Political naivety overshadowed much of Rajiv Gandhi’s positive work: Rasheed Kidwai

rajiv-ganthi-road-show Leading from the front: Rajiv Gandhi launching Sadbhavana Yatra from Delhi. The march was taken out soon after the V.P. Singh government announced Mandal Commission recommendations and the BJP launched the Ayodhya movement | P. Mustafa

If Rahul Gandhi flips through some of the news magazines from the 1980s, he would get a clear picture of how his father Rajiv Gandhi fared in the tricky business of politics—his attempts to bring about a change in the Congress and how he ended up facing huge dissidence and rebellion from the “old guard”. It would be evident how Rajiv, who was both prime minister and the Congress president (1984-1989), took momentous and costly decisions that shaped the politics of that era and resulted in his electoral defeat in 1989. Also, as a leader in opposition (1989-1991), Rajiv’s dealings with prime ministers V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar offer a lesson on the difficulties of teaming up with mavericks, socialists and regional satraps.

Rajiv, a parliamentarian from Amethi and All India Congress Committee general secretary, was in West Bengal when he got the news of the attack on his mother, Indira Gandhi, by her bodyguards on October 31, 1984. As soon as Rajiv reached Delhi, P.C. Alexander, principal secretary to Indira, and other trusted aides told him that the cabinet and the Congress wanted him to be prime minister. Alexander said he had to make a determined bid to tear Rajiv away from Sonia Gandhi at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, where Indira’s body lay in another room. Sonia pleaded with Rajiv not to consent, but he believed that it was his duty to do so.

The young prime minister quickly announced general elections ahead of schedule, between 24 and 27 December 1984. Rajiv’s election campaign was aggressive. He attempted to somehow exploit Hindu insecurity over the separatist sentiments in Punjab and project the Congress as their sole saviour.

There was a huge wave in Rajiv’s favour, with the party winning 415 Lok Sabha seats, a tally that his mother and illustrious grandfather had both failed to achieve. It was also a personal triumph for Rajiv. He had travelled over 50,000 kilometres by road and air in 25 days.

The poll verdict had a massive impact on domestic politics. The newly formed BJP was decimated, winning merely two parliamentary seats. Rajiv had lined up Amitabh Bachchan and Madhavrao Scindia to humble veteran politicians Hemwati Nandan Bahugana and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

For the first and perhaps the only time, 24, Akbar Road, the AICC headquarters in New Delhi, was illuminated for three days to celebrate the party’s grand victory.

Rajiv’s rise had a massive impact on the Congress party, too. Many veteran leaders who were close to Indira and Sanjay Gandhi found themselves left out in the cold. Rajiv’s durbar was a mix of technocrats, politicians, mavericks, and time-servers. While there were advisers like P.V. Narasimha Rao and N.D. Tiwari, and professionals like P. Chidambaram and Mani Shankar Aiyar, there were also masters of political manipulation like Buta Singh, Arun Nehru and Sitaram Kesri.

During the Congress centennial in 1985, a 41-year-old Rajiv—his ‘Mr Clean’ image still unscathed in popular perception—had hit out at party power brokers before a gathering at Bombay’s Brabourne Stadium. “Brokers of power and influence who dispense patronage to convert a mass movement into a feudal oligarchy,” he had said. The speech was an instant hit. Media and intelligentsia lapped up every word. Rajiv’s stocks as a political visionary shot up. Rajiv was convinced that Congress could be revived at the grassroots only if “free and fair” organisational polls were held.

A subsequent Congress Working Committee resolution at Bombay in December 1985 desired, “party elections to be completed by July 1986”. A membership drive was launched, but the polls were not held as Rajiv got reports about fake members being added to the rolls on a large scale. It was felt that if elections were held under those conditions, the old guard, side-lined by him, would take back control of party machinery.

The Rajiv Gandhi government’s decisions concerning Ayodhya and the Shah Bano judgment have had a lasting impact on the country’s politics. Many Congress activists still believe that it was Arun Nehru who had advised Rajiv to open the locks to Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in February 1986, politically damaging the Congress and leading to the rise of Hindu right and the BJP.

