Rajiv Ratna Gandhi (20 August 1944 – 21 May 1991), the elder son of Indira Gandhi and Feroze Gandhi, was the 7th Prime Minister of India from his mother’s death on 31 October 1984 until his resignation on 2 December 1989 following a general election defeat. He became the youngest Prime Minister of India when he took office (at the age of 40).
Rajiv Gandhi was a professional pilot for Indian Airlines before entering politics. While at Cambridge, he met Italian-born Sonia Gandhi whom he later married. He remained aloof from politics despite his mother being the Indian Prime Minister, and it was only following the death of his younger brother Sanjay Gandhi in 1980 that Rajiv entered politics. After the assassination of his mother in 1984 after Operation Blue Star, Indian National Congress party leaders nominated him to be Prime Minister.
Rajiv Gandhi led the Congress to a major election victory in 1984 soon after, amassing the largest majority ever in Indian Parliament. The Congress party won 411 seats out of 542. He began dismantling the License Raj – government quotas, tariffs and permit regulations on economic activity – modernized the telecommunications industry, the education system, expanded science and technology initiatives and improved relations with the United States.
In 1988, Rajiv reversed the coup in Maldives antagonising the militant Tamil outfits such as PLOTE. He was also responsible for first intervening and then sending Indian troops (Indian Peace Keeping Force or IPKF) for peace efforts in Sri Lanka in 1987, which soon ended in open conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) group. In mid-1987, the Bofors scandal broke his honest, corruption-free image and resulted in a major defeat for his party in the 1989 elections.
Rajiv Gandhi remained Congress President until the elections in 1991. While campaigning, he was assassinated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers) group. His widow Sonia Gandhi became the leader of the Congress party in 1998, and led the party to victory in the 2004 elections. His son Rahul Gandhi is a Member of Parliament and the General Secretary of All India Congress Committee.
Rajiv Gandhi was an active amateur radio operator, and used the callsign VU2RG.
Rajiv Gandhi was born into India’s most famous political family. His grandfather was the Indian independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru, who was the India’s first Prime Minister after independence.
Rajiv is not related to Mahatma Gandhi, although they share the same surname. Rajiv’s father, Feroze, was one of the younger members of the Indian National Congress party, and had befriended the young Indira, and also her mother Kamala Nehru, while working on party affairs at Allahabad. Subsequently, Indira and Feroze grew closer to each other while in England, and they married, despite initial objections from Jawaharlal due to his religion (Zoroastrianism).
Rajiv was born in 1944 in Mumbai, during a time when both his parents were in and out of British prisons. In August 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru became the prime minister of independent India, and the family settled in Allahabad, and then at Lucknow, where Feroze became the editor of The National Herald newspaper (founded by Motilal Nehru). However, the marriage was faltering and, in 1949, Indira and the two sons moved to Delhi to live with Jawaharlal, ostensibly so that Indira could assist her father in his duties, acting as official hostess, and helping run the huge residence. Meanwhile, Feroze continued alone in Lucknow. Nonetheless, in 1952, Indira helped Feroze manage his campaign for elections to the first Parliament of India from Rae Bareli.
After becoming an MP, Feroze Gandhi also moved to Delhi, but “Indira continued to stay with her father, thus putting the final seal on the separation.” Relations were strained further when Feroze challenged corruption within the Congress leadership over the Haridas Mundhra scandal. Jawaharlal suggested that the matter be resolved in private, but Feroze insisted on taking the case directly to parliament:
“The Parliament must exercise vigilance and control over the biggest and most powerful financial institution it has created, the Life Insurance Corporation of India, whose misapplication of public funds we shall scrutinise today.” Feroze Gandhi, Speech in Parliament, 16 December 1957.
By the time of his father’s death, Rajiv was away at a private boarding school for boys: initially at the Welham Boys’ School and later The Doon School. He was sent to London in 1961 to study his A-level‘s. In 1962, he was offered a place at Trinity College, Cambridge to study engineering. Rajiv stayed at Cambridge until 1965 and left the university without a degree mainly because he did not appear in the final Tripos examinations. In 1966, he was offered a place at the Imperial College London. He again left Imperial College after a year without a degree.
