On Rajiv Gandhi’s 27th death anniversary (May 21), social media had many gushing forth on his personality and many achievements. Without doubt his was an extraordinary life, from the time he was to the manor born in 1944 to his dramatic assassination in 1991.
The first thing to remember is that he became prime minister at the age of 40 years; at 46, he was already dead. How many of us were anything at 40?
The second incredible fact about him was that although he was only 21 when his mother became prime minister in January 1966, Rajiv Gandhi had absolutely zero interest or involvement in politics until 14 years later, when his younger brother, Sanjay, a lout and a street thug, and the heir apparent to their mother, died in a helicopter crash near Jor Bagh.
Through all of Indira Gandhi’s tumultuous years — her epochal battle for supremacy with the Congress old guard that she won by historically splitting the party in 1969; her intervention in East Pakistan that led to Pakistan Army’s massive defeat and the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971; her turn towards despotic authoritarianism after 1974; her slapping Emergency in 1975 that smashed civil liberties and incarcerated tens of thousands of her political opponents across India; her humiliating General Election loss in 1977 and arrest; and then her Phoenix-like revival in 1980 — none of these milestones had Rajiv Gandhi even as a footnote.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi and sister Priyanka Gandhi paying tributes at Rajiv Gandhi's samadhi Veer Bhumi in New Delhi. [Image: Twitter/@MahilaCongress]
In all these years, through all these events, he lived a distinctly ordinary life, his connection to the prime minister’s household being nothing more than, literally, umbilical. He trained as a pilot in adulthood, joined Indian Airlines, married Sonia, who he had met in England, and then had two children with her to become a complete family man with the airline version of a 9-to-5. Old-time journalists I met when I became a journalist in the 1980s used to reminisce how even during the wildest and most scandalous Emergency days, when Indira Gandhi’s kitchen cabinet, with Sanjay in the saddle as her unofficial number 2, ran the country, Rajiv, his wife, and their children would quietly slip out of a side door at the prime minister’s residence at 1, Safdarjung Road, and drive down to India Gate for ice-cream — yes, you’ve seen that photo, and that was indeed a ritual.
But then we all know what happened. Sanjay died, which made Rajiv quit being a pilot and come to “mummy’s side”, becoming Congress party general secretary. Then mummy got killed, and by that night of October 30, 1984, he had become prime minister. Two months later, in elections held on December 24 and 27 — the first time that India’s general elections stretched beyond one day — he got a majority of 410-plus seats, a record unlikely to be beaten by any for a long, long time.
Rajiv Gandhi was wholly charming and suave. He was also by nature an introvert and a loner, which made the traditional daily politics in Lutyens' Delhi very difficult for him. Through all those years he ran the country, Parliament and his party, he built hardly any relationships with career politicians — the one reason why he brought in outsiders Arun Singh and Arun Nehru, with both of whom, ironically, he would later fall apart.
He was also not cunning in the way of his mother. When he trusted Arjun Singh he went all in; when he heard unsavoury stories about Arjun Singh, he shunned him totally. Unlike his mother — who, in the mould of US president Bill Clinton, was out-and-out a political animal with nary a moral compass, and who relished in small-time politicking, bitching and back-stabbing unworthy of a prime minister — Rajiv was a decent and sensitive human, quiet for the most part and often reflective. He also seemed to have been conscious of the existence of the concepts of right and wrong, and the thought that he was doing the wrong things, and he did those aplenty, seemed to disturb him.
As prime minister, his career was made up of substantial rights and wrongs. To his credit, Rajiv Gandhi was the first prominent personality in India who began talking about the approaching 21st century and taking India to it. He was the first public official in the country who started talking of the demographic dividend of the burgeoning youth population; he lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.
Of the right things he did — from ushering in computers and expanding science and technology; bringing in public-private partnership and recruiting technocrats such as Sam Pitroda to run the technology missions; the incredible decision to hold talks with Laldenga, considered a terrorist by the Indian Government, and signing the Mizo Accord with him to bring peace in Mizoram — the list is impressive.
But, alas, there are tonnes that Rajiv Gandhi did wrong, and that continue to haunt not just his legacy or his party but the country itself.
The mass killings of Sikhs in 1984 following Indira Gandhi’s assassination was an event that should never have happened. In a literal overnight, the night of October 30, Rajiv Gandhi failed to understand that both his and his mother’s legacy would be negated with the violence against Sikhs, and violence there was bound to be. Instead of reigning it in, Rajiv Gandhi virtually allowed the horrific killings. The taint was made worse by his singular failure to ensure justice to the victims by bringing the perpetrators to book, howsoever high they be.
He made people like HKL Bhagat and Jagdish Tytler — people who carried out the ghastly killings — ministers and showed them off as close confidantes, which was deeply offensive — no less than it is to see Modi elevating people like Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath.
Then, of course, the Bofors gun deal that he himself had forged turned into his worst nemesis. That Rajiv Gandhi was acquitted in the Bofors case is a mockery of justice. Every scrap of evidence painstakingly put together by independent investigations by journalists and lawyers demonstrated how those close to Rajiv Gandhi, such as the Italian, Ottavio Quattrocchi, had clearly made an illegal financial profit from the deal.
Rajiv Gandhi’s bulldozing of Parliament — he set up a JPC under B Shankaranand, a Congress leader who had been Rajiv’s health minister, which turned out to be a total fraud — as well as of investigative agencies such as the CBI has made it easy for people like Modi to subvert governance three decades later.
Rajiv Gandhi also made a mess of Kashmir. It would be accurate to say that Kashmir’s sad story today is a gift entirely from Rajiv Gandhi, beginning the day he decided to rig the 1987 state assembly elections to stop a coalition of oppositional political parties from taking power. It must count as one of the most ill-advised and short-sighted political moves by any prime minister — 30 years later, the state burns like never before with no hope in sight. Armed Islamic militancy began that day of election rigging; the fate of Kashmiri Pandits too was sealed by that act.
In Assam, too, Rajiv Gandhi made the critical blunder of signing an accord with the All Assam Students Union, which brought the Asom Gana Parishad to power. You can accurately describe today’s viciously communal BJP rule in Assam as a legacy of Rajiv Gandhi’s failure to bring a secular political solution to Assam instead of caving in entirely to the thuggish strong-arm politics of AASU/AGP, giving tremendous life to the simmering anti-Muslim hate in the state.
And Punjab. The epic separatist militancy in Punjab that brought about his mother’s assassination not only worsened significantly on Rajiv Gandhi’s watch but also exposed the utter bankruptcy of his imagination. First he signed a Punjab Accord with a nonentity by the name of Harchand Singh Longowal, which instead of assuaging hurt feelings of the Sikhs made them angrier, and also brought about Longowal’s assassination, effectively killing the deal. And then, Rajiv Gandhi failed to extricate himself from the armed response that had become his government’s prime policy for Punjab. It was Rajiv Gandhi’s adoption of policing to fight militancy that eventually saw KPS Gill carry out virtually a genocide in Punjab, brutally massacring tens of thousands.
And lastly, the decision to send in the Indian Army into Sri Lanka to fight Sri Lanka’s internal war on the side of the island nation’s government and against its Tamil citizenry is still the most confusing decision Rajiv Gandhi took. It was the worst humiliation the Indian Army has ever suffered, worse that the much-touted 1962 “war” with China.
With the IPKF, Rajiv Gandhi also signed his own death warrant.
(A version of this post first appeared on the writer's Facebook page.)