BRITISH academics, diplomats and mediapersons gathered, for what had been billed as a one-hour round-table discussion with Prime Minister P.V. Nara-simha Rao on Indian democracy during his visit to London in the summer of 1994, recall being taken by surprise by a soft-spoken, erudite figure. With High Commissioner L.M. Singhvi giving a rather long introductory speech and Rao delivering another long-winded philosophical treatise, there was hardly any time for the 'discussion' that the British audience had been looking forward to. And when Rao—upon receiving small chits of paper from Principal Secretary A.N. Verma obviously suggesting that he cut short the meeting—tried to leave, a "minor government functionary" politely and firmly remonstrated on behalf of the disappointed gathering. "We were expecting a discussion and sincerely hope that next time around the Prime Minister will be able to give more time for such a discussion," said Gopal Gandhi, director of the Nehru Centre, which had organised the discussion.
A government appointee remonstrating with his Prime Minister, that too publicly and in a foreign land, is a rare sight indeed. And it is rarer still to see such people move on to more important diplomatic assignments for their countries. But then Gandhi—who will be India's next high commissioner to South Africa—had ceased to be a run-of-the-mill government functionary when he quit the IAS before taking up the London assignment. Is it the streak of independence in his personality that is taking him places? Is it the streak of boldness that comes from having an illustrious lineage—which includes Mahatma Gandhi on his father's side and C. Rajagopalachari, the former governor-general, on his mother's—that makes him stand apart? Or, is it a case of cutting through the labyrinth of decision-making in New Delhi's South Block—albeit with the benefit of family clout?
Gopal Gandhi, the man, and Nehru Centre, the institution he helped set up here barely four years ago, have both made a strong impact on those British people who are interested in India. Says Ian Jack, editor of the literary magazine Granta: "If your image of India inspired earlier by the High Commission was one of usual bureaucracy, Gandhi brought the richness of Indian culture to London in a way never done before." Jack, who till recently edited The Independent on Sunday, says the Nehru Centre, in its choice of themes for discussions, also displays an eye for topicality—be it a review of the latest book by an Indian author in English or a comparative assessment of the media in Britain and India at a time when Britain was witnessing an intense debate on the media's right to report the sexual exploits of the politicians and royalty.
Gandhi is himself an author, having written Refuge, a novel about the Tamils of Indian origin in Sri Lanka, and a play on Dara Shikoh, emperor Shah Jahan's oldest son. His latest venture: a Hindi translation of Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy.
Apart from Indophiles, Indian students too are welcomed at the Nehru Centre in this 'home away from home'. Gandhi says that he secured a commitment from the Indian Council of Cultural Relations and the Indian Government that he would be allowed to run the Centre without day-today interference and succeeded in reflecting the diversity of Indian culture and politics by giving the forum to, among others, the dissenting Indian voices such as Jyoti Basu, Sikandar Bakht, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Yadav and Shabana Azmi.
With father Devdas Gandhi editing The Hindustan Times, family friends in politics, education in Delhi's Modern School and St Stephens College, Gandhi seems to carry the various and seemingly contradictory influences—reflected in his well tailored western suits, Jodhpuri coats, chaste Hindi and English and polite deference to authority shorn of obsequity—rather casually.
He started his career as a junior staffer at the Weekend Review, edited by S. Mulgaonkar in the mid-'60s. At maternal grandfather Rajagopalachari's bidding—who he rates as the strongest influence on him—Gandhi joined the civil service in 1968. His last assignment in that capacity was as joint secretary in R. Venkataraman's Rashtrapati Bhawan. He says he sought voluntary retirement in 1992 because he wanted a "comprehensive change of activity". He was still contemplating going back to journalism when Singhvi offered him the directorship of the proposed Nehru Centre in London. And from here on, it's another "political appointment" as the country's envoy to South Africa.
Did he sound out people in Delhi about his interest in South Africa? "No, though some friends, knowing me, made this suggestion in Delhi and later told me about it," shrugs Gandhi. With Nelson Mandela citing Mahatma Gandhi as one of his inspirations and civil disobedience a la Gandhi a part of the South African political landscape, the grandson will certainly stand out among the ambassadors in Johannesburg. But it remains to be seen whether he can translate this into an advantage or whether it cramps his style.