As Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi Was My Kind of Indian

(This article was originally published 20 August 2015. It has been updated and republished from The Quint's archives to mark Rajiv Gandhi's birth anniversary.)

Every assassination comes as a shock, but the bomb blast that murdered Rajiv Gandhi 28 years ago took more than his life and those of others around him. The loss of the man who would have been 75 this year meant far more than “just” the death of a former prime minister. I grieved that day not only for his family, but for the hopes he had raised in me, for the frustration and disappointment he had later evoked, for the potential he still represented.

When, in the anarchic aftermath of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s murder in 1984, her son was anointed her successor, my first reaction, like that of so many educated Indians, was one of dismay.

Couldn’t we, a country of more than 800 million people, find anyone better qualified to rule us than a 40-year-old airline pilot with four years of political experience?

Of course I knew the reasons for Rajiv Gandhi’s elevation, principally the magic of the Nehru family, its mystique now burnished by martyrdom. In the frenzy and chaos that followed India’s first major political assassination since that of Mahatma Gandhi in1948, the Congress clamoured for the stability and reassurance of a familiar vote-catching name at the helm. Its leaders chose Rajiv Gandhi not for himself, but for his lineage. His genes justified their ends.

Dismay Dissolved

So I was dismayed. But within weeks, my dismay dissolved into hope. For the unexpected ascent of Rajiv Gandhi had brought to power the kind of Indian almost completely unrepresented inIndian politics. My kind of Indian.

There are many of us, but, amongst India’s multitudes, we are few. We have grown up in the cities of India, secure in a national rather than local identity, which we express in English better than in any Indian language. We rejoice in the complexity and diversity of our India, of which we feel a conscious part; we have friends of every caste and religious community, and we marry across such sectarian lines.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher being welcomed at Delhi’s International Airport by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, April 13, 1985. 

We see the poverty, suffering and conflict in which a majority of our fellow citizens are mired, and we demand new solutions to these old problems, solutions we believe can come from the skills, technology and efficiency of the modern world. We are secular, not in the sense that we are irreligious or unaware of the forces of religion, but that we believe religion should not determine public policy or individual opportunity.

And, in Indian politics, we are pretty much irrelevant.

We don’t get a look in. We don’t enter the fray because we can’t win. We tell ourselves ruefully that we are able, but not electable. We don’t have the votes: there are too few of us, and we don’t speak the idiom of the masses. Instead we have learned to talk about political issues without the expectation that we would be able to do anything about them.

Until Rajiv Gandhi, the accidental prime minister, came to power.

(Photo: Reuters)

My First Meeting

The only time I ever met Rajiv Gandhi was at a gathering of expatriate Indians in Geneva, Switzerland, in June1985, six months after the election landslide that had vindicated his party’s cynical faith in genealogy. He spoke softly but fluently, without notes, for 45minutes about the situation in India and his plans for the country. When he finished there was a light in even the most skeptical eye. I should know, for I was blinded by mine.

Rajiv Gandhi was unlike any Indian political figure I had ever met. He had nothing in common with the professional politicians we had taught ourselves to despise, sanctimonious windbags clad hypocritically in homespun who spouted socialist rhetoric while amassing private wealth through the manipulation of political favours. Instead of the expediency that marked so much of Indian political sloganeering, Rajiv offered transparent sincerity and conviction. Instead of the grasping opportunism of careerists who saw politics as an end in itself, he was a reluctant politician thrust unwillingly into public office but determined to make something of it.

For one exhilarating year, those of us who had thought ourselves alienated from the Indian political process were swept up in the unfamiliar excitement of having one of our own as prime minister. It was as if the opposition had come to power. In every step Rajiv Gandhi seemed determined to stem the drift, to find urgent solutions to the perennial problems of India. He pledged to shed the shopworn dogmas that had consigned the economy to stagnation and left workers and consumers alike to the mercy of the permit/licence/quota-granting bureaucracy.

Rajiv Brought Modernisation

He initiated the telecoms revolution, brought in computers, simplified governmental processes. In place of the tired reiteration of sterile slogans, he spoke of liberalisation, of technology, of modernity, of moving India into the 21st century. He even chose the self-congratulatory occasion of the Congress’ centenary celebrations to assail the corruption and complacency that had made the system atrophy into unresponsive sclerosis.

