Imagine a man who is unusually resistant to enter politics, even though he comes from India’s first family. A man, unlike other political new entrants, who could have easily grabbed the opportunity to leave a striking note on the national stage – but chose not to. He was content with his life. Normalcy is what he sought. A happy family and a job that he loved – that’s all that mattered to him.
But, as fate had it, his brother’s untimely death in an air crash, forced him to enter into politics. He hesitated at first. Then gave into the pressure of his mother, who needed him more than ever. “If my mother gets help from it, then I will enter politics”. Rajiv had said on being pressured to join politics to help his mother.
Nonetheless, his ascent as India’s Prime Minister still wasn’t what he dreamt of.
But, things changed soon after the assassination of his mother, the then Prime Minister. And life for him was never the same.
Though his party members and the country’s President decided to sworn him as the Prime Minister of India; it was not an achievement that he sorted within hours of his mother’s murder. Though he was handed over the entire nation’s responsibility, it brought with it the unbearable burden of personal grief. Though the country was facing sheer unrest at the time he was handed over the reins of power, it was his progressive approach to politics that made the country a better place to live in just a few years of his tenure – and that alone was no mean feat.
This was the life of Rajiv Gandhi. A man who believed in the future and changed the country’s present during the ground-breaking era of the 1980s – making it a remarkable period of change in the Indian history.
A man who was just like us
It’s not difficult to picture modern-day politicians: conceited yet extrovert, fiery yet ambitious, autocratic yet crafty.
But Rajiv Gandhi was nothing like the contemporary politicians. A simple, sober, down-to-earth man who was as introvert as any normal Indian was at his time. A complete family man that he was, he knew the importance of family and, maybe, that’s why he decided to draft his political career after initial reluctance – even when his heart was in the sky, flying planes and his family. His mother, Indira Gandhi’s pain forced him to fill the vacuum that his brother Sanjay Gandhi’s death left in Indian politics. And so, he decided to make his political entry at the age of 37.
But, far from an ordinary politician, Rajiv was an epitome of generosity and compassion. During an interview, Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the BJP, the 10th Prime Minister of India said, “When Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister, he somehow found out I had a kidney problem and needed treatment abroad. One day he called me to his office and said he was going to include me in India’s delegation to the UN and hoped I would use the opportunity to get the treatment I needed. I went to New York, and that’s one reason I am alive today.” Such was his magnanimity that even his opponents couldn’t forget his bigheartedness – the ones who have seen him in the flesh. Compassionate, polite and charming, he was innocent of trappings – extremely rooted and sincere – yet a true visionary. Rather than reiterating empty rhetoric, he focused on taking India into the 21st century with modernity. This was the Rajiv that India lost too soon.
Quoting Rajiv, “The world is changing much too fast for us to have a moribund system which is not flexible, which cannot evolve and develop with changes in our society, in our country, as they come about in the world”.
Some of his notable achievements in a short period of time that he governed India but laid the foundation for 21st century India. In a way, Rajiv Gandhi prepared today’s India thirty years ago and that is why he was man way ahead of his times as was evident from his presentation of a detailed plan for nuclear disarmament at the UN.
The most dramatic change that he brought was in the field of technology. When he emerged on the Indian political scene, the country was stuck in a rut. While India was yet to fully realize the potential of science and technology, the global situation was different. There were computers revolutionising information technology everywhere. Quicker communication was changing the world. Rajiv did not want India to lag behind. He brought computers for faster growth of the country, a much-needed initiative at that time. Though many were resistant to change, fearing loss of jobs, Rajiv understood the importance of science and technology in the future and introduced the programme of computerisation – bringing a computer revolution in the country.
Research & Development
In the field of Research & Development, Rajiv had a foresight like no other politician ever had. He quickly grasped that the lack of the willingness to research shown by industries was a major impediment to the country’s growth. He held the belief that India’s dependence on imported technology should be reserved for some time only. Subsequently, industries should focus on doing research based on that technology and then move ahead to the cutting edge of research and technology.
This orientation to upgrade technology has been one of his major achievements. Perhaps, this is the reason why he is often addressed as India’s First Technocrat Prime Minister. And so far, no other Prime Minister could match his efforts in the field of technology. Not even Narendra Modi who untiringly reiterates of his vision to make India a Digital India, but whose policy implementation come with loopholes like the infamous Aadhaar database leakage, ironically by the government itself.
In a sense, India has stopped producing leaders like Rajiv Gandhi, leaders who were cherished for their extraordinary stature and their ‘actual’ desire to take the country forward.
A watershed movement for the industries was when on 2 June 1988, Rajiv Gandhi laid the foundation for liberalisation by announcing a new industrial policy containing the proposal to de-license. This was a driving force behind industrialisation.
By removing the need for non-MRTP/non-FERA companies to obtain industrial licenses, the Rajiv Gandhi government focused on accelerating industrialisation, primarily in the country’s backward areas.
Rajiv Gandhi’s focus on rural and backward areas is evident from the fact that he never hesitated from travelling the length and breadth of the country, particularly to the remote, isolated and tribal areas. As unlikely an initiative as any prime minister’s, this was a key step towards the development of backward areas. He was of the opinion that in order to understand the problems that a large section of the country is facing, it is important for him to witness them with his own eyes – only that would help him realize the lack of facilities or the key struggles that the people living in such parts of the country were facing. And he worked towards eliminating the roadblocks that hindered the progress of the backward areas. He proposed bold reforms in village administration by advocating decentralisation of power which was necessary to revive panchayats in the country. He believed that panchayats have the power to not only bring development in villages but also to ensure social justice. Creating Panchayati Raj institutions and strengthening them, thus, became the bedrock of his village developmental plan.
