I wanted to write about Rajiv Gandhi in the week of his birth anniversary. I hesitated because there was already so much about him in the papers. But now, I think I’m going to say my piece anyway.
People often remark on Rajiv’s youth, his energy, his enthusiasm, his spontaneity and his sincerity. All this is true enough, but I think it misses some of his deeper achievements. We forget, for instance, how bad things were when he took over. After the Punjab insurgency and in the aftermath of Mrs Gandhi’s assassination, serious commentators and global think tanks questioned whether India could survive as a nation. Many people, predicted that the Indian experiment was at an end and that chaos was around the corner.
It was Rajiv Gandhi’s five years in office — from the autumn of 1984 to the winter of 1989 — that showed the world that India was here to stay. We had our problems. But our survival was not in doubt.
Even if Rajiv had not done anything else, that single achievement alone is enough for an entire nation to owe him a debt of gratitude.
When we talk of Rajiv’s youth and impatience now, we forget that he was, at heart, a reconciliator. His mother had been unforgiving and aggressive. Rajiv was the opposite. He was warm, ready to forgive and eager to forge a lasting peace.
No other Prime Minister could have signed the Punjab Accord or even, brought the warring parties to the negotiating table. When the militants gained the upper hand again, following the assassination of Sant Longowal, Rajiv resisted the temptation to undertake another Operation Bluestar conscious of the damage it had done to the Sikh psyche. Black Thunder, the commando operation in whose planning and execution he was intimately involved showed us how Bluestar should have been done. It achieved the same objectives without angering moderate Sikhs.
I was with him when he flew to Arunachal Pradesh on the occasion of its statehood and to Mizoram where he was welcomed by Chief Minister Laldenga. Both states had long been cut off from the national mainstream. In the case of Mizoram, there was public anger against New Delhi because of human rights abuses committed by our forces. Rajiv effortlessly brought both states back into the mainstream and ended all talk of secession. The Mizos, who had dealt with various governments in New Delhi over the years, finally embraced the mainstream only because they sensed Rajiv’s sincerity.
Much has been said about Rajiv Gandhi’s passion for computers and it is true that the only reason India is a software power today is because he had the vision to see the future. But the caricature misses a deeper point. As his grandfather had pointed out in his books, colonisation caused India, once among the world’s richest countries, to miss out on the industrial revolution. Colonial powers took our raw materials and sent them to their own factories. India never moved to the next stage of development.
Rajiv once said “India missed the industrial revolution, I want to make sure we do not miss the electronic revolution”. Over 20 years ago, he sensed that the world would soon be on the brink of change, that the old brick and mortar companies would move aside to accommodate new behemoths, built on 21st century technologies. When he said this, few world leaders — not Ronald Reagan and not Margaret Thatcher who were his Western contemporaries, certainly — had addressed the imminent transformation of the global economy. But Rajiv saw it coming and put India on the right road.
It was during Rajiv’s first year in office that Mani Shankar Aiyar (then a joint secretary in the PMO) told The Washington Post that India now had a middle class of 100 million people setting off a flurry of stories about India’s emerging middle class, many of which persist to this day. I’m not sure how Mani came by the exact figure but it was the right idea at the right time: Rajiv Gandhi defined, freed and encouraged the modern Indian middle class.
Rajiv was the first middle class Prime Minister of India — and was proud of it. He was the first Prime Minister to have ever held a job, to have paid income tax, to have watched with alarm as his provident fund deduction went up and to have struggled to make ends meet. These days we are used to the unexplained wealth of political families. But Rajiv’s friends will tell you how he lived on his Indian Airlines salary, saving up to build his small farm house bit by bit and struggling to afford a better camera (photography was a passion).
Consequently, he knew the strengths and the problems of the middle class. He recognised also that even though he had grown up in a political family, he did not necessarily understand either government or party political machinations. In 1990, after he had lost the election, I interviewed him about his mistakes when in office. He candidly owned up to most of them. “But if they had made you Prime Minister, Vir,” he pointed out, “you’d have made the same mistakes. We guys don’t understand how the system works. We see it from the outside. And it’s very different from the inside. It’s very difficult to change things.”
It was the strengths of the middle class he focused on. He knew that India was undergoing a demographic change, that young educated people would join the workforce. He was conscious of the need to find jobs for them in new sunrise sectors but aware also that these young people represented India’s greatest resource. The new century, he said, would be powered by the expertise, intelligence and energy of this new generation, by India’s human capital.
He was the first Prime Minister to say these things. And today, when I see that our greatest national resource, the one that is the envy of the world, is our human capital, I often think back to his vision of India.
But there was one important difference between Rajiv’s view of the middle class and the India Shining nonsense of a few years ago. He was never smug and never content with our own prosperity. He was obsessed with those on the margins of our society, with those who had gained nothing from four decades of Independence.
People often quote his famous remark about how small a proportion of the money spent by the government reaches those who need it. But they rarely put in context. Around halfway through his term, Rajiv had become convinced that democracy and progress were passing millions of Indians by. He travelled the length and breadth of India incessantly — more than any Prime Minister before or after him — and knew that we needed new solutions.
He never had a chance to fully implement Panchayati Raj. But it stemmed from his belief that we had to take democracy to the smallest village for it to have any meaning. You needed to empower people at the level of the tiniest possible unit. Big government was simply not working.
It was a unique and potent mixture: a Prime Minister who believed in computers and in the power of the educated middle class while simultaneously holding that the only way to really transform India was to focus on the poorest of our people in the smallest villages and to give them true democracy.
As always with Rajiv, this vision was predicated on democracy. Nobody has ever won the mandate he earned in 1984. In 1989, when we entered the era of hung parliaments, the Congress still had more seats than say, the BJP did when it finally took office. But Rajiv stepped down, refusing to forge a coalition.
In 1991, he had a majority — between Congress MPs and Chandrashekhar’s people — but he ignored colleagues who told him to take office saying that he wanted a real mandate.
Against their advice, and because he believed it was the right thing to do, he opted for a fresh election, for electoral legitimacy.
And he gave his life in the pursuit of democracy.