When you look at the Rajiv Gandhi era the first impression you get is that here was a reluctant entrant into politics who was forced to take the reins of power upon the assassination of his mother and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was in a hurry to find a quick fix to complex problems like Punjab, Assam and Sri Lanka, ushered in a technological revolution, brought in far-reaching changes in the polity by enacting laws to ban defection and by introducing the panchayat raj system, took early steps to liberalise the licence-permit raj and wanted to take India into the 21 century, but did not live to see it.
No leader, not even Indira and Nehru, had the kind of support he got in 1984 with three-fourths majority in Parliament. And no other leader let all that goodwill fritter away as he did in the Bofors payoff scandal to be voted out within five years. The cruelest irony was that Indira created two monsters — Bhindranwale in Punjab and Velupillai Prabhakaran in Sri Lanka. The former claimed her life and the latter her son’s.
The author, former Secretary-General of Lok Sabha and an authority on election laws and parliamentary practices, makes it clear at the very outset that it is “not a political book, nor is it some kind of biography”, but rather a study of Rajiv Gandhi's contributions during his five-year tenure as Prime Minister which “by any yardstick can be described as a period of resurgence”. The epilogue deals with the final phase of Rajiv’s life after he lost power and narrates the events leading upto his assassination in Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991 by a Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger human bomb Dhanu.
The author feels Rajiv Gandhi is one of India’s” most misunderstood Prime Ministers” and he did not get the benefit of “an objective and balanced appraisal” of his tenure. So we know where his sympathies lie.
Sample this:” The choice of Rajiv Gandhi as the next Prime Minister was natural in the circumstances”… as “the sudden removal of a strong and popular leader like Indira Gandhi created a vacuum that could not have been filled by any other Minister in the Cabinet for the simple reason that none of them would remotely be regarded as a national leader”.
Never mind Pranab Mukherjee. What about Rajiv Gandhi, a greenhorn? Whenever a society faces an existential crisis. “a leader emerges to lead it and take it forward” And “ the emergence of Rajiv Gandhi was a historic inevitability”.
Right through Rajiv is handled with a kid glove. After getting an overwhelming mandate from the people in December 1984, Rajiv took up the first legacy of his mother, the Punjab militancy after the Operation Blue Star. And he signed an agreement with Sant Longowal in July 1985.
Writing with the benefit of the hindsight, the author says the accord” was a great political triumph for Rajiv Gandhi” and it proved that “even the most intractable problem could be solved if there was political will”. As it happened, Sant Longowal was assassinated in August 1985. The author acknowledges that it was a big setback.
The accord ran into rough weather and it had no impact on militants who killed over 1,000 in the first five months of 1988. It worsened until Operation Black Thunder in May 1988 was launched to flush out militants from the Golden Temple, It was a great success and Rajiv played a major role in it .
Sustained security operations ensured that militancy was contained and issues like the Anandpur Sahib resolution, transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab, sharing of river water, etc slowly disappeared from public debate, says the author in order to show that the Punjab problem lost its sting during Rajiv’s lifetime.
Far from it. Miltancy continued unabated right upto the tenure of Bent Singh as Chief Minister from 1992 to 1995. In fact, he himself was assassinated on August 31, 1995. It died a slow death after ruthless and sustained police operations under K P SGill.
The book deals exhaustively with the violent Assam agitation of the 1970s and the 1980s over the influx of foreigners and details the agreement Rajiv signed with the All Assam Students Union (AASU) on August 15, 1985. This is one agreement which has stood the test of time, unlike the India-Sri Lanka peace agreement Rajiv signed with President J R Jayawardene on July 29, 1987. Quoting former foreign secretary J N Dixit, who was then Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, the author says that the accord was a disaster.
On Bofors, the author is convinced that Rajiv was more sinned against than sinning.” After the Prime Minister’s statement in the Lok Sabha, denying acceptance of any kickback, the personal attack on him should have ceased. But far from ceasing, the opposition and the media continued to attack him with greater vigour. Their strategy seemed to be to destroy his credibility. Identification of the actual recipient did not fit into this strategy”. V P Singh, who succeeded RaJiv Gandhi as Prime Minister, and whose election strategy centred around the Bofors issue, did not do anything worthwhile to unearth the truth. Likewise, the BJP could not identify the real culprits, says the author. He glosses over the escape of Quottrocchi in 1993 when Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi emerged as the power behind the throne.
Despite his soft corner for Rajiv Gandhi, the author notes disapprovingly two his decisions. One was enactment of a law to overturn a Supreme Court verdict in the Shah Bano case, thereby denying divorced Muslim women the right to claim maintenance under the Cr.P.C.. The amended law confined it too the period of the iddat. He feels that Rajiv should have resisted pressure from the conservative Muslim lobby and stood by the Supreme Court order.
The other was the opening of the lock of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, unleashing a chain of events leading to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The author feels the structure should have been handed over the Archeological Survey of India until courts ordered a settlement
The author regrets that media trial was at its worst during Rajiv’s era. Now that both Rajiv and Quottrocchi are no more, let’s give a final burial to the Bofors ghost.
RESURGENT INDIA — Glimpses of Rajiv Gandhi’s Vision of India: P.D.T. Achary; Pentagon Press, 206, Peacock Lane, Shahpur Jat, New Delhi-110049. Rs. 595.