In the January of 1965, he met Italian Antonia Maino in Varsity restaurant in Cambridge. Sonia was studying English at Lennox School of Languages (which was not associated with the University of Cambridge.) Maino’s family opposed the match, but Maino came to India with Rajiv and they were married in 1968.
He began working for Indian Airlines as a professional pilot while his mother became Prime Minister in 1967. He exhibited no interest in politics and did not live regularly with his mother in Delhi at the Prime Minister’s residence. In 1970, his wife gave birth to, their first child Rahul Gandhi, and in 1972, to Priyanka Gandhi, their second. Even as Rajiv remained aloof in politics, his younger brother Sanjay became a close advisor to their mother.
Entry into politics
Following his younger brother’s death in 1980, Gandhi was pressured by Indian National Congress party politicians and his mother to enter politics. He and his wife were both opposed to the idea, and he even publicly stated that he would not contest for his brother’s seat. Nevertheless, he eventually announced his candidacy for Parliament. His entry was criticized by many in the press, public and opposition political parties. He fought his first election from Amethi Loksabha seat. In this by-election, he defeated Lokdal leader Sharad Yadav by more than 200,000 votes.
Elected to Sanjay’s Lok Sabha (parliamentary) constituency of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh state in February 1981, Gandhi became an important political advisor to his mother. It was widely perceived that Indira Gandhi was grooming Rajiv for the prime minister’s job, and he soon became the president of the Youth Congress – the Congress party’s youth wing.
Gandhi was in West Bengal when his mother was assassinated on 31 October 1984 by her bodyguards. Top Congress leaders, as well as President Zail Singh pressed Rajiv to become India’s Prime Minister, within hours of his mother’s assassination by two of her Sikh bodyguards. Commenting on the anti-Sikh riots in the national capital Delhi, Rajiv Gandhi said, “When a giant tree falls, the earth below shakes”; a statement for which he was widely criticised. Many Congress politicians were accused of orchestrating the violence. Soon after assuming office, Rajiv asked President Zail Singh to dissolve Parliament and hold fresh elections, as the Lok Sabha completed its five year term. Rajiv Gandhi also officially became the President of the Congress party. The Congress party won a landslide victory — with the largest majority in history of Indian Parliament— giving Gandhi absolute control of government. He also benefited from his youth and a general perception of being Mr. Clean, or free of a background in corrupt politics. Rajiv thus revived hopes and enthusiasm amongst the Indian public for the Congress.
Gandhi began leading in a direction significantly different from his mother’s socialism. He improved bilateral relations with the United States — long strained owing to Indira’s socialism and close friendship with the USSR — and expanded economic and scientific cooperation.
He increased government support for science and technology and associated industries, and reduced import quotas, taxes and tariffs on technology-based industries, especially computers, airlines, defence and telecommunications. He introduced measures significantly reducing the License Raj, allowing businesses and individuals to purchase capital, consumer goods and import without bureaucratic restrictions. In 1986, he announced a National Policy on Education to modernize and expand higher education programs across India. He founded the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya System in 1986 which is a Central government based institution that concentrates on the upliftment of the rural section of the society providing them free residential education from 6th till 12 grade. His efforts created MTNL in 1986, and his public call offices, better known as PCOs, helped spread telephones in rural areas.
