Three farm workers, their heads swathed in dirty white turbans, sat on their haunches at the head of a line that snaked along the red clay path of a spacious garden here.
Behind them stretched about 200 others, including women in gold-trimmed saris; a mother and daughter clad in cotton saris that showed years of wear; businessmen in suits and ties, carrying attache cases, and rank-and-file politicians in the traditional white homespun.
They are part of a daily New Delhi ritual, an audience with Rajiv Gandhi, the crown prince of Indian politics.
Some came just to be seen by the chosen heir to his mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Others presented petitions for aid in redressing what they saw as grievances that could be fixed no other way, given the obstructionist nature of India's bureaucracy and the tangled web of the country's politics.
These morning durbars are traditional features of Indian politics, with roots that go back to before the Mughal conquest four centuries ago. Variations are held in Saudi Arabia, where the royal family uses the majlis to keep in touch with Bedouin subjects; in the Druze regions of Lebanon and in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, where the country's President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq still holds jirgas with the tribal chiefs.
Rajiv's daily durbar, held in the garden of the old British "bungalow" that serves as his office, illustrates the still feudal nature of politics in India.
This country bills itself as the world's largest democracy, but one longtime diplomat here described it as a "parliamentary monarchy" that has been ruled by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty for all but four of its 34 years as an independent nation. Rajiv Gandhi, for instance, wields far more power as the prime minister's son and heir apparent than from his only official post as a freshman member of Parliament.
S. Nihal Singh, the respected editor of the Indian Express newspaper, asked in an editorial page column whether what most of the world considers a parliamentary democracy in India is "already reduced to following the norms of a Mughal court." In that column, Singh referred to Prime Minister Gandhi as "queen empress"--the title used by Queen Victoria when Britain still ruled the Indian Subcontinent in the heyday of its empire.
The Parliament, with a two-thirds majority held by Gandhi's Congress-I Party, acts as little more than a rubber stamp for her policies. Similarly, all but four of India's 22 states are under the control of either her party or her central government, giving Gandhi power over most local decision-making.
At the same time, there is enough of a feeling of democracy in this country for the voters to have thrown Indira Gandhi out of office in 1977 when she went too far in suppressing civil liberties during a period of emergency rule.
But they voted her back in almost three years later, when a coalition of opposition parties failed to hold together and run the country.
Thus, many in this country refer to Gandhi as "the empress" and one high Foreign Ministry official explained that Gandhi is thought of by many villagers, harking back to the two centuries of British rule, as the new Indian queen.
Furthermore, feudal hierarchies run by the landowners still dominate the rural life to which more than 70 percent of the people in this country belong. These relations barely have been cracked by India's last 34 years as an independent democracy.
Thus, with traditions dying slowly here, the audiences between ruler and ruled remain a major element of politics.
The prime minister, 64, also holds a daily durbar in the garden of her official residence, just a few blocks from where Rajiv, 37, presides. But because of security considerations it is harder to get into hers than her son's.
The three farm workers, for instance, had been in Delhi for 15 days looking for government protection from village landlords. These landlords, they complained, were trying to take over their fields after seeds had been planted. The district officials, they said, sided with the landlords and refused to help them.
In world terms, this might not sound like much, but to the farmers it was life or death--and they felt that only a Gandhi could help them.
It is unclear whether Rajiv Gandhi did, but as he walked down the line in the garden one sparkling morning talking to the people, he took their petitions and passed them back to an aide. These will be followed up with a letter directly to the local official signed by the prime minister's son, which generally is enough to right minor wrongs, according to a political figure close to Rajiv.
"When you think there is something wrong, you come to the place where you will get peace," said a suit-clad man in the line who refused to say what kind of help he wanted from Gandhi.
But unlike many politicians here and across world, Rajiv Gandhi has developed the reputation of turning down requests he considers unjust--even from political powers.
He said, for instance, that he turned down a request by a delegation of shopkeepers to lower the rents on their government-owned stores after they had submitted bids to get the sites. Unless they could show that the government had not kept its end of the bargain, he said he told the shopkeepers, the rents should stand.
Although India is a country of 700 million people, its politics are highly personal. The finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, has a sign on the gatepost of his residence announcing morning and evening visiting hours--his version of a durbar.
Indira Gandhi, despite the overwhelming nature of her job, is famous for making personal decisions on some of the smallest problems.
When a religious organization had trouble with local authorities over land for a church in Delhi, its leader approached her and got the problem solved. Later, when it needed scarce cement to build the church, the leader again went to the prime minister.
Following her lead, Communications Minister C. M. Stephen personally decides whether to allocate telephones on a priority basis for people who think they have the need to skip over the long waiting list.
In the prime minister's absence, ministers are reported to fear making any decisions, even in such routine matters as mid-level bureaucratic appointments.
"A top minister told me that at Cabinet meetings he looked toward her face, and whatever appeared to please her influenced the vein in which he spoke," wrote nationally syndicated columnist Kuldip Nayar.
She is reported to hold loyalty to her as the prime consideration--even above ability or honesty--for any top political appointment. This has led to the sight of high Indian state and federal officials rushing to airports to present her with garlands before she leaves on a foreign trip and again on her return.
Last fall she finally ordered her chief ministers to stay away from Delhi arrivals and departures and told them that money spent for the flowers should go instead to her national relief fund.
An airport welcome in Hyderabad for Rajiv Gandhi, who appears much more modest than most other Indian politicians, got so out of hand that he publicly dressed down Tangturi Anjiah, then chief minister of Andhra Pradesh State, for organizing the tamasha, or big deal.
Anjiah, who later was forced to resign, was reported to have retreated to his official residence in tears.
Nonetheless, he professed that his loyalty to Gandhi was so great that he begins each day by saying prayers in front of her picture. He called her "our kula devata (family deity) whom I worship day and night."
Babasaheb Bhosale, the new chief minister for Maharashtra, the state in which India's financial capital of Bombay is located, took a similar tack when he said:
"Indiraji is a goddess. I prostrate before her and I will continue to do so."
Earlier this month the chief minister of Bihar, perhaps India's most corrupt state and certainly its poorest, insisted that a bridge be inaugurated before it was finished so that Gandhi could cut the ribbon.
"We wanted that our supreme leader should set her pious feet on the bridge before anyone else," he said. "Otherwise the sanctity of the inauguration would have gone."