Remembering Rajiv: A non-politician who quickly learnt the tricks of the trade

On this day in 1944, Rajiv Gandhi was born to Indira and Feroze Gandhi. An airline pilot by profession, who went on to become the prime minister of India, he was assassinated by the LTTE in 1991. 

His son and former Congress president Rahul Gandhi fondly remembered him and paid his tributes on twitter. 

The period after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 was extraordinary as it was for the first time in the Congress party’s history that the mantle of the party passed from one family member to the other.

On the contrary, Indira was not the undisputed leader of Congress party after Nehru’s death. She had to make her way in the party hierarchy. 

Rajiv was in a similar situation when he joined politics after Indira’s death. There were seniors in the party, like Pranab Mukherjee, who aspired to become the prime minister.

Rajiv took time to wield his authority, did not trust the old guard and formed a new bunch of loyal men. 

That’s the reason the average tenure of chief ministers during his time as PM (1985-1991) is the lowest. 

Rajiv was almost a greenhorn in politics and had little leadership experience before he took up the job of the prime minister. This also meant that he as insecure and his confidence in other people was not quite low. 

The coterie around him included Arun Singh, Gopi Arora, SK Bhatnagar, NN Vohra, P Shiv Shankar, Arun Nehru, Suman Dubey, and even VP Singh for a short while. 

As the media focussed its coverage on the coterie, many of them lost leverage with Rajiv Gandhi and were axed from his inner circles — Arun Nehru, VP Singh, to name a few. However, Rajiv always appeared to rely on ‘close’ informants for information and decision making rather than building and relying on strong organisational processes, experts or individuals responsible for those specific roles. 

H K L Bhagat was the minister who managed to stay in Rajiv Gandhi’s Cabinet for the entire five-year term.

By mid-1988, he had carried out a total of 23 Cabinet reshuffles in 38 months. The constant shuffling meant that ministers had very little time to put in place medium or long term strategies. 

Rajiv kept interfering in the state units, weakening them over time. Instead of leadership emerging through local development and competition, leadership emerged on the basis of whims and fancies of the central leadership. An inexperienced central leadership meant that this process was extremely inefficient.   

However, he was genuinely interested and invested in modernising the nation with technology being at the center of that change. By the late 80s, middle class households began to benefit from these changes. 

Rajiv had many positive achievements to his credit like the peace accord in Assam and Mizoram, rapid adoption of phones (public) and television, general acceptance and adoption of computer technology, creation of the NSG and interventions in coups in Seychelles and Maldives, and overall management of drought of 1987. 

However, his tenure was also marred by many game-changing events. These events include the actions around the Shah Bano case, Ram Temple-Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, the infamous Defamation Bill and the Bofors corruption case.

During Rajiv’s tenure, VP Singh left the party, along with Arun Nehru, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and Mohammad Arif Khan, after the Bofors fiasco.

After the completion of his five-year term, 1989 saw the defeat of the Rajiv Gandhi government under the combined assault of the Opposition. The total number of seats won by the Congress party dropped from 415 in 1984 to 197 in 1989. 

The Congress’s loss of its core voters started during Rajiv’s tenure. The upper caste elite were miffed with the Congress over the corruption scandals (which received more coverage owing to the media explosion) as well as the perceived pandering to the Muslims (over the Shah Bano case, Satanic verses ban). The Muslims, meanwhile, were angry with the Congress over the Babri Masjid issue and the riots in Meerut and Bhagalpur. 

The emergence of strong backward class leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav in alliance with the strong leadership of VP Singh meant that the Congress lost support in Hindi-speaking regions.  

VP Singh couldn’t last his full term and had to resign in November 1990 due to internal differences in the coalition. Rajiv smelt a chance to come back as prime minister. He wanted to form a minority government and tested the waters with the President, through his messenger Fotedar. 

In his autobiography, ‘The Chinar Leaves’, M L Fotedar, political secretary to both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, recounts the turn of events following VP Singh’s resignation. He called on the President R Venkatraman to discuss the political situation and told him that under the circumstances, it was only the Congress that could form a stable and strong government. 

“I requested him to invite Rajiv to head the next government as he was the leader of the single-largest party in the Lok Sabha. On this, the President directed me, with an emphasis of authority, that I may put it to Rajiv Gandhi that if he supported Pranab Mukherjee to be prime minister, he would administer oath of office to him same evening.”

He came back and reported the developments to Rajiv, who was also astounded by Venkatraman’s stand. The Congress was running out of options. Nominating Pranab would have diminished Rajiv’s authority over the party. Instead, Rajiv took the controversial decision of supporting Chandra Shekhar from outside to buy some time.

The Chandra Shekhar government also didn’t last long as Rajiv pulled the plug within four months in February 1991.  The flimsy reason given by the Congress was that Chandra Shekhar government was spying on Rajiv Gandhi and had posted two constables outside his house for the same.

In a soon to be published book, ‘Chandra Shekhar and the Six Months That Saved India’, by Roderick Matthews, the author claims that Chandra Shekhar had solved amicably the Ram Mandir issue according to a Print article.

The broad agreement was that Muslims would hand over the structure to the Hindus on two conditions. First, alternate land was to be provided to construct a mosque. Second, law should be passed that no other mosque issue will be reopened. 

As his government was dependent on Congress support, Chandra Shekhar wanted Rajiv’s buy-in. Sharad Pawar updated Rajiv on the progress of the talks. Rajiv wanted two days to read the deal and think about it. However, he brought down the government in two days. 

He might have thought that if Chandra Shekhar settles the Babri Masjid, he’ll become a hero and win the next general elections. He didn’t want the credit to go to him. 

During the 1991 election campaign, Rajiv was assassinated by LTTE militants. He will always be remembered for the telecom revolution and as a leader whose political career was cut short by untimely death.

This Article has been originally published here

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