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20 years of change after Rajiv Gandhi
Known as one of the brightest stars in Indian politics, Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination shook up the foundation of the Congress party. A documentation of how his death reversed fortunes of the party, and dramatically altered the Indian political scenario...
Issue Date - 30/05/2012
Twenty one years ago on May 21, 1991, a bomb explosion killed Rajiv Gandhi, while he was campaigning for the Congress party in Sriperumbudur, about 40 km from Chennai, on the second day of the 10th Lok Sabha elections. [Rajiv who had served as the PM of India between 1984-89 (at the age of 40 – he was the youngest ever PM of India) is till this day regarded as perhaps the most charismatic figure that ever took the stage of Indian politics.] The sudden, premature demise of Rajiv not only shocked the world, it also marked an end of an era that saw India being led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty for all but five years since independence.

Though nobody took immediate responsibility, the attack was blamed on Rajiv’s arch enemies, the LTTE, that was fighting for a separate homeland for the Tamils in Lanka. Rajiv could not contain the political problems afflicting India, and found refuge in international entanglements and commitments. He committed the so-called Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Lanka in July 1987 in an endeavour to help the government there to eradicate militants agitating for a separate Tamil homeland. [The IPKF had to be withdrawn in 32 months.] His period in office was marred by scandals and allegations of corruption on so huge a scale that he undoubtedly lost the election of 1989 partly on account of public perception. The Congress suffered an electoral defeat. His successor, V. P. Singh, could not hold office for long, and Rajiv started campaigning in earnest in 1991. But then, his assassination put an end to his half-finished political career.

Most people remember Rajiv as a visionary who encouraged foreign investment, a freer economy and rejuvenated his own party. “People had sympathy for Rajiv. He was not aware of the problems of the people at the grassroots level. However, he was a very dynamic person,” recalls Mohan Dharia, a former Union Minister who had served in the Indira Gandhi cabinet, but resigned on his differences with her ideologies. He remembers Rajiv as someone who wanted to modernise India.

When US denied to give India the technology of supercomputing, it was Rajiv who encouraged the creation of the indigenous Param Super Computers. Agrees Dr. M. P. Narayanan, former Chairman of Coal India (1988-91), who says that with the demise of Rajiv, India not only lost a visionary, but a receptive and encouraging human being. “His leadership style was such that would even allow mid-level officers to walk up to him and he would listen to their ideas. I wonder if subsequent PMs have ever found time for that,” he says.

Rajiv’s vision for India was that of a modern nation that takes full advantage of technology. We’re living his vision today. Says political observer Suvrokamal Dutta, “Many people believe that it was Narasimha Rao that initiated the globalisation process. However, it was Rajiv who created the ground for that process. He was also working on various missile treaties with Western countries.” Rajiv’s other revolutionary move was to lower the voting age to 18 from 21 years in India. Having said thus, it is important to note that Rajiv’s political career also became mired with allegations and scandals. The Bofors scandal is an unsettled blot on his otherwise glorious career. It cost him three-quarters of his MPs.

What is most interesting about the post-Rajiv era is the shape Indian politics took after 1991. During the 1991 elections, the Congress was expected to win the largest number of Lok Sabha seats. That happened. But after the assassination, with no one from the Nehru-Gandhi family at the helm, the Congress party started to grow weak. Although the party was in power from 1991 to 1996 under Narsimha Rao, it started losing ground in crucial states, one of which was UP. The the emergence of regional parties and the rise of rightists led by the BJP made the environment more challenging for the Congress. With no charismatic leader to take control, the fortunes of the Congress looked to be on the decline. The regional sections of the Congress and the anti-Nehru-Gandhi factions grew stronger with the rise of Narsimha Rao and Sitaram Kesari. “With Narsimha Rao as PM and Kesari as party president, Mandal-Kamandal (OBC reservations – Hindutva) politics became too prominent. It was around this time that BJP first emerged as a probable alternative,” says Dutta.

The assassination of Rajiv led to the emergence of BJP with the Ram Mandir movement. Politics over religion was at its helm. Lok Sabha elections a year after the Babri Masjid demolition saw the BJP-led-NDA come to power with Atal Behari Vajpayee taking over as PM.

In a way, the demise of Rajiv resulted in the end of the single party system in India’s national politics. It led to a situation where regional parties started to revolve around two main political heavyweights – UPA and NDA. It exists even today.

The void that was created in the summer of ‘91 still hurts the Congress, which is today busy working towards strengthening its image amidst scams and incidents of corruption. Also to blame is the party’s weak structures in states such as UP, Bihar and MP, which account for a total of 179 seats in the Lok Sabha (33% of total), and its increased dependence on regional parties in recent years. Politically therefore, Rajiv’s absence has affected the Congress party adversely.

But are we forgetting that there is perhaps another Rajiv in the making? Rahul could be the new Rajiv. There are questions being asked about whether circumstances favour the party’s crown prince the way they favoured his predecessors. But Rahul doesn’t seem to care about the odds. For years now we have had political pundits talk about the charisma of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and how it could help revive the Congress party as it faces a political onslaught from entrenched regional parties, an aggressive right wing and ever more vigilant civil society groups. Perhaps Rahul is the hope who can fill some of the void that was created in the Congress bench after Rajiv was gone. Many claim the junior Gandhi is yet to prove his mettle. But does Rahul care? He is charismatic, young, widely talked about, and has just about crossed over to the wiser side of 40 – characteristics that we associated with Rajiv in the years that preceded his ascension to the PM’s office (in 1984). Yes, he still has to embed into civil society his clear intent to demolish corruption, a factor that will play a huge role in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. But perhaps, it is Rahul who could enable Congress to form a non-coalition government in the years to come. There have been disappointing consequences of the assassination. But the rise of Rahul in 21st century Indian politics may prove to be the all important upshot of that incident.

Parimal Peeyush           

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