ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN TODAY (SINGAPORE) ON 9 JUNE 2006
Rahul Gandhi's visit to Singapore shows its leaders are mindful he may one day be Prime Minister of India
A big name is visiting Singapore this week on a trip that has sparked speculation.
Why is Mr Rahul Gandhi in Singapore? This is a question Indians, Singaporeans and others are asking in the wake of the Indian Member of Parliament's visit here.
As the scion of a very important family of prime ministers that has shaped independent India, Mr Gandhi, 35, is no unknown in Indian politics. He is the great-grandson of India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He is also the grandson of the late Indira Gandhi and the son of Rajiv Gandhi — both prime ministers in their time. Sonia Gandhi — the current leader of India's ruling Congress Party — is his mother.
During his visit, Mr Gandhi had access to the highest levels of government in Singapore. There were meetings lined up for him with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo and Minister for Education Tharman Shanmugaratnam — key members of our Cabinet who are likely to helm Singapore politics for at least the next decade.
Tellingly, Mr Gandhi's trip came at the invitation of modern Singapore's founding father, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who also met him.
His week-long trip, which started on Monday, included visits to government agencies and key Singapore organisations such as Changi Airport, the Singapore Management University, Biopolis, the Singapore National Eye Centre, the Port of Singapore Authority, Singapore Airlines, Keppel Corporation, Creative Technologies and SingTel.
This shows he is no ordinary junior parliamentarian and that this may well be a trip to align Singapore's interests with India's future leadership.
The two countries are becoming increasingly important to each other.
Our armed forces now undergo training in India. We are providing more scholarships to students from India. More Indian firms are setting up offices here; some even have regional headquarters in Singapore. Bollywood films are being made in Singapore, and we have more Indian television channels reaching Singapore homes.
Mr Gandhi, meanwhile, has already started making his mark in politics.
His visit comes after a historic win for Sonia Gandhi in her constituency, which he was instrumental in securing. Media in India described her winning margin of over 400,000 votes as the "highest ever by anyone in the Gandhi dynasty".
Analysts believe Mr Gandhi is now ready to take on greater responsibility in India, which his mother has confirmed as foreseeable. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also appears to be building up this perception by taking a more than casual interest in the young man's development. Some observers are certain he is being groomed to eventually take over as India's Prime Minister.
In his first two years in politics, Mr Gandhi — who studied economics at Harvard University but never completed his degree — learnt (or re-learnt) governance and public administration. Following the example of some of the democratic world's more successful leaders, he has left no doubt of his desire to build his support base from the ground up.
He is wooing India's young voters and speaking out for them. Earlier this year, he said in Parliament: "No Indian girl or boy should be deprived of higher education because they cannot afford it." The Indo-Asian News Service has noted: "Rahul Gandhi, who has toured different parts of the country to learn how self-help groups and healthcare systems function in rural India, now appears to be in a mood to learn about high-tech developments and the free-market economy."
Foreign affairs also appears to be a new interest of Mr Gandhi's. Last year, he was in Afghanistan with Mr Singh, and was also at the World Economic Forum in Germany. This interest culminates in his trip to Singapore where he will have an interactive session on public policy and South Asian matters with two think-tanks here.
He may also be in Singapore to understand India's relations with China. When British Prime Minister Tony Blair wanted to learn about engaging China, he sought the views of MM Lee, among others. Mr Gandhi could be learning from Mr Blair.
Indeed, his visit to Singapore — to quote CNN — brings him a "step closer to the Gandhi throne".