End of the road

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December 31, 1984: Being sworn in as Prime Minister. Photo: THE HINDU

May 22, 1991: His body being taken from Teen Murti House in New Delhi. Photo: THE HINDU

Excerpts from an assessment of Rajiv Gandhi the politician, by Manoj Joshi, published in the June 21, 1991, issue following the former Prime Minister’s assassination.

ONCE he was Prime Minister, and then Prime Minister-in-waiting. The scion of India’s premier political family, he was a ‘VIP’ by birth, nurtured in an ambience his fellow citizens could only dream of. But hubris stalked him day and night. For the 40 years it stayed its hand, Rajiv was a mere mortal, a pilot working for a living though he lived in a Prime Minister’s house.

But when his star rose, it struck, first in small, innocuous ways and then catastrophically. Nothing could stay the event, not the easy charm of one ‘born-to-rule’ nor the charisma and flamboyance of the young, handsome man who had strode across the land and indeed the globe, supped with princes and presidents as the leader of this land.

There must have been some foreboding somewhere, for his entry into politics after his brother’s sudden death was marked by unfeigned reluctance. But what could be done? The dynastic imperative of India’s first political family could not spare him. His meteoric rise from the day he walked off from Indian Airlines in May 1981 to his shocking end in May 1991 gives life to atavistic beliefs that human fate is determined by stars and constellations or the wrinkles in the palm. His brother was struck down within months of achieving the political triumph of the family and the party in 1980; his mother was vanquished by a tragedy the seeds of which were sown at the peak of her success. And himself, mowed down in the midst of the elections that were to pave the way for his return to the high office. The temptation to look at the incident that took the life of Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1991, in terms of fatalistic determinism is for an Indian, overwhelming, but it must be shaken off.

The event must be looked at from the point of view of India’s contemporary political history. His political life spanned exactly one decade, almost from the date he resigned from Indian Airlines. His initiation was unique as it was rapid since the Congress party he joined was named after his mother. When she died suddenly it was but natural that he became the Prime Minister, without any administrative experience whatsoever.

When he stood on the ramparts of the Red Fort on August 15, 1985, it seemed every problem the country faced could be resolved, nothing was beyond his ability. A few weeks earlier he had signed a historic accord with Sant Harchand Singh Longowal which appeared to have ended the debilitating strife that had taken his mother’s life. He had been up most of the night before signing another accord, with the Assam agitationists. It appeared that the spate of troubles that had engulfed the nation had abated. If he was politically green and isolated from the mass of Indians at birth, Rajiv was also the only Nehru-Gandhi since Motilal who had worked for a living, at least for nearly a decade, between 1972 and 1981.

The only problem was that he was a pilot who saw India from an altitude of 5,000 metres and between hops lived in the best hotels or at the prime ministerial residence. The pilot in him had an ability to accept quick briefs, and reject presentations that could not be reduced to the bare essentials. As an initiate, at least by Indian standards, in the world of technology as a pilot, Rajiv was conscious that India needed a technology fix. It was this image of a modern young man in a hurry that fired the imagination of the middle class, which thrived as no other group did in Rajiv’s heyday. His economic pragmatism and the total lack of the ideological baggage of his mother led to policies which earned him the sobriquet “Rajiv Reagan”.

With hindsight one can say that the government did work faster as Rajiv had promised in his first press conference as Prime Minister. Ironically, the fruits of this were visible when he was mired in deep crisis. The years 1987-88 to 1989-90 were marked by a sharp growth of national income, agricultural production, per capita income, a decline in wholesale and consumer prices and unemployment. In retrospect, at least on the economic front, Rajiv set the trends that received widespread acceptance among all political parties post facto. Rajiv was impatient for change. In a fit of anger he called the Planning Commission members a bunch of jokers and he inveigled against Indian industry for failing to do its duty. There was heady talk of “high-tech” in the service of the people – to provide drinking water, boost oilseeds production, and so on. But there was the dark side too – budget deficits, a staggering level of external debt, and so on. Overall, there was a feeling that the achievement was perhaps overstated.

The Bofors affair became the crisis of crises, embracing everything in its wake. That too was hubris. Back in May 1981, when he first filed his nomination to fill his brother’s vacant seat from Amethi, his public relations outfit dubbed him “Mr. Clean” (in contrast to his brother?). But there was a veritable storm of charges and allegations that forever reduced the term to a pejorative.

From March 1987 when the Bofors storm arose until his defeat in the 1989 elections, the dream slowly soured. First came the drought of 1987 and the accompanying fiscal pressures, then a series of foreign policy problems. This was the year India was sucked into the Sri Lankan issue. Strands of achievement were there, but were nearly invisible: the drought was overcome with remarkable ease, relations with Pakistan survived Brasstacks, the move to China had begun. But, the Sri Lankan venture became a quagmire.

