Ayodhya, Bofors, Communalism: Why India needs to remember Rajiv Gandhi’s reign as PM

Narendra Modi now represents a school of political thought that is entirely opposed to what Rajiv Gandhi stood for and the Congress continues to represent.

 |  4-minute read |   13-05-2019
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It’s 2019 and India is in the slog overs of its crucial General Elections. With just a week left, you would think that the poll pitch would now be on the wane when Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who has been the single focus point of this election — says “Rajiv Gandhi was corrupt number 1” and all hell breaks loose.

Why, 28 years after his death, was Rajiv Gandhi invoked? How is he relevant to the contemporary political debate?

eeee_051219043510.jpgNo Smooth Ride: Rajiv Gandhi's tenure was riddled with controversies galore, ranging from Shah Bano to Bofors. (Source: India Today)

This election, as has often been reiterated, is a face-off between two distinct styles of politics that have taken shape in India. These two, today, are manifested in the form of the Narendra Modi-led BJP, on the one hand, and the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress on the other.

These two leaders represent two different narratives of Indian politics.

Prime Minister Modi, over the last five years, has come to stand for development, nationalism and security. However, the Congress still functions as a fiefdom of the Nehru-Gandhi family with the party president, Rahul Gandhi, flaunting the legacy of his father, the late Rajiv Gandhi. To many, it continues to represent the narrative of dynasty, appeasement and corruption and, without a doubt, to my mind and several others, Rajiv Gandhi was the epitome of this brand of politics.

Rajiv Gandhi, who was implicated in the infamous Bofors scam, was the first Prime Minister to have been accused of major corruption — his own defence minister resigned after levelling charges against him. He was assassinated on May 21, 1991, and the Congress has since then used this unfortunate incident to duck all debate surrounding Bofors. But the fact remains that Rajiv Gandhi’s name was never fully and satisfactorily cleared.

Rajiv Gandhi’s ascension to the PM’s position was also a classic case of dynastic politics.

Though his mother (and former Prime Minister) Indira Gandhi too was the daughter of another Prime Minister, her rise had been steady and over years. It can be argued that she had a reasonable political journey before she wrested party control and became Prime Minister — however, Rajiv Gandhi and his wife Sonia were known to be averse to politics while Indira Gandhi’s younger son, Sanjay, was groomed to be the successor.

flag_051219044217.jpgIndira Gandhi succeeded Jawaharlal Nehru and was supposed to be succeeded by Sanjay Gandhi. (Source: India Today)

But with Sanjay Gandhi’s sudden death in 1980, Rajiv Gandhi was forced to enter politics for the first time. Four years later, on October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated and on the next day, without following due procedure, Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as Prime Minister — a classic case of brazen dynastic succession.

This finds an echo even today, many say, in Priyanka Gandhi’s sudden entry into politics and direct ascension to the post of the party’s National General Secretary.

Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as the sixth Prime Minister of the country from 1984-1989 is also known for its appeasement politics — the ripples of which are felt even three decades later.

First came the Shah Bano case, when the court ruled that the Constitution of the country was above Muslim Personal Law and ordered that Shah Bano, a divorced and poorly-off Muslim woman, be paid maintenance. But to please fundamentalist mullahs, Rajiv Gandhi changed the law and diluted the court judgment. It triggered the still unresolved debate about different civil codes for different religions in India. To pacify the majority Hindus, Rajiv Gandhi's moves led to opening the locks of the disputed Ram Temple in 1986 and he allowed religious rites to take place inside the structure. Thus began the unending saga of the Ram temple, again unresolved till date.

In matters of corruption, Rajiv himself admitted that out of every rupee spent, 85 paise were lost to corruption.

iii_051219044823.jpgCongress was headed by Sonia Gandhi. Then, Rahul Gandhi. Soon, we could see more of Priyanka Gandhi too. (Source: India Today)


His implication in defence deal scams was extensive with nasty links leading to Italy and Sweden. US diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks reportedly named Rajiv Gandhi as an ‘entrepreneur’ for Swedish firm Saab-Scania when it was attempting to sell Viggen fighter aircraft to India in the 1970s. His famed coastal holidays replete with extended family were widely reported even then.

Today, his son and party president Rahul Gandhi too is known for his vanishing acts and rumoured vacations in unnamed locations.  

The ‘unwilling’ Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, was untimely plucked from life — but that can no more be a ruse to cover up his troubled legacy that includes the Sikh riots, Bhagalpur riots, Hashimpura massacre, the Sri Lanka fiasco, Warren Anderson’s escape and the Farooq-Rajiv accord, besides the Shah Bano case, the Ram temple and allegations of defence corruption.

A country that is still struggling to come to terms with these blunders, and is looking to build a new future, cannot afford to forget these pieces of its tumultuous past.

As Rahul Gandhi tries to repackage his old family slogans in a new and resurgent India, we must remember that this has happened before.

Also Read: Computers, Cronies and Corruption Charges: Deconstructing Rajiv Gandhi’s legacy.


Swadesh Singh Swadesh Singh @swadesh171

Author is assistant professor, Political Science, Delhi University.

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