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After Rajiv Gandhi’s death, UK doubted Sonia’s leadership

Soon after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in May 1991, British officials concluded that the Congress party would gain seats in the general election but not an overall majority.

world Updated: Jul 20, 2017 23:26 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times, London
Rajiv Gandhi,Congress president Sonia Gandhi,Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated mid-way through the 1991 general election by an LTTE suicide bomber.(File Photo)

Hours after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in May 1991, top officials in London doubted his widow Sonia Gandhi’s ability to hold the Congress party together because of her "political inexperience and Italian origin", declassified British government files released on Thursday show.

Gandhi was assassinated mid-way through the 1991 general election by a suicide bomber from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sriperumbudur on May 21, triggering political waves in New Delhi and a sympathy vote for the Congress in the second phase of voting.

Percy Cradock, a senior diplomat who worked at Downing Street, presented an assessment of the situation in a confidential note to JS Wall, private secretary to then Prime Minister John Major, describing Gandhi’s death as “the end of an era” in India.

“The Congress Party has moved quickly to elect Gandhi’s widow, Sonia, as their new President. But her political inexperience and Italian origin ill equip her to hold the disparate elements of the party together. The party has no other potential leader with the qualifications to replace Gandhi. Its election campaign had been built around his personal appeal,” Cradock wrote.

“Opinion polls have indicated that Congress Party will gain seats in the election, but not necessarily an overall majority. The party might now benefit from a sympathy vote; and if it does not win outright, other parties and personalities might find it easier to join a coalition without Gandhi.

“But without Gandhi a Congress-led Government will have great difficulty in holding together the fissiparous Indian religious and ethnic communities which Congress has hitherto embraced under a secular all-Indian banner.”

He added, "Although Congress may well try to retain the Nehru-Gandhi label through Gandhi’s widow and possibly others, his death is the end of an era. Indian democracy and unity are facing their most difficult trial since independence.”

Cradock, who was a senior diplomat in Hong Kong before its handover to China in 1997, recalled the economic crisis facing India in 1991 (partly resolved by pledging gold to the Bank of England to secure an IMF loan), and said any delay in voting due to Gandhi’s death could be serious.

“About a third of constituencies had voted in the national election on Monday; the remainder of the election has now been delayed to 12 and 15 June. This delay could have serious economic consequences: India’s reserves are exhausted and a new Government is urgently needed to negotiate on debt relief,” he wrote.

No party won a majority in the 1991election but the Congress led by PV Narasimha Rao formed a minority government that remained in office for a full five-year term.

The Prince of Wales and foreign secretary Douglas Hurd attended Gandhi’s funeral in New Delhi, while Major visited India House in London to pay condolences. Condolences messages from London were responded to by thencaretaker prime minister Chandrashekhar.

He wrote to Major on May 27, 1991: “I have conveyed your message to Shrimati Sonia Gandhi. May I also take this occasion to express my appreciation for the confidence you have reposed in the strength and vitality of India’s democracy?

“As in the past, the people of India have displayed fortitude and calm in the face of adversity.”