Rajiv Gandhi: Pilot To Prime Minister

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Rajiv Gandhi was barely 40 when he became Prime Minister of India. Politics was not his first choice as a career and yet Rajiv, an airline pilot, found himself in the hot seat after his mother, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated in October 1984, when she was PM.

Rajiv Gandhi | Wikimedia Commons
Rajiv Gandhi | Wikimedia Commons

When Rajiv took over, he had a clean personal and political image. He was non-controversial. His initiation to politics had taken place on the death of his brother Sanjay. In 1981, Rajiv stood for election from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh and won a seat in the Lok Sabha.

Union Carbide pesticide factory, Bhopal, India, 1985 | Wikimedia Commons
Union Carbide pesticide factory, Bhopal, India, 1985 | Wikimedia Commons

Terrorism was already raging in Punjab, and in the midst of the 1984 election campaign, India was hit by the world’s worst industrial disaster. On 3rd December, a poisonous gas leak from American multinational Union Carbide killed 2,000 people in Bhopal.

But Rajiv’s biggest challenge was to find a solution to terrorism in Punjab, which had led to the assassination of his mother. He made a deal with the Akali Dal in 1985. This saw big gains for the regional party, including a major electoral victory in Punjab.

Rajiv also signed deals with the All-Assam Students Union & Mizo National Front. As in Punjab, regional parties emerged victorious in the Assam and Mizoram elections, in 1985 and 1986, respectively. Rajiv had put the interests of the country above those of the Congress.

Rajiv made a few other moves that impressed the people. For instance, his statement about breaking the “feudal oligarchy” in the Congress found favour as did the passage of the Anti-Defection Act by his government. It enhanced his image as ‘Mr Clean’.

Shah Bano | DNA India
Shah Bano | DNA India

But the tide began to turn as Rajiv took a series of missteps. In 1985, when Muslims were upset with the Supreme Court verdict in the Shah Bano case, Rajiv passed the Muslim Women’s Bill to appease them.

Next, a local court in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh, ordered the locks of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya to be opened. It is widely believed that the order was passed at the instance of the Centre to pacify Hindus, to balance the Muslim appeasement in the Shah Bano case.

From here on, it was a politically downhill journey for Rajiv. His attempts at modernisation through ‘Technology Missions’, and the introduction of computers and reservation of seats for women in village panchayats failed to bolster his sagging political image.

V P Singh | Wikimedia Commons
V P Singh | Wikimedia Commons

Then he took a body blow – in 1987, V P Singh, then Defence Minister, resigned after he accused Rajiv of corruption in the high-profile Bofors gun deal. Singh became a catalyst for uniting Opposition parties against Rajiv.

Rajiv lost the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, a huge blow for the Congress. The country had a new government, a coalition led by V P Singh.

On 21st May 1991, Rajiv was killed in Tamil Nadu, in a suicide bomb attack by the LTTE, a Sri Lankan terrorist organisation. It was a revenge killing as Rajiv had sent peacekeeping forces to Sri Lanka, to end a civil war between the LTTE and the military.

Experts believe Rajiv was politically naive. He squandered his massive 1984 mandate by pandering to Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism, and compromising with political corruption.

Cover Image: Getty Images

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