Former PM Rajiv Gandhi. (HT archive) Exclusive
Former PM Rajiv Gandhi. (HT archive)

Rajiv Gandhi’s simplicity was his strength — and his failing

If alive, he would have been 77 today and arguably, much better equipped with the age and experience that he lacked when providence foisted on him the highest political executive office of the land, where he was an uneasy occupant
By Vinod Sharma
PUBLISHED ON MAY 21, 2021 03:21 PM IST

Rajiv Gandhi was born three years before India attained Independence. If alive, he would have been 77 today and arguably, much better equipped with the age and experience that he lacked when providence foisted on him the highest political executive office of the land, where he was an uneasy occupant.

As the country’s sixth Prime Minister at the age of 40, he was a product and a prisoner of destiny. His gruesome assassination on May 21, 1991 — exactly 30 years ago — cut short the story of his life.

On display at a memorial to his mother Indira Gandhi in Delhi, the bloodstained tatters of the clothes Rajiv Gandhi had worn could wrench the hearts of those who saw him in flesh and blood — tall, fair and handsome, with a dimpled smile that set hearts aflutter. He exuded warmth sans the guile akin to politics.

The simplicity that set him apart proved fatal. The hit squad that took him out was sent by a guerrilla leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, who Gandhi had gifted his own bullet proof vest at a secret meeting to broker a path to peace in Sri Lanka.

A story of a tragedy, elevation, and riots

The communal violence that engulfed Delhi after her security guards gunned Indira Gandhi down on October 31, 1984, was a scary spectacle of the State dissipating. Rajiv Gandhi arrived with Amitabh Bachchan at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences where his mother lay with loads of iron in her lifeless belly. Union minister Buta Singh collapsed. Outside, the cavalcade of President Giani Zail Singh, who swore Gandhi as PM the same day, was stoned by mobs on the rampage.

The chaos and the carnage that ruled Delhi during that week in 1984 is part of well-documented history. As home minister, Narasimha Rao was supposed to be in control but wasn’t. Policemen either went missing or turned a blind eye, barring honourable exceptions, to violent mobs attacking Sikhs. In fact, Inder Kumar Gujral, who served as PM after the 1996 polls, found Rao impassive rather than proactive to his counsel that the army be deployed to stop the carnage. The complicity or the incompetence of the government in those initial days of Rajiv Gandhi’s premiership would remains a dark chapter in the party’s history.

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Mani Shankar Aiyar, the diplomat-turned-politician who worked closely with Rajiv Gandhi in his prime minister’s office (PMO) and then as a party colleague, is currently working on his autobiography, nearly 200 pages of which are on the former PM. He has a different perspective on Gandhi and the riots. The Opposition and the media, Aiyar insisted, tore out of context Gandhi’s much-criticised statement at a public rally held 19 days after his mother’s assassination: “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes”. “I say that because he made the remark after lengthy exhortations of peace, very much in the manner he pleaded for an end to violence in the preceding days,” argues Aiyar.

True or not, the Opposition’s reading of the remark, and the violence in the national capital, haunted Gandhi through his tenure in office and the party until much later.

The Shah Bano controversy

Arif Mohammad Khan was in Rajiv Gandhi’s council of minister till they parted ways on the Shah Bano issue. The case concerning the Muslim women’s right to alimony was upheld by the Supreme Court and came to involve the broader question of Muslim personal law.

Now the Governor of Kerala, Arif Khan backed the verdict in a speech rated among the finest in Parliament. He felt let down when Gandhi gave in to the Muslim clergy—his government negating the judgement with the passage of the Muslim Women (Protection on Divorce Act), 1986. The decision gave a lease of life to Hindutva forces, which accused the government of “appeasement”. It led to a downward spiral of identity politics when Rajiv Gandhi got the Ram temple locks opened to win over the Hindu vote. The move instead helped the religious right rather than widening the secular middle of the Congress’s choice. The triple talaq legislation brought by the Narendra Modi government is a sequel, in fact, to the Shah Bano case.

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Looking back, Khan attributed Gandhi’s volte-face to the advice he received from senior cabinet colleagues, especially PV Narasimha Rao, ND Tiwari, Arjun Singh and SB Chavan. Rao, who became Congress president and Prime Minister after Gandhi’s murder, met Khan to dissuade him from pressing the issue. He asked him not to be a samaj sudharak (social reformer) against political expediency.

“Rajiv had his heart in the right place. Left to himself, he wouldn’t have had the SC verdict reversed...he wasn’t interested in politics and had a thin understanding of it,” said Khan. His recollections of Gandhi were of a man courteous to the core. After he resigned on the Shah Bano issue, Gandhi sent him funds for a car as he had had to return the official vehicle he used as a minister. Khan didn’t accept the money but the gesture touched him deeply.

The party and government

On the organisational side and in the government, Gandhi was receptive to contrarian views, often letting others have their way. What proved to be problematic was his reliance on a set of advisors who themselves needed advice but tended to blindside experienced party seniors.

As a junior industry minister, Khan got him to scrap, with planning commission vice chairperson Manmohan Singh’s oblique support, a proposal to let foreign brands into India. On an earlier occasion, he bypassed Rajiv Gandhi, then a party general secretary, to directly approach his mother, Indira Gandhi, who was the party chief and prime minister. Khan wanted a non-Muslim as the president of the district congress committee of Kanpur, the constituency he represented in parliament. Besides Khan, a minister at the Centre, Kanpur had a Muslim minister in the state government. Indira Gandhi recognised the incongruity of people from the same community occupying all three key positions. Instead of taking umbrage, Rajiv Gandhi laughed it off on learning that Khan went over his head to get the job done.

