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Rajiv Gandhi – the ‘unwilling’ PM who laid the foundation of a modern India

On his 28th death anniversary, ThePrint remembers Rajiv Gandhi, his years as the prime minister and the controversies he got embroiled in.

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New Delhi: Almost three decades after his assassination, Rajiv Gandhi and his legacy suddenly became a poll issue in this Lok Sabha election.

It all began after Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally in Uttar Pradesh earlier this month called Rajiv “corrupt No. 1”. In another rally in Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan, the PM said Rajiv and his family had used Indian Navy’s aircraft carrier INS Viraat to go for a vacation during his tenure as the prime minister.

It did not stop there. BJP MP from Karnataka Nalin Kateel said while Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse had killed only one person, Rajiv Gandhi had killed thousands.

Rajiv became the country’s youngest prime minister at the age of 40, but spent less than a decade in politics. His ascension to the PM’s position is perceived by many as a classic example of dynasty politics.

On 21 May 1991, Rajiv was assassinated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). On his death anniversary, ThePrint recalls the former prime minister, his legacy, controversies and more.

Early years

Rajiv was born as Rajeevratna Birjees Gandhi on 20 August 1944 to Indira Gandhi and Feroze Gandhi. His grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, was in prison when he was born. He was only three years old when India got independence from the British rule.

Rajiv’s relation with his grandfather, in his own words, was one of his most cherished childhood memories. In a film on Rajiv by actress and talk show host Simi Garewal, he had said his fondest memory of his grandfather was the human values he inculcated in him. In the same film, Rajiv’s mother and former prime minister Indira Gandhi had said that because Rajiv was the elder brother, he was much closer to Nehru.

Rajiv went to the prestigious Doon School in Dehra Dun, Uttarakhand, after which he took admission at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1962 to study mechanical engineering. However, he did not complete his studies and in 1966 took admission to the Imperial College in London.

During this time in 1965, Rajiv met Sonia Maino at a restaurant. Sonia was studying at Cambridge University and working as a part-time waitress. Their friendship, which began over Satyajit Ray’s iconic film Panther Panchali, blossomed into romance later. They both then returned to India and got married in 1968 and hosted their reception at Hyderabad House. Prior to the marriage, Sonia used to stay with superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s family.

After their marriage, Rajiv and Sonia along with their children, Rahul and Priyanka, lived with Indira Gandhi at her residence in Safdarjung Road in New Delhi.

Rajiv was never interested in politics, but was very passionate about flying. He enrolled in the Delhi Flying Club after returning to India in 1966 and later became a pilot with Indian Airlines in 1968. He was also interested in photography, Hindustani and western classical music and preferred the Rolling Stones to The Beatles when it came to rock music.

Also read: When Rajiv Gandhi had a whale of a time in Lakshadweep… and performed a ‘heroic’ act

Rajiv Gandhi — the politician

While Rajiv pursued the career as a commercial pilot, his younger brother Sanjay joined active politics. When Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency in 1975, Sanjay was among the most powerful people even though he did not hold any official position in the Congress.

It had been reported that both Rajiv and Sonia did not agree with Indira Gandhi’s decision to impose the Emergency. In an interview, Sonia had once said there were instances when her husband would tell his mother what the people around him felt about the Emergency.

After the death of Sanjay in 1980 in an air crash, Rajiv was forced into politics on his mother’s insistence despite stiff resistance from Sonia.

At the India Today Conclave in 2018, Sonia had said she feared that Rajiv would be assassinated. “Suppose it (her opposition to Rajiv joining politics) was perhaps selfish, but I also felt that they would have got him…they would have killed him,” she had bluntly said.

Rajiv tasted his first victory in politics in 1981 when he won the by-election in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, by a large margin, a seat that was held by Sanjay. He also showed his administrative prowess as a member of the Asian Games Organising Committee in 1982. Later, Rajiv became the Congress general secretary and Indira Gandhi’s heir-apparent.

In 1984, after the assassination of his mother, Rajiv took over the reins of the Congress. At that time, President Giani Zail Singh had called for fresh elections and the Congress won by a landslide, winning 414 seats.

Rajiv Gandhi — the Prime Minister

During his five-year tenure as prime minister, Rajiv had signed peace accords with insurgent groups in Mizoram, Assam and Punjab in an effort to end insurgency and violence in these states.

In 1985, the Punjab accord, also known as the Rajiv-Longowal Accord, was signed with Harchand Singh Longowal, who was the president of the Akali Dal. In the same year, a pact was signed with the All Assam Students Union (AASU). A year later, the Mizo Peace Accord was signed with Laldenga, the founder of the Mizo National Front.