Nor did the politicians themselves escape his cleansing fervour. He shunted aside the old-timers and the time-servers, brought in fresh professional faces from the private sector, and outlawed the unprincipled “defections” that had made party labels a matter of convenience. Best of all, he made peace with rebellious Sikhs inPunjab, agitating students in Assam and unreconciled guerrillas in Mizoram, bringing them back into an electoral process they had preferred to subvert. ToIndians like me, this was heady stuff.

It was also too good to last.Rajiv Gandhi became the victim of his own success. His actions strengthened the country, but undermined his party. His peace accords, by bringing disaffected minorities into the mainstream, gave them power at the expense of the Congress.The veteran politicians rumbled in complaint: Rajiv Gandhi, they said, was indulging his personal predilections at the party’s expense. And because he had not worked his way up the political ladder, Rajiv Gandhi was uniquely vulnerable to the charge, by those who had, that his instincts were the wrong ones. He gave in.

When Rajiv Turned a Traditional Politician

  • Promises to Punjab were broken to appease neighbouring Haryana
  • Economic liberalisation was stifled to preserve political control
  • Resources that could have gone to providing clean drinking water and electricity to the villages of India flowed into arms purchases
  • The investigators of governmental corruption were fired rather than the corrupt
  • The fresh faces quickly faded away, the party hacks returned

Business as Usual

Within two years of his coming to power, it was back to business as usual. When a 75-year-old Muslim widow won a Supreme Court case obliging her husband of 40 years to give her $5 a month in alimony, Rajiv Gandhi bowed to outraged Muslim orthodoxy and sponsored a law placing Muslim widows outside the purview of the country’s civil codes. He had initially taken the opposite view, but was persuaded by his party that that would cost him “the Muslim vote”.

As compromise followed compromise, promises to Punjab were broken to appease neighbouring Haryana; economic liberalisation was stifled to preserve political control; resources that could have gone to providing clean drinking water and electricity to the villages of India flowed into arms purchases; the investigators of governmental corruption were fired rather than the corrupt. The fresh faces quickly faded away, the party hacks returned. Rajiv Gandhi had started off changing politics, but politics had changed him.

He was, instead, trying hard to be what he was not – a traditional Indian politician. In having to operate the levers of Indian democracy, he had lost sight of where he had intended the engine to go.

Is a democracy best served by leaders whose pulse throbs with the passions and prejudices of their people, orby those who transcend the limitations of their followers? Sitting on the sidelines, I had no doubt about the answer; caught in the vortex, Rajiv Gandhi couldn’t even ask the question.

Electoral Loss

I learned the humbling lesson that the give and take of democracy does not always produce the results sought by its impatient observers. Rajiv Gandhi’s charisma was no substitute for experience: where a veteran politician might have been able to trust his instincts and lead with vision, the tyro was pressured into retreat. And despite all his compromises, Rajiv Gandhi – isolated from his natural constituency, counselled into political opportunism and protected from the public by a security phalanx – still lost the next election.

But I was glad to have him in the fray, because I hoped that one day again, strengthened by his experience,he might more effectively give voice to the convictions of his own upbringing. And at a time when casteists and religious fanatics were attempting to redefineIndia and Indianness on their own terms, I was proud to have an Indian leader who belonged to no single region, caste or community, but to the all-embracingIndia I called my own. By simply being Rajiv Gandhi, he represented a choice it was vital for India to have.

Mikhail Gorbachev confers with his host, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, during a special session of Parliament addressed by the Soviet leader on November 27, 1986. (Photo: Reuters)

No Comparable Leader

An assassin’s bomb has deprived India of the right to exercise that choice. There is no comparableIndian political leader of whom it can be said that his appeal is truly national, and in the spectrum of alternatives available to Indians, that loss is disenfranchisement indeed.

The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi took from Indians, of whatever political colouration, part of the glory of their Indianness. The knowledge of our freedom of opinion and choice was something that we lit inside ourselves like a flame. Now its glow is forever dimmed by the knowledge that, in the election of 1991, the most important verdict was delivered not in a ballot-box, but in a coffin.

(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and author.)

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