When one looks at the national dailies today on May 21, 2017 , one finds the smiling face of late former PM Rajiv Gandhi. It is really hard to imagine that 26 years have passed since that fateful day of May 21, 1991. Fateful because India had lost its most charismatic and youngest Prime Minister to terrorism – Rajiv Gandhi.
In school days those days in Delhi, the image one had of politicians to be precise were that of old men in political arena. But Rajiv Gandhi with his youthful charm , and charisma changed all that. Politics can be arena for the young and why not?.
Rajiv took over as Prime Minister at the age of 40 after his mother late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards on 31, October 1984 in revenge for the Operation Blue star operations at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Riding on a massive sympathy wave Rajiv led Congress to a resounding win at the Lok Sabha polls . Winning 411 seats out of 542.
That he was inexperienced came to the fore quickly as the capital saw the dreadful anti- Sikh riots and it took a while for Rajiv to get things under control. His statement then when a big tree falls earth shakes did not help matters either. The anti- Sikh riots of 1984 have haunted the Congress since 1984 and it continues years later.
Despite being inexperienced at the helm, Rajiv showed that with years he was quick to learn . That he was young, energetic and charismatic was evident when he went abroad on foreign tours leaving a lasting impact. He had a vision of young India, self reliant and dependent. He developed close rapport with World leaders and pictures of immaculately dressed with Ray Ban glares at various summits abroad indicated India would move ahead under a young leadership.
Rajiv was forward looking and it was seen in his various initiatives as Prime Minister : He increased government support for science, technology and associated industries, and reduced import quotas, taxes and tariffs on technology-based industries, especially computers, airlines, defence and telecommunications. In 1986, he announced a National Policy on Education to modernise and expand higher education programs across India. In 1986, he founded the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya System, which is a Central government-based education institution that provides rural populations with free residential education from grades six to twelve.
His efforts created MTNL in 1986, and his public call offices—better known as PCOs—helped develop the telephone network in rural areas. He introduced measures to significantly reduce the Licence Raj after 1990, allowing businesses and individuals to purchase capital, consumer goods and import without bureaucratic restrictions
He was the “Mr Clean” as far as Indian politics was concerned. But the tag of Mr Clean would soon give away to host of controversies that dogged his tenure : Shah Bano case, unlocking the locks of the Ram temple in Ayodhya , intervention in the coup in Maldives, his sending peace – keeping forces to tame the LTTE in Sri Lanka was a monumental blunder, that would later cost his life, poor handling of the Bhopal Gas disaster and biggest of them all the Bofors controversy and the alleged close relationship with Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi.
The Bofors scandal rocked his Prime Ministership and led to his losing the 1989 Lok Sabha polls. His very own cabinet minister of Defence VP Singh, rebelled against him and formed his own Jan Morcha and later United Front to form the government in 1989.
I remember the telling interview Rajiv Gandhi gave to journalist Vir Sanghvi on the series called Dynasty in BCC . Rajiv right through during the Bofors controversy denied any wrong doing. He termed the allegations as frustrations by the opposition. He was ready to be probed in the matter including his family members. And it would not have any bearing on the 1989 Lok Sabha polls. Sanghvi later told that when he met Rajiv after the polls defeat and asked him what was the reason for the loss? Rajiv said Bofors.
Taking over from Rajiv Gandhi VP Singh could not sustain his coalition and the Mandal commission report and the countrywide student agitation cost him dearly. He was replaced by Chandrashekhar as PM. Chandrashekhar was PM for seven months with his 64 MP’s backed by Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress in parliament.
After some policemen from Haryana were seen snooping at 10 Janpath the residence of the Congress president Rajiv Gandhi, Congress party withdrew support to the Chandrashekhar government and the nation went to the polls in 1991.
I was at Jawaharlal Nehru stadium during one athletic meet in the capital along with few of my school friends. All were huge Rajiv Gandhi fans. Rajiv Gandhi was the chief guest, there were huge crowds at the stadium and there was a belief that that the polls scheduled later on would see him return as Prime Minister.
Polls were announced and campaigning was on in full swing. Film superstar Rajesh Khanna was the Congress candidate from the New Delhi constituency. Having turned 18, It was delight to vote in the General election. I along with family members voted in the NDMC school in Chanakyapuri, place I resided from 1988 to 2003. It was May 20, 1991. Later we heard that Rajiv Gandhi along with wife Sonia and candidate Rajesh Khanna came and cast their votes in the same venue. All seemed well. Nobody then could ever think what lay ahead.
I had read in the papers Rajiv was campaigning tirelessly and mixing with ease with the people and looked set for a comeback.
Next day on May 21, it was a normal day with watching the election campaigns and all . Heard that Rajiv Gandhi had now left for Madras . A day went by .
It was after a return from a morning jog on May 22, 1991 in Nehru park that that I was left numbed and shocked beyond words what I saw . The papers with big bold black headline read: Rajiv Gandhi Assassinated. I was shocked and could not believe. There were curious questions : What? How? When? Who did it? Where? The name too in the papers was tongue twisting Sriperumbudur. Later reports came in it was the handiwork of the LTTE and a suicide bomber called Dhanu who detonated the bomb while greeting Rajiv Gandhi at the election rally at 10: 20 pm. The LTTE had apparently feared Rajiv’s possible return as PM.
Though they had regretted killing Rajiv years later but the damage was done. We should in one voice condone terrorism in harshest possible words – As it had claimed the life of one of our youngest Prime Minister. It does not matter whether he is from the Congress or other party. A Prime Minister is a Prime Minister.
Rajiv was only 46. He was young and too early to die. In an election winning and losing is part and parcel but Assassination is unpardonable. Congress party formed the government riding on the sympathy wave with PV Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister. But everybody was unable to fathom that Rajiv was not alive anymore.
I owe my interest in politics due to Rajiv Gandhi. As the nation remembers him on his 26th death anniversary, only memories remain of him. Politics of today has changed a lot since Rajiv days and one can only envisage what would have Indian politics become had May 21, 1991 did not happen.