In his book, Behind Closed Doors: Politics of Punjab, Haryana and the Emergency, journalist B.K. Chum wrote, Longowal told him he found Rajiv bolder and more courageous than his mother, and that it seemed like he genuinely wanted to solve the Punjab problem.

Under Rajiv’s rule, the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) was founded in 1985 and signed by Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Rajiv is also credited for giving importance to science and technology. He brought in computers and spoke of liberalisation. The telecom industry witnessed a breakthrough under his government with the initiation of Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited in 1986. He was hailed as the Father of information technology and telecom revolution of India as it was during his time that the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT) and PCO (public call office) booths were established.

‘Justifying’ 1984 anti-Sikh riots

In 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated on 31 October by her own Sikh bodyguards and immediately after this riots broke out and nearly 3,000 Sikhs were killed over three horrific days in Delhi. Shortly after, during an address to the nation, Rajiv had infamously said, “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.” This was in reference to his mother being the tree and the shaky ground being India and Delhi in particular, where the riots took place.

The riot and his words are frequently used by the BJP even today to attack the Congress on communal politics.

The Shah Bano flip-flop

Rajiv has been pilloried by many over his role in surrendering to Muslim conservatives during the Shah Bano episode. His image of a modern politician, who wanted to take India to the path of liberalisation, also took a beating.

In 1978, a 62-year-old woman, Shah Bano knocked on the doors of the Supreme Court demanding maintenance after getting a divorce from her husband. In a historic judgment in 1985, the court ordered that alimony be paid. Muslims who thought the SC was interfering in their personal laws took out massive processions against the judgment. To placate those Muslims, Rajiv used the brute majority of the Congress to overturn the Supreme Court verdict.

Many feel the Shah Bano case remains a blot on India’s politics because of Rajiv’s actions. He is blamed by both the Hindu Right and liberals, who accuse him of indulging in minority appeasement.

Months after the Shah Bano incident, Rajiv tried to restore the balance by ordering the removal of locks from Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri mosque in Ayodhya.

Till 1985, a priest was allowed to perform puja once a year. After the removal of the locks, all Hindus were given access to what they thought was the birthplace of lord Ram. Then in 1989, Rajiv allowed the shilanyas ceremony in which the first stone of the proposed Ram temple was put in place. Many considered this a balancing act after the Shah Bano case. Only three years after the shilanyas ceremony in 1992, the Babri mosque was demolished that triggered one of the country’s worst communal riots.

‘Curbing’ press freedom & Bofors

Rajiv was also widely criticised by the media for introducing the infamous Anti-Defamation Bill in 1988 that was passed by the Lok Sabha, but later withdrawn. The main aim behind the introduction of the Bill was to categorise journalists who wrote ‘defamatory’ articles against the establishment.

Perhaps, the most embarrassing moment of Rajiv’s tenure as PM was when the Bofors arms scandal broke out. The scandal involved alleged payoffs by the Swedish Bofors arms company through Italian businessman and Gandhi family associate Ottavio Quattrocchi, in return for Indian contracts. The scandal shattered Rajiv’s image of an honest politician.

The scandal was widely reported in the media and blown into a full-scale corruption case. The case reached the courts, but it couldn’t be proved that Rajiv had taken bribe from the Swedish firm.

However, the scandal gave enough fodder to the opposition parties to target Rajiv and the Congress in the 1989 election campaign when ‘Gali gali me shor hai, Rajiv Gandhi chor hai’ became the catchphrase.

Also read: Answer to Modi’s Rajiv Gandhi challenge to Congress lies in Punjab’s 1985 elections

His assassination

In 1987, Rajiv had sent the Indian Peacekeeping Force to Sri Lanka to help end the civil war and this angered the Tamil population there.

He was assassinated by a female LTTE suicide bomber at a public meeting in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu. Rajiv reached Sriperumbudur after 10 pm where he was greeted by a waiting crowd. As he approached a group of 30 women, one suddenly broke out and bent down to touch his feet. When a woman constable tried to stop her, Rajiv intervened and said not to worry. The woman then detonated her explosives-laden belt, killing Rajiv and over 10 others.

In 2008, Rajiv’s daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra had met Nalini, a life convict in the assassination case, in Vellore jail and reportedly broke into tears. Nalini has spent 29 years in prison and many parties and organisations in Tamil Nadu have campaigned for her release.

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  1. True, but also the foundation for massive corrution in the country, with the main driving force behind it Soniya!

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