Rajiv authorized an extensive police and Army campaign to contain terrorism in Punjab. A state of martial law existed in the Punjab state, and civil liberties, commerce and tourism were greatly disrupted. There are many accusations of human rights violations by police officials as well as by the militants during this period. It is alleged that even as the situation in Punjab came under control, the Indian government was offering arms and training to the LTTE rebels fighting the government of Sri Lanka. The Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord was signed by Rajiv Gandhi and the Sri Lankan President J.R.Jayewardene, in Colombo on 29 July 1987. The very next day, on 30 July 1987, Rajiv Gandhi was assaulted on the head with a rifle butt by a young Sinhalese naval cadet named Vijayamunige Rohana de Silva, while receiving the honour guard. The intended assault on the back of Rajiv Gandhi’s head however glanced off his shoulder. Though the embarrassed Sri Lankan President Junius Richard Jayewardene initially attempted to pass off the bizarre assault as “Rajiv tripped a little and slightly lost his balance”, Rajiv Gandhi while en route to New Delhi asserted to J.N. Dixit “Of course, I was hit.” Rajiv’s government also suffered a major setback when its efforts to arbitrate between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE rebels backfired.
With his speech while addressing the Joint Session of the US Congress and India, he famously said, “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, self reliant and in the forefront of the front ranks of the nations of the world in the service of mankind.”
During the late 1980s, Gandhi’s administration failed to slow the 30 percent fall in the value of the Indian Rupee from 12 to 17 to the US Dollar.
Main article: Bofors scandal
Gandhi’s finance minister, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, uncovered compromising details about government and political corruption, to the consternation of Congress leaders. Transferred to the Defence ministry, Singh uncovered what became known as the Bofors scandal, involving tens of millions of dollars – concerned alleged payoffs by the Swedish Bofors arms company through Italian businessman and Gandhi family associate Ottavio Quattrocchi, in return for Indian contracts. Upon the uncovering of the scandal, Singh was dismissed from office, and later from Congress membership. Rajiv Gandhi himself was later personally implicated in the scandal when the investigation was continued by Narasimhan Ram and Chitra Subramaniam of The Hindu newspaper. This shattered his image as an honest politician; he was posthumously cleared over this allegation in 2004, however.
Singh’s image as an exposer of government corruption made him very popular with the public, and opposition parties united under his name to form the Janata Dal coalition. In the 1989 elections, the Congress suffered a major setback. With the support of Indian communists and the Bharatiya Janata Party, Singh and his Janata Dal formed a government. Gandhi became the Leader of the Opposition, while remaining Congress president. While some believe that Rajiv and Congress leaders influenced the collapse of V. P. Singh’s government in October 1990 by promising support to Chandra Shekhar, a high-ranking leader in the Janata Dal, sufficient internal contradictions existed, within the ruling coalition, especially over the controversial reservation issue, to cause a fall of government. Rajiv’s Congress offered outside support briefly to Chandra Sekhar, who became Prime Minister. They withdrew their support in 1991, however, and fresh elections were announced.
Sri Lanka policy
Then Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa opposed the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord, but accepted it due to pressure from then President Junius Richard Jayewardene. In January 1989 Premadasa was elected President and on a platform that promised that the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) leave within three months. In the 1989 elections, both the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and United National Party wanted the IPKF to withdraw, and they got 95 percent of the vote.
Gandhi refused to withdraw the IPKF, believing that the only way to end the civil war was to politically force Premadasa and militarily force the LTTE to accept the accord. In December 1989, Singh was elected Prime Minister and completed the pullout. The IPKF operation killed over 1100 Indian soldiers,5000 tamils and cost over 2000 crores.
Shah Bano case
Main article: Shah Bano case
In 1985, the Supreme Court of India ruled in favour of Muslim divorcee Shah Bano, declaring that her husband should give her alimony. Muslim fundamentalists in India treated it as an encroachment in Muslim Personal Law and protested against it. Gandhi agreed to their demands. In 1986, the Congress (I) party, which had an absolute majority in Parliament at the time, passed an act that nullified the Supreme Court’s judgement in the Shah Bano case. This was viewed by many in India, including the Bharatiya Janata Party as appeasement of Muslims. Some Congressmen too believed the same and they influenced Rajiv, to either revoke the act or to pacify Hindu Sentiments too. The infamous opening up of the gates of the Ram Janmabhoomi – Babri Masjid Gates for worship of the Ram Lala Idols at Ayodhya was an event which would go on to haunt India for several years.