Rajiv Gandhi had sounded the tocsin against the power brokers in the party during the centenary celebrations of the Indian National Congress in December 1985. But as the Bofors crisis and the internal party crisis leading to the resignation of V.P. Singh and the removal of Arun Nehru broke out, and the conflict with President Zail Singh assumed alarming proportions, Rajiv began to look for the comforting presence of the very people he had earlier disdained. Getting back the so-called power brokers was one thing but winning elections was another. In fact, Rajiv’s record of handling State elections proved a disaster. The first loss was Punjab followed by Haryana, Assam, Kerala and capped by Tamil Nadu. The elections in West Bengal were a lost case anyway, but the victory in Kashmir following a cynical tie-up with the National Conference was, as events were to show, pyrrhic.

Speaking to a French journalist in July 1989, Rajiv Gandhi said there were “two basic promises we made (during the 1984 general election that swept him into power)... the first was the unity and integrity of India. This was very necessary to state at that time (when Indira Gandhi was assassinated)... because we could have broken up and split.

“The second challenge was that the system wasn’t delivering what we felt it should be delivering. Inefficiencies in the system, corruption in the system, too many vested interests, power brokers and.... What we really promised here was either to change this or to restructure the system to end this. We tried very hard to change it and I must admit that for every success there was a failure.”

But the failure Rajiv was talking about was the attempt to pass the Panchayati Raj Bill in 1989, which he wanted as his crowning pre-election achievement. There was failure, too, in the flirtation with Hindu fundamentalism. The attempt to undercut the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) by allowing shilanyas in Ayodhya had the hallmark of ineptness, which is costing the party dear even today. He had already lost touch with reality. He had cut the Congress from its old moorings and, in an election year, failed to provide new ones. Even while Rajiv was seeing his twilight phase as Prime Minister, the agendas were being shaped elsewhere. The VHP-BJP combine had initiated its move to use Rama as a vehicle of its political ambitions. The Mandal issue was dormant. V.P. Singh and the Jan Morcha leadership still nurtured hopes that the Congress would walk across to them following electoral reverses.

The verdict was ambiguous. The victory belonged to V.P. Singh and the wielders of the Bofors sword, but the fruits were evenly shared: Rajiv got the largest number of seats. Defeat normally strips bare all the illusions a people, a party or an individual may have. But the 1989 setback, with its ambiguity, failed to do that. Rajiv was unable to pin-point the infirmity afflicting his party in the North, an infirmity that even now appears terminal. There was no change in the organisational style, leave alone that of the personnel.

The weakness of the party became apparent as 1990 drew on. The Congress as the main Opposition in Parliament appeared more coherent and stable than the factious National Front government and its allies. Observers expected Rajiv and his coterie to be busy planning a comeback, scheming and plotting with the dissidents a la Sanjay Gandhi and Indira Gandhi. But the Rajiv style was benign. He appeared relaxed, actually reconciled to a spell in the opposition. But, events would not wait.

The National Front government collapsed, torn asunder by Mandal and mandir. The country was rent with upheavals as V.P. Singh and L.K. Advani sought to set the agenda for the general elections that appeared inevitable. But Rajiv waited, pondered, stepped aside from confronting the issues. When Chandra Shekhar walked away with 60 MPs and staked his claim to form the government, Rajiv magnanimously played king-maker assuming that the former would be a mere puppet. When Chandra Shekhar began to display a deft touch and indicate a taste for the office, Rajiv and his aides panicked.

There was little doubt as to who ran the Congress – it was Rajiv Gandhi. But it was a mellowed version of the brash young man who bossed around the bosses of the old Congress. This time he relied on the local satraps such as K. Karunakaran, N.D. Tiwari, M. Channa Reddy and Veerendra Patil. The computer boys were also there but clearly not at the cost of the old guard, which included P.V. Narasimha Rao, Sitaram Kesari, V.N. Gadgil and H.K.L. Bhagat. But old habits, as they say, die hard.

But for the party, which Indira Gandhi and Rajiv had emasculated, Rajiv was irreplaceable as he was the only vote-catcher in a crowd of sycophants and self-seekers. The Congress did have a leadership in the States but it had got so used to deferring to the Nehru-Gandhi mystique that the entire burden fell on Rajiv, who told a correspondent shortly before his death that he had been on the road for all but half-an-hour a day since the beginning of the campaign. There is a certain poignancy in Rajiv’s heroic electoral foray across the country.

But that was the inevitable consequence of his failure, a la his mother, to permit the second line of leadership in the party to grow. More than that it also marked the failure of the party, leave alone its leader, to comprehend the nature of the challenges confronting it.

While there was little doubt that the Congress was set to emerge as the largest party in Parliament, there was a nagging feeling that it may just about exceed its 1989 total of 195 seats and be compelled to make a government under humiliating circumstances, a far cry from the 1984 situation. How will Rajiv’s passing shape the verdict? Who will take up his mantle? A hundred questions besiege you, but they no longer matter to Rajiv Gandhi.

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