Rajiv Gandhi: The Original Accidental Prime Minister

Rajiv Gandhi: The Original Accidental Prime Minister

Today is the seventieth birth anniversary of former Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi. Had it been his party that is the Indian National Congress at the helms of power, one would find several pages of newspaper advertisements as well as handsome visuals of beaming Rajiv Gandhi broadcasted in channels across the country.


All these ads and visuals would speak of his diverse qualities, with some of his sympathizers in the print as well as the electronic media claiming, that had he not lost his life in 21 May 1991 in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, the fate of India would have been brighter.To corroborate their claim, these sympathizers point out the numerous achievements the Rajiv government made under its first and only reign (1985-1989):

1. In 1986, the then PM announced a National Policy on Education to expand higher education programs across India. He founded the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya System in 1986.

2. He brought in the Telecom revolution.

3.  He improved bilateral relations with the United States which was till then strained owing to rift that occurred between both nations during Indira Gandhi’s premiership.

4.  In November 1988, the PM authorized Operation Cactus which helped the South Asian neighbor Maldives to fend off a military coup backed by Tamil militants.

5. Rajiv Gandhi attempted to end the civil war in Sri Lanka by signing the Indo-Lankan peace accord and sending the Indian Peace Keeping Forces to Sri Lanka.

6. It was Rajiv Gandhi who did his best to end the conflict in Assam, and Punjab.

7.  Rajiv Gandhi was never acerbic towards Pakistan and wanted peace.

8. Rajiv Gandhi gave way to Panchayat Raj.

9.  Rajiv Gandhi was a true democrat with a clean image.

There would be many more achievements but this list is sufficient to conclude that Rajiv Gandhi was a remarkable statesman, an able administrator and a worthy leader. This would make him one of the best Prime Ministers India ever had. Then why is there a large number of individuals disputing this claim and stating the exact opposite? Are they so prejudiced against the Congress party that they would sully the image of this great visionary?

To get the answers to these questions, a more comprehensive reading is required, and what emerges is this:

1. Regarding the education schemes envisioned by the Prime Minister, the dire state this sector is in today speaks of its “success.” Indeed, here it is coming from his own mouth:

“If Central government releases one rupee for the poor, only 10 paisa reaches them.”

Many sympathizers claim at least Rajiv was honest about how his own party is corrupt. That may be true but it begs this question: did he punish the guilty in his own party for such said corruption?

2. It has become some sort of a Gospel truth that it was Rajiv Gandhi who revitalized the telecom sector of India. But there are several holes in this truth, which will become clear when we examine what this report states:

The New Telecom Policy (NTP) announced by the government of India on 3 March 1999 recounted some facts about the status of the telecom sector in India at the time. It noted that India had “over 1 million” mobile phone subscribers. Ten years after Rajiv Gandhi’s government left office in 1989 and eight years following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, tele-density moved from 0.6% in 1989 to 2.8% in 1999. Does that constitute a “revolution” … Recent data says that India had over 700 million active mobile phone connections as of October 2012, catapulting the telecom penetration rate from less than 3% in 1999 to over 70% as of October 2012 and fast closing in on developed world standards. The 1999 NTP has far exceeded its own target of achieving 15% tele-density by 2010, which would have probably sounded overly optimistic when announced in 1999. How did this massive growth happen? Does any specific individual or policy deserve more credit than others? …

 ….. In his book, India—The Emerging Giant, Columbia University’s Professor Arvind Panagariya also addresses the question of what catalyzed growth in telecom. Panagariya writes that key policy reforms were implemented by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 1999, with one of the most important measures being separation between policy formulation and service provision, culminating with the birth of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) on 1 October 2000. Getting rid of this very obvious conflict of interest freed the telecom sector from political control. Vajpayee, who also held the telecom portfolio at the time, took the politically difficult step of corporatizing BSNL, and Panagariya writes that the prime minister personally intervened to push through this deep structural reform. ……

 ….. Rajiv Gandhi’s model did not succeed, whereas the Vajpayee government’s policies curtailed the state’s role and created space for private entrepreneurs to deliver cheap and reliable telecom service speedily on a massive scale. The former tried to grow by state-led indigenization, the latter threw open the sector to competition and entrepreneurship..

 3.  As far as improving ties with the United States is concerned, by the 1980s, it was quite obvious that the India’s long-time ally, the USSR was losing the ‘Cold War’ to the United States, so much so that the head of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev was making friendly overtures to his American counterpart. So it was not as if Rajiv Gandhi formulated a revolutionary, new foreign policy.

