It was soon after he took over as the Prime Minister of India after the assassination of his mother, Indira Gandhi, that Rajiv Gandhi had talked about his vision to take India into the 21st century. He said that he was young and he too had a dream. He put the country on the fast track and laid the foundation for the liberalisation of our economy. It was due to his efforts that we entered the cyber age and his interest in pursuing a responsible nuclear policy helped in shaping and developing our programmes subsequently.
Sunday was Rajiv Gandhi’s 62nd birth anniversary. Were he alive, he would have been proud with the way Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh are carrying forward his vision. The country faces the challenges of the 21st century with two able leaders, Sonia and Manmohan, at the helm of affairs. Times have changed and so has politics. It’s not easy to march ahead with two groups of coalitions — one in the ruling and the other in the Opposition. Yet, the march has not stopped, even if it’s not as quick-paced as it should have been.
Only 40 when he became Prime Minister, Rajiv’s forward-looking approach helped us initiate several important measures on every front. Whether it was the anti-defection law or the emphasis on improving our environment by launching the Clean Ganga project, the young PM had ideas he wanted to shape. He lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 to include young people who constitute the bulk of our electorate and also introduced a five-day working week for government employees. All his schemes have proved to be a boon and have contributed in accelerating the growth of our economy which suffered a brief period of retardation when he gave up office on losing the 1989 mandate.
The UPA’s common minimum programme (CMP), in fact, allows a glimpse of some issues that were left unresolved but were very much on Rajiv’s agenda. He had, for the first time, put together a mechanism where governments after him would look ahead with pragmatic vision and ensure that India does not lag behind in the process of globalisation. His premature death was a setback but, somehow, the targets he set are very much on the present government’s roadmap.
Rajiv was young, idealistic and trusting. He showed courtesy, compassion and class when he dealt with his colleagues and opponents who often treated his virtues as signs of weakness as they were used to coarse and rude ways of life. His name was sought to be dragged into many controversies by opponents within and outside his party. What later came to be known as the Bofors scandal was projected as the evidence of the corruption in his government. The high court has since cleared his name of this charge.
Rajiv was let down by many people whom he considered close friends. These included Arun Singh and Arun Nehru. It is not coincidence that both landed subsequently in the BJP, a party that the Nehru-Gandhis have always opposed for its communal politics. Arun Singh became advisor to Jaswant Singh and Arun Nehru tried his luck to enter Parliament from Rae Bareli, but failed. It was, in fact, left to some of Indira Gandhi’s advisors to bail Rajiv out of the troubles he had got into because of his friends — one of whom, Amitabh Bachchan is now supporting a rival party in UP.
The significant part is that the forces which had ganged up against Rajiv Gandhi in the mid-Eighties are once again working overtime. They seek to pull down the present Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi. It was again not mere coincidence that Arun Singh emerged from the shadows to give an interview which sought to raise doubts over Rajiv’s role in the Bofors kickbacks.
Not many know that one of the reasons for Rajiv’s sacking of Arun Singh was that he had conspired with General K. Sunderji, the Chief of Army Staff in 1986-87, to put the country almost at war with Pakistan during Operation Brasstacks. All this without the knowledge of the Prime Minister. It was a timely intelligence tip-off that saved the day. Rajiv ordered the forces to move back from the borders where they were engaged in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation. According to some of Indira Gandhi’s close aides, the two Aruns contributed to the mishandling of many crises regarding the Sikh community in the Eighties. A similar pattern of machinations have begun against the current PM and Sonia Gandhi.
While Manmohan Singh may have referred only to Niccolo Machiavelli in his hard-hitting speech in Parliament on the nuclear deal, there are some very astute practitioners of Machiavellian tactics, both inside and outside his party, who are attempting to trap him. His reference was, perhaps, to them when he talked about “Tigers were on the prowl in the streets of Delhi”.
Manmohan Singh, in fact, shares some traits with Rajiv in his sincere and courteous ways. These are often misunderstood as signs of weakness. But his speech was positive indication that he has got into a combative mood. The way he silenced many of his critics should serve his party well. His advice was statesmanlike: “I am aware of the risks but I am ready to take them for the country’s sake,” he said while urging parliamentarians to think India and think big.
Singh was bang on when he said that the adjectives used against him do not matter and history would show whether he was a strong or weak PM. It is history which has shown that Rajiv Gandhi was a true patriot with a vision for his country. The same will hold true for Manmohan Singh. Manmohan Singh’s name shall be written in golden letters. Between us.