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But his willingness to trust people at times saw him pay huge political costs. Even in renegade mode, VP Singh often said that rather than leave the party, he’d sit under a tree holding the Congress flag. The former finance and defence minister walked out after being painted a fifth columnist, a latter day Jai Chand, by apparatchiks perceived to have the PM’s attention. The hiatus widened and led to a break up amid words of caution by the likes of veterans such as Kamalapati Tripathi, who himself took to writing open letters to the PM on matters concerning government policy and the party.

When out of power, Gandhi admitted to being misled into distrusting certain senior colleagues, specially Pranab Mukherjee, who left the party when excluded from the ministry formed after the 1984 polls. In his 2016 biography, Mukherjee wrote: “He made mistakes and so did I. He let others influence him and listened to their calumnies against me. I let my frustration overtake my patience...”

If the West Bengal veteran blamed Gandhi’s distant cousin Arun Nehru for his predicament, at an election rally in Rae Bareli, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra openly accused her uncle of backstabbing her father.

The rift with the President

A close aide of Zail Singh when he was president, former Rajya Sabha member Tarlochan Singh has mixed recollections of Gandhi. He remembered him fondly as the ‘de facto” chairman of the 1982 Asian Games organising committee headed by sports minister Buta Singh. “To Rajiv Gandhi goes the credit for the praise India received for the successful conduct of games,” he said.

Singh was director of information and publicity for the Asian games. He saw from the Rashtrapati Bhawan later the active role Gandhi played, in tandem with foreign service officers Natwar Singh (later the external affairs minister) and Hamid Ansari (who rose to be vice president), in India hosting the Non-Aligned Summit.

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The good part ended and politics began when Gandhi — whom Zail Singh administered oath before his election as the leader of the Congress parliamentary party in place of Indira Gandhi — dissolved the house for fresh elections without a formal call to inform the President. “He merely sent across the cabinet resolution for the dissolution,” recalled Tarlochan Singh. He too saw Arun Nehru’s hand in the deterioration of ties between the two.

The trust levels between the President and the PM touched the nadir during the Bofors scandal. Amid the rising Opposition chorus for accountability, there was a near-total breakdown of communication between the head of state and the head of government. Matters got uglier by the day with the government stalling Zail Singh’s foreign tours; the cabinet deciding against sending him the gun-purchase file he summoned.

The President countered the affronts by raising uncomfortable questions on a range of subjects. He withheld consent to the postal bill that gave the government powers to censor personal mail. The widened gulf stoked speculation of the presidency contemplating withdrawal of its pleasure to the government’s continuation — a denouement that remained in the realm of conjecture.

The decline in the working ties of the top constitutional functionaries was hard to decipher. Zail Singh was a staunch Indira Gandhi loyalist who, on being made President, had famously offered to wield a broom to sweep the floor if she so desired. On being sworn in as PM, Gandhi’s attention was divided between arrangements for his mother’s funeral and restoring calm in the city. That apparently did not go down well with the Sikh President, who a section in the government held responsible for the Punjab crisis in his earlier role as Home Minister.

The flip side of it was provided by Mani Shankar Aiyar who believes that their relations nosedived when Gandhi found the President encouraging elements opposed to the 1985 Punjab accord he signed with Akali leaders HS Longowal, SS Barnala and Balwant Singh. The pact was among the three major ententes Gandhi oversaw for domestic peace. The other two related to Assam and Mizoram. Gandhi’s response to Zail Singh was human, maybe not politically adroit if the measure of it is to overlook ethics, reasoned Aiyar.

Forward looking policies

Once mocked by the Opposition as a young man at a hi-tech store with no money in his pocket, Gandhi was committed to moving technology from the laboratories to the field to make it beneficial for the people in the hinterlands. In that pursuit he laid three decades ago the kernel of computerisation and the telecom revolution, notably rural telephony, that’s booming now with the spread of mobile phones and internet.

Thinking ahead of his times, he lobbied with the United States for a super computer for rainfall predictions in different agro-climatic zones towards “drought proofing” and securing potable water for the village folks.

On the foreign policy front, he left a noteworthy legacy on nuclear disarmament and repairing ties with neighbours. His 1988 ice-breaking visit to China was the first in 34 years by any Indian Premier. It breached the great wall of hostility, laying the foundations on which his successors built for peace and tranquillity on the line of actual control. The recent setback in India-China relations is a different story being told in a different era.

His engagement with Benazir Bhutto did not quieten Kashmir but helped pull Punjab — over which Pakistan had no historical territorial claim — out of the separatist quagmire. The incremental success in the border state was on account of the Punjab accord followed by assembly elections, together with robust diplomacy and strong internal security measures.

In Sri Lanka, Gandhi was betrayed by Prabhakaran, the Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) chief whom he secretly met before committing the Indian Peace Keeping Force to the Island nation to effect peace between the Tigers and the Sri Lanka troops. The IPKF’s eventual goal was to disarm the LTTE.

That was in 1987. He was slain in 1991 by the very guerrilla outfit he had ventured to help. Another betrayal, another instance it was of trusting without verifying.

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