4.   As far as Maldives is concerned, the kudos definitely extends to PM Gandhi and the Indian Air Force which prevented the tiny nation from falling into political chaos. However, this praiseworthy action looks bleak when one sees Rajiv Gandhi’s record vis a vis Nepal.

During the 1980s, there was a minor strain between India and Nepal, due to tensions in the border as well as Nepal’s 1988 purchase of Chinese weaponry. But Rajiv Gandhi exacerbated this strain by imposing harsh economic sanctions on the small nation. These sanctions disgruntled many Nepalese youngsters, giving anti-India elements like the Maoists a perfect opportunity to indoctrinate them in their anti-India ideology.

5.      Rajiv Gandhi’s Sri Lanka venture failed to impede the murderous campaign of the LTTE. The Indian Peace Keeping Forces were called back after failing to rein in the LTTE and suffering heavy casualties. Recently, the former Congressman and friend of Rajiv Gandhi, Natwar Singh declared that the PM gave orders to send Indian troops to Sri Lanka without consulting his Cabinet colleagues or top officials. In his own words:

“The IPKF troops were not told about the geography of the Jaffna peninsula nor about the LTTE hideouts. From the very beginning, the Sri Lankan ethnic issue was mishandled and ended as complete failure.”

In his failed attempt to end the civil war in Sri Lanka, Rajiv Gandhi accomplished nothing more than wasting the lives of several Indian soldiers for a lost cause. And as was the case with Nepal, his decision earned India the distrust and scorn of the Sri Lankans. Natwar Singh also mentions Rajiv Gandhi’s blind trust towards LTTE chief Prabhakaran, a mistake that cost him his own life.


6. On Pakistan, it’s pertinent to examine the details of Operation Brasstacks (detail can be found in this NYT report) :

Operation Brasstacks was a codename of a major military exercise of the Indian Army in Rajasthan which took place in 1987. It was the largest troop mobilizations of Indian forces in the Indian subcontinent. The military strategists of the Pakistan regarded this exercise as a threatening exhibition of overwhelming conventional force, and assumed the beginning of a nuclear war. Several security experts characterized Operation Brasstacks as “bigger than any NATO exercise – and the biggest since World War II”.

Reading this, one obvious conclusion is that India had been fed up with Pakistan backing hostile anti-India forces, and the army was ordered by the government to prepare for the worst. However, we can turn to Natwar Singh again, who claims in his book that Operation Brasstacks was cooked up by then minister of state for defence Arun Singh and the then Army chief Sundarji just to threaten Pakistan. But the real truth of the episode is that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had absolutely no knowledge that something so serious was being planned let alone executed!

Another close aide of Rajiv Gandhi, Mani Shankar Iyer defended Rajiv’s ignorance about the matter stating that he was very trustful of his colleagues. In short, it was perfectly okay for the generous PM to take India to a possible nuclear war with Pakistan, because he was trustful of people.

7.  It is now accepted as a fact that Rajiv Gandhi failed to extinguish the flames of violence in Punjab and Assam.

He did sign peace accords with Sant Longowal of the Akali Dal in 1985 to control the volatile situation in Punjab following the 1984 Sikh massacres in Delhi. But Longowal was gunned down for signing the accords, and the Khalistani militants continued their terror campaign on innocent civilians. In the end, the violence was put to an end by KPS Gill, who used unconventional methods to eliminate the Khalistani terrorists using tough police action under the Prime Ministership of P V Narasimha Rao.

Although, in 1985 Rajiv Gandhi signed the Assam Accord with the All Assam Student’s Union leader Prafulla Mahanta (who later became the CM of the state), he failed to get it implemented. This was coupled with his failure to prevent illegal entry of Bangladeshis into Assam, which has resulted in a case of demographic nightmare.

8. As for Panchayat Raj, when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi introduced the 64th Constitutional Amendment Bill in 1989, it got defeated in the Rajya Sabha. It was only after the ascension of PV Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister that the concept of Panchayat Raj saw success in the form of the Constitutional Seventy Third Amendment Act, which was passed in 1992 and came into force on April 24, 1993.

9. Rajiv Gandhi’s clean image can be best debunked by the scandal associated with the Swedish arms company Bofors. In 1987, news sources in Sweden alleged that bribes were paid to Rajiv Gandhi’s government by Bofors as part of a lucrative deal, a fancy term to describe the massive loot. The middleman in this deal, a certain Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi was a good friend of the Prime Minister.


