always remain unanswered. But there can be no doubt that he tried, and that he would have been the one.

The hands-on, direct approach was always visible even in Pilot's years of wielding political power. As Minister of State for Internal Security, he entered into dialogue with discontented Kashmiri leaders. In the words of one senior official who worked with him then, "Rajesh Pilot was the only Central leader who could walk boldly into downtown Srinagar and militancy infested parts of the Valley, mixing with people, ascertaining their views."

The talk of the future of Kashmir is once again hotting up, and just a day before he was killed, Pilot had spoken to the press strongly opposing a proposed scheme of partitioning Kashmir on religious lines into Jammu, Leh-Ladakh and the Kashmir Valley. At the other troubled end of India, Pilot had initiated talks with militants in the Northeast and helped the negotiations along even while out of power.

Clearly, here was a man who understood the hopes and aspirations of all India. As stresses and strains of rising aspirations buffet the nation-state of India, Rajesh Pilot's would have been a presence to guide a country where the term 'national leader' has become an anachronism. Pilot's drive and energy were infectious. He liked to get things moving even if he disturbed the status quo and ruffled a few feathers in the bargain. Characteristically, on the fateful day of the accident, Pilot was at the wheel.

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Himal Southasian