Equally controversial and costly was Rajiv’s move to overturn the Supreme Court’s judgment in the 1985-1986 Shah Bano case. To this day, the Hindu right and liberals criticise Rajiv for it, accusing him of minority appeasement and giving in to orthodoxy. Some contemporary historians believe that the opening of the locks at the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid site for Hindus was Rajiv’s “soft hindutva” aimed at countering the backlash for supporting the Muslim clergy in the Shah Bano case.

Whatever be the reasons, political naivety overshadowed many of Rajiv’s positive interventions, such as the priority he accorded to technology, education, infrastructure development and economic reforms. Author-bureaucrat S.S. Gill later observed that the tragedy of Rajiv was not that he failed to redeem his promises, but that he ended up aligning with the same forces that he had vowed to fight.

Rajiv’s ‘rule by accord’ saw the Congress handing over power to regional parties, ending violence and insurgency. In Assam, the Congress handed over power to the Asom Gana Parishad in December 1985. In 1986, Laldenga was brought from Britain and made chief minister of Mizoram, which was given full statehood the following year. The year 1986 also saw Rajiv sign an accord with Farooq Abdullah in Kashmir, leading to the exit of a key Congress leader in the valley—Mufti Muhammad Sayeed. Rajiv held polls in Punjab in September 1985, which led to the formation of the Shiromani Akali Dal government.

Looking back, Rajiv’s gambit to forgo power for the sake of peace appears to have had mixed results. While some accords were not stable, his moves were based upon realism and aimed at quelling unrest.

By the time Rajiv was voted out of power in 1989, India’s moral and administrative fabric had been corrupted to the core. The decline had begun during Indira’s tenure and the Emergency. But, by 1989, respect for the law, human dignity and human rights were not even talking points in the country’s administrative culture.

Rajiv lost the 1989 Lok Sabha polls over a dispute over honesty. Rajiv had appointed V.P. Singh, who had been chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, as his finance minister. Singh, ambitious and crafty, used his position to target some industrialists, friends of the Congress, causing embarrassment to Rajiv. He was moved to the defence ministry, where without Rajiv’s permission, he took up allegations that commissions had been paid in a deal to purchase German submarines. When effectively ordered to call off the inquiry, Singh resigned and left the Congress. He then began a campaign on the Bofors scam, in which he presented himself as an ascetic holy man who was not after power. The campaign resonated with the people and led to Rajiv’s defeat in general elections.

Singh did not last beyond 11 months in office. For the first time in India, a prime minister was backed by both the right-wing BJP and the left parties. Singh united the BJP, the RSS and the left on an anti-Rajiv plank. Author-columnist Inder Malhotra quoted Rajiv Gandhi as saying, “V.P. Singh is the most divisive man after Muhammad Ali Jinnah.”

When Singh fell on a vote of no confidence, Chandra Shekhar, who had formed a splinter group to challenge him, got the backing of the Congress led by Rajiv.

Chandra Shekhar, too, did not last long and his government fell within four months after the Congress withdrew support on a flimsy excuse that two constables from Haryana police were carrying out “surveillance” on their leader—Rajiv Gandhi. The real reason for the withdrawal of support was that the Congress had started making poll preparations and Rajiv was confident of returning to power with a majority.

Both Singh and Chandra Shekhar governments had remained casual towards the security requirements of Rajiv. The elite Special Protection Group cover was taken away from him. Even the ‘Z’ security that Rajiv used to have was removed even though he was on the hit list of the Khalistanis, LTTE and many others.

In her book The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, journalist Neena Gopal remembers asking Rajiv whether he felt his life was at risk, virtually minutes before he was assassinated at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu. Rajiv responded with a counter-question to her: “Have you noticed how every time any South Asian leader of any import rises to a position of power or is about to achieve something for himself or his country, he is cut down, attacked, killed…. Look at Mrs [Indira] Gandhi, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, look at Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, at [Muhammad] Zia-ul-Haq, [S.W.R.D.] Bandaranaike….”

Rajiv shot through the political sphere of the country like a meteor, failing to change the way politics was done. l

Rasheed Kidwai is a journalist and author. He is a visiting fellow with the Observer Research Foundation.