UK believed Rajiv Gandhi ran ‘oriental court’, was ‘king among courtiers’
The British government had a poor opinion of Rajiv Gandhi’s performance as the prime minister (1984-89) and on the eve of the 1989 general election, concluded that the atmosphere in his cabinet was that of an “oriental court”, where he was “king among courtiers”.
The confidential assessment of Gandhi’s tenure in office was penned by the then British high commissioner in New Delhi, David Goodall, and received in the Foreign Office in London as an “astute and perceptive analysis”. It has now been declassified and released by National Archives.
The Gandhi-led Congress lost the 1989 election. Gandhi was the focus of two detailed confidential notes by the diplomat, who wrote he had a difficult time explaining to an “incredulous” then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in September 1989 that Gandhi would not return as the prime minister.
The notes are particularly critical of Gandhi’s ways of functioning, and his alleged dependence on a “coterie”. They quote former foreign secretary M K Rasgotra and former diplomat Ronen Sen to substantiate the assessment of Gandhi’s “appalling” working methods.
Goodall wrote: “The small coterie of privileged bureaucrats and political associates on whom he relies for advice are liable to go in and out of favour with disconcerting suddenness; and the question who currently has the Prime Minister’s ear is the perennial topic of speculation among both Indian and foreign political observers in Delhi”.
“After over four years in office, inexperience is no longer a sufficient excuse. It has become clear that Gandhi also has problems of indecisiveness and a tendency to lose interest in the implementation of policies”.
“It would be unfair to apply to him Lord Beaverbook’s dictum about Lord Derby that, like a cushion, he bears the imprint of the last person to have sat on him; but it is a frequent observation that he is too influenced by the last person who has spoken to him, and that he signally lacks judgment in his choice of close advisers”.
According to Goodall, Gandhi had failed to revivify the Congress party, had become aloof and inaccessible to party workers, lacked “any profoundly thought-out political philosophy of his own”, and was ineffectual in foreign affairs.
“I believe that at the root of Gandhi’s monarchical proclivities there lies a sense of personal insecurity…Perhaps the only confidante he trusts completely is his wife, Sonia…(There) is little doubt that in private she is a tower of strength, and exercises a powerful influence on his choice (and rejection) of friends”, the diplomat, who passed away in 2016, wrote.
He added: “Indeed with Ministers his status is more that of king among courtiers than first among equals. We are told that in cabinet no-one, with the possible exception of K C Pant, the Defence Minister, dares to contradict him. With 24 re-shuffles in four years, no Minister has been allowed to remain in one job long enough to establish an independent political reputation”.
“In other respects too, the atmosphere is that of an oriental court; indeed comparisons, not altogether far-fetched, are sometimes drawn with the late Shah of Persia…Alongside the urbanity and the gentleness appear flashes of unpredictable petulance”.
On the credit side, the declassified notes mention Gandhi’s pro-western outlook, lineage and the Nehru-Gandhi family’s long-standing links with Britain, particularly its leading lights attending schools and universities in the country over the decades.
The note says: “Rajiv was strikingly handsome. He was a most attractive person to be with. He had charm, modesty and human warmth. He was full of decent instincts and devoted to his family. Undoubtedly, he wanted to do the right thing for India; and in the end he spent himself in the attempt”.
“But the truth is that his character, admirable in many ways, was not big enough for the job. He tried, but he never seemed to try hard enough…(He) never succeeded, either by force of character or example, in making even the smallest dent on the moral decay and galloping corruption of Indian political life and Indian political institutions,” Goodall wrote.