For those of us who lived through the period, Rajiv after Indira Gandhi was like passing out from a dark dreary tunnel into sunshine. After 18 years of his mother’s efforts to block out the world, Rajiv did just the opposite. He wanted India and Indians to participate and be counted globally.
Long before the term ‘demographic dividend’ had been coined, Rajiv understood that our population may be our problem but our people are our asset. This may sound a cliché today but in the mid eighties it was a radical new thought. "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.”
If vision is the art of seeing what could be, Rajiv was by far the most visionary leader we have ever had. Being a quintessential outsider in Indian politics was both his strength and his weakness. Strength because it enabled him