Rajiv Gandhi’s determined efforts to develop the country could be corroborated with the priority he gave to education during his tenure as the country’s prime minister. It was in 1986 when Rajiv Gandhi promulgated the second National Policy on Education. This new education policy was aimed at spearheading education across India – which was struggling with uneven development at the time. With poor educational infrastructure and lack of quality education provided in the rural schools, elementary education was facing huge neglect. Rajiv, thus, was adamant on bringing improvement in the quality of education with initiatives like Operation Blackboard, setting up of all-weather classrooms, and appointment of at least two teachers (one of whom should be a woman) in every primary school.
Empowerment of women and vocationalisation also got due focus in the national education policy, under Rajiv Gandhi’s era. By virtue of his foresight, he knew that to develop the nation, women must be empowered, and vocational education must be provided to develop skilled manpower – initiatives that have shaped the country’s progress over all these years.
With the aim to create a self-reliant India that would lead the world, Rajiv Gandhi brought significant improvements in the telecom sector which was at a primary stage even till the early 1980s. Rajiv Gandhi, together with Sam Pitroda, a Chicago-based telecom engineer, decided to change the face of communication in the country. And so, the government gave a boost to the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT) to solve the telecom problems of the country.
C-DOT developed a groundbreaking technology that took telecommunication to every nook and corner of India, fulfilling the dreams of rural telephony. From a privilege that was available to only to the rich, Rajiv Gandhi took telephones to the rural masses – enabling easy communication that would foster better administration and development of the country in the times to come.
With the promise of hope and change, Rajiv Gandhi brought a sense of energy and accomplishment in the country. His achievements may have been forgotten today, but his passion and conviction to make India a superpower could never be unremembered.
The man had all characteristics required to be a great leader. Yes, he made his fair share of mistakes be it the Shah Bano case or the Bofors scandal where his name was dragged and was cleared later, but he also was courageous and honest enough to admit them. Many leaders fail to accept their mistakes, but Rajiv was different from the rest. He wasn’t worried about his clout declining in office. All that mattered to him was to believe in the truth and learn from his mistakes.
Rajiv has gone down in history as one of the most spirited leaders that India has ever had. The fact that in the last few years of his life he received several death threats, but didn’t let them interfere with his functioning as a prime minister, bespeak his firmness of purpose. Perhaps, this is the reason why he, just like his mother, took his security lightly and unfortunately, that became the cause of his sad and brutal assassination.
As he said in ‘India’s Rajiv’, an interview-based documentation of his entire life by Simi Grewal, “If it comes to die for what you believe in, I don’t hesitate.”
I was just 11 when the nation lost its most dynamic leader but the memories of that painful night are still fresh in my mind. The nation had gone into mourning and everyone were devastated with the loss of India’s youngest and most charismatic prime minister. My family too had mourned for thirteen days. The hope of my generation, the man who could change India, was no more. The maturing and charismatic leader who was asking us to trust him again, and very nearly succeeding, wouldn’t get a second chance.
With him, the country lost a leadership that ushered India into the 21st century.
Apart from being a darling of the nation, Rajiv shared a great rapport with many global leaders. From the 40th US President Ronald Reagan to the former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto – Rajiv was on good terms with many of the world leaders of his time.
He was quite particular about making India’s foreign policy a vibrant one. After becoming the country’s Prime Minister, while he made a couple of visits to the Unites States, in 1985 and in 1987, he was also quite keen to work on India’s relations with China. And thus, Rajiv made his milestone visit to China in December 1988 to restore friendly relations and built up mutual understanding between the two nations. His initiatives to improve relations with Pakistan or to support neighbours like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka could never be consigned to oblivion – no matter how hard the fanatic fringe elements may try.
Although today the BJP disrespects and mocks Rajiv Gandhi; had he been alive, the party wouldn’t have gained the momentum that it did after his death. In retrospect, the BJP had won 120 seats during the 1991 Indian general election, held after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Whereas, the same party secured 85 seats in the 1989 Indian general election and merely 2 seats in the 1984 Indian general election. The BJP rose to prominence after the 1992 Ram Janambhoomi Movement, which wouldn’t have materialised if Rajiv were there – for he would have surely resolved the Ayodhya dispute, uniting the two communities. In 1986, it was Rajiv only who persuaded the then Uttar Pradesh chief minister Bir Bahadur Singh to open the locks of the Ram Janambhoomi site.
And such an India would have been a different one – without the presence of communal forces, hatred, and fanaticism.
It is an irony that the party that belonged to the leader who envisioned an empowered nation is struggling for its existence today. In Rajiv Gandhi, the nation was fortunate to find a leader who was progressive, who had a sense of direction and who led the country to developments that only a few could do. Rajiv represented the hopes of new India and with him we lost a dynamic leader who had shown India the path to true economic and social development. The void left by his premature departure from Indian political scene may never be filled.
As Rajiv said, “I have got a vision, a dream for India. And I am going to fulfil that dream.” “India is an old country, but a young nation; and like the young everywhere we are impatient. I am young, and I too have a dream. I dream of an India strong, independent and self-reliant and in the front rank of the nations of the world in the service of mankind”.
Unfortunately, his dream couldn’t be fulfilled.
And today, there is a question as to whether his vision, his dream could ever be fulfilled?
Perhaps, if his son Rahul can pick up the vision where it was left off too soon, then it will be a true tribute by a son to his father and by a political party to one of its most magnanimous leaders ever.