Rajiv Gandhi: The original ‘Accidental Prime Minister’

Mani Shankar Aiyar’s well-researched book is an excellent contribution to literature on the political history of India and South Asia.

Published : May 02, 2024 11:00 IST - 9 MINS READ

August 15, 1985: Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi presides over the signing
of the Assam Accord in New Delhi.

August 15, 1985: Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi presides over the signing of the Assam Accord in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

For a Pakistani to review a book written by an Indian writer about an Indian Prime Minister who was in office between 1984 and 1989 is particularly ironic in the context of the book’s subtitle. There is nothing to misunderstand about India’s present Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who, by most estimates, is likely to be re-elected for a third term in June 2024. Where Rajiv Gandhi (henceforth referred to as Rajiv) was certainly misperceived, his present successor is seen transparently for what he actually is, and depending on the viewer’s perspective, he is either the great saviour of Hindutva or the most potent threat to a secular India and a hegemonic danger to India’s neighbours.

The book deserves attention, undistracted by how far the present leadership of the Indian government has strayed from the vision of its founders. Mani Shankar Aiyar has written with integrity, lucidity, and fluency. Rich with independent and widely researched information and replete with anecdotes, this fusion of personal reminiscence and national history is a landmark contribution to literature on the political history of India and South Asia. The second volume in a trilogy that began with Memoirs of a Maverick in 2023, this book is in a sense complete in itself. It is to be followed by the third and concluding segment titled A Half-Life in Politics.

The book has six parts: Accords, Controversies, Foreign Policy Initiatives, Innovative Domestic Initiatives, Panchayati Raj, and Rajiv Gandhi: The Man and His Office.

In the Foreign Policy section, which includes texts on Nuclear Disarmament, China, and Pakistan, this reviewer is unable, as a Pakistani but also as an independent reader, to agree with some of the author’s assertions. From a holistic perspective, the book credibly establishes the remarkable speed and ease with which Rajiv grasped the vast potential for change that he could initiate in diverse fields. This is all the more remarkable because he did not have a single day’s direct prior contact with Cabinet office. Being Indira Gandhi’s elder son and an MP for three years was still inadequate preparation for the loneliness and ordeal of being Prime Minister. More than others, he was the original “Accidental PM”. Yet, he seems to have speedily realised both the solemnity and the immense possibilities of power, if honestly used.

The Rajiv I Knew: And Why He Was India’s Most Misunderstood Prime Minister
By Mani Shankar Aiyar
Juggernaut Books
Pages: 336
Price: Rs.799

With the Bofors episode, Aiyar helps the reader realise that Rajiv was actually the victim of two assassinations, not just one. His tragic murder occurred on May 21, 1991, about 16 months after he lost the election of November 1989 after five years in office. But his character assassination lasted far longer, for about 17 years: from the inception of the Bofors “scandal” in April 1987 until the definitive judgment by Justice J.D. Kapoor of the Delhi High Court in February 2004. The judge stated that the prosecution had failed to produce even “a scintilla of evidence” to implicate Rajiv or the officials connected with him of having received illicit sums to facilitate the purchase of Bofors guns for the Indian Army.

The Supreme Court’s role in validating Rajiv’s position on the Shah Bano case deserves recognition in this review because it receives close attention from Aiyar. Unlike the Babri Masjid demolition on which there was virtual unanimity among Indian Muslims, the Shah Bano case was marked by sharp differences between and among orthodox and reformist Muslims. Rajiv and the Congress party’s non-Muslim opponents compounded the clamour, accusing Rajiv of using the Shah Bano issue to divert attention from his alleged weakness in opening the locks of the Babri Masjid.

Highs and lows

In April 1985, the Supreme Court awarded maintenance to a divorced Muslim woman named Shah Bano, which ostensibly violated Sharia-derived Muslim personal law. Instead of pandering to either extreme position, Rajiv worked, with Law Minister Ashoke Sen’s support, to obtain the successful passage in May 1986 of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill, 1986. Sections 3 and 4 of the Act ensured that adequate compensation would be mandatory “within” the three-month Iddat period after divorce, rather than only for the Iddat period. While sustaining Muslim personal law, it made it justiciable on civil courts to provide protection, particularly to poor, disempowered women. Twelve governments have come and gone since the passage of the 1986 Act, but the law remains on the books.

Of the five accords that Rajiv painstakingly shaped—Punjab, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Darjeeling, and Mizoram—it is Mizoram, in Aiyar’s view, that deserves to be seen as “the high point of Rajiv Gandhi’s stewardship”. Its “transformation from the most insurgency-ridden state for two decades, 1966-86, into the most peaceful state over the next four decades has everything to do with Rajiv’s large-hearted, humane, and sensitive statesmanship in temporarily sacrificing his party’s power to persuade the other side to give up arms and become part of the normal democratic process”.

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As far as the economy goes, Rajiv recognised that “changing times demanded changing policies”. He took steps to dismantle the socialistic, state-dominated policies of his grandfather and mother, and set the stage for the more explicit abolition of the “permit raj” under Manmohan Singh. As Aiyar points out, it was Rajiv’s tenure that recorded the highest ever rate of GDP growth in India when it touched about 10 per cent in 1988.

One is disappointed with the omission of crucial details when the book deals with nuclear disarmament and Pakistan vis-a-vis Kashmir in the Foreign Policy Initiatives section. Suffice it to say that while rightly extolling Rajiv for presenting “a detailed and practical road map verifiable at all stages, to the elimination of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction”, there is no reference to the far earlier initiatives by Pakistan.

For instance, in September 1972, two years before India’s introduction of nuclear weapons into South Asia through the amusingly named “peaceful explosions” at Pokhran in 1974, Pakistan proposed a Treaty at the 16th annual session of the UN Atomic Energy Conference held in Mexico calling for the denuclearisation of South Asia. Subsequent to Pokhran, Pakistan’s resolution in the UN General Assembly in 1974 reiterating the demand for a nuclear-weapons-free region received huge support and was adopted. India moved its own resolution, also adopted, which did not espouse the regional approach advocated by Pakistan. Like Rajiv, all of Pakistan’s successive Presidents and Prime Ministers have called for a nuclear-weapons-free world.

In the section on Kashmir, Aiyar quotes from the recent book by former Ambassador Satinder Lambah to cite the secret visit to Pakistan by the diplomat Ronen Sen in mid-December 1988 as Rajiv’s personal representative to discuss bilateral issues with Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto before the SAARC summit scheduled for December 1988, during which it was agreed that the two young Prime Ministers would also sign a bilateral agreement to annually exchange data on respective nuclear sites and prevent attacks on each other’s installations.

While that agreement has survived 34 years, Aiyar goes on to narrate the bilateral visit on July 16, 1989, by Rajiv to Pakistan, and the agreement on Siachen for “mutual force withdrawal from recorded actual ground position locations and the establishment of a jointly monitored demilitarized zone”. Although he acknowledges that this “came to nothing”, there is no reference to the virtual U-turn by India thereafter, reportedly owing to pressure from the Indian military.

There is also no reference to the inconvenient fact that about six months before Rajiv was pushed into office in November 1984 after the brutal assassination of his mother, India conducted its own version of Kargil 15 years before the actual Kargil skirmish in May-June 1999. And that Rajiv could not, and did not, attempt to correct that blatant violation of the Shimla agreement of July 1972. Despite the omission, Aiyar to his credit does convey that when in October 1992, the Defence Secretaries of the two states were about to sign an agreement in New Delhi to settle the Siachen dispute, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao buckled to covert pressure from the BJP and the plan was scuttled at the last moment.

Candid evaluation

In his concluding evaluation, Aiyar summarises with candour Rajiv’s strengths and weaknesses. He stresses that Rajiv had only himself to blame for accepting advice from those who had longer and more intimate political experience but who lacked sincerity and long-term vision. He points out that Rajiv did not hesitate to punish his cousin Arun Nehru, or Arun Singh, an old Doon School mate, when he discovered that, along with a disobedient and scheming Army chief General Sundarji, he had been deliberately kept uninformed about Bofors, Operation Brasstacks, and the unauthorised opening of the locks of the Babri Masjid.

Aiyar often shares episodes at his own expense with refreshing self-deprecation. He makes no pretence at being part of Rajiv’s “inner circle”, yet as speechwriter and coordinator for almost all of Rajiv’s travels, the author interacted with the leader frequently and substantively. Aiyar can validly claim an exclusive insight into the subject of this biography.

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One owes it to the reader to disclose that Aiyar and this writer have shared a 45-year-old friendship that has weathered mild and strong disagreements. Beginning with his posting to Karachi as India’s Consul General in 1979, when we bonded instantly, our linkage features some notable commonalities and differences. Although he was born in Lahore, his ancestral Tamil Nadu connection was perhaps a spark because my own birthplace is Madras. Yet neither of us speaks Tamil, until he belatedly acquired it for political responsibilities. When he quit the Foreign Service to join the Prime Minister’s Office in March 1985, I entered politics through my election to the Senate of Pakistan that same month and year.

During both of Rajiv’s visits to Pakistan, we assisted our respective Prime Ministers: Aiyar as speechwriter, and I as Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, when I helped conduct a joint press conference in Islamabad in July 1989. We both share an unwavering commitment to promoting uninterrupted dialogue between India and Pakistan in all channels, from public to secret. We both write—and review—books. We are both public speakers and sometimes capable of putting a foot in the mouth, albeit not often.

The Rajiv I Knew is an engrossing read for both general readers and scholars, not least because this reviewer can vouch for The Mani I Know.

Javed Jabbar is an author and former Senator who has served in three Federal Cabinets of Pakistan. Email: javedjabbar.2@gmail.com

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