There is still a lot of suspicion that Rajiv Gandhi was involved in some way (even after evidence of Rajiv’s direct involvement in scandal was unearthed by some brilliant investigative journalism of  Chitra Subramaniam).But this statement given by  Sten Lindstrom, former chief of Swedish police, who handled the Bofors investigation speaks for itself:

“There was no evidence that (Rajiv Gandhi) had received any bribe. But he watched the massive cover-up in India and Sweden and did nothing….The evidence against Ottavio Quattrocchi was conclusive. Through a front company called AE Services, bribes paid by Bofors landed in Quattrocchi’s account which he subsequently cleaned out because India said there was no evidence linking him to the Bofors deal. Nobody in Sweden or Switzerland was allowed to interrogate him.”

Was it part of Rajiv Gandhi’s clean image to allow the cover-up?

Was it also a part of his clean image to let Union Carbide off the hook for the Bhopal gas tragedy which claimed thousands of lives?Only the Indian directors from Union Carbide were prosecuted, with Rajiv Gandhi finally settling the case for $470 million in 1989. This amount was much less than the initially claimed $3.3 billion compensation.

10.  The true democrat and the clean Rajiv Gandhi had no qualms using his political and Government power to overpower people he perceived were inconvenient. Notable examples include:

i. In 1982, when he was not even the Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi (a Congress general secretary) had arrived on a private visit to Andhra Pradesh. On seeing a large crowd at the airport, he was annoyed and instructed the then Andhra chief minister T.Anjaiah to clear the crowd. When Anjaiah was not able to do so, Rajiv Gandhi publicly called him a ‘buffoon’.

If the public humiliation was not enough, Anjaiah was later sacked from the party by Indira Gandhi. The treatment meted out to the Andhra CM injured Telugu pride and this proved costly to the Congress as later in 1983, the Telugu Desam Party, led by movie legend Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao won the assembly elections with a thumping majority.

ii.  In 1990, to please his supporters, Rajiv Gandhi unceremoniously sacked Karnataka’s popular Chief Minister, Veerendra Patil, when he was in hospital undergoing treatment for a stroke. In his place, Rajiv Gandhi installed one of the most corrupt leader as Karnataka’s Chief Minister, S. Bangarappa.

iii.   Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 introduced the notorious Anti-Defamation Bill aimed to stifle free press. However, strong demonstrations and protests from the journalist fraternity—most notable among them being Arun Shourie—made him withdraw the bill.

The other claim is that Rajiv Gandhi was secular. Some facts to test the truth of this claim:

i. After the assassination of Indira Gandhi on 31 October 1984 by two of her Sikh bodyguards, Congress-sponsored genocide of Sikhs erupted in Delhi on 1 November 1984, killing more than 3,000 Sikhs.  Rajiv Gandhi who was sworn in as Prime Minister in the evening of 31 October was expected to stop this massacre. Instead, he issued a statement justifying this anti-Sikh pogrom “when a big tree falls, the earth shakes.” More shameful was the 1984 election campaign under Rajiv Gandhi which was based on creating a fear psychosis among Hindus. (for the entire sordid detail, see here). His cabinet had at least four ministers who were alleged to have taken part in the pogroms.


ii.  In 1985, the country was rocked by the Shah Bano case. Shah Bano, a 62-year-old Muslim mother of five from Indore, was divorced by her husband in 1978. She filed a criminal suit in the Supreme Court of India, in which she won the right to alimony from her husband. The judgment sparked off controversy and was opposed by reactionary clerics who termed it as anti-Islamic.

A young Congress Muslim MP, Arif Mohammed Khan, defended the Supreme Court judgment in parliament but PM Rajiv Gandhi embarrassed him by siding with the reactionary elements in Muslim society and overturned the court’s verdict by legislation. This infamous legislation, Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 overturned the judgment of the Supreme Court and denied even utterly destitute Muslim divorcées the right to alimony from their former husbands.

iii. And then, in a bid not to appear excessively pro-Muslim, Rajiv Gandhi allowed the activists of VHP to perform “Shilanyas” ceremony near the then disputed Babri Masjid. This triggered multiple communal incidents culminating in the bringing down of the Mosque during Narasimha Rao’s regime.

This then is the laundry list of the major ‘achievements’ of Rajiv Gandhi. If this sounds completely negative, there is a small saving grace in the form of his address to the Joint meeting of the US Congress in Washington on 13 June 1985:

India is an old country, but a young nation; and like the young everywhere we are impatient. I am young, and I too have a dream. I dream of an India strong, independent and self-reliant and in the front rank of the nations of the world in the service of mankind.

Sadly his works did not match his words and his reign is best remembered for  numerous scandals and accidents. But then again those who’ve read about his life would know that it was a tragic accident that propelled Rajiv Gandhi to the post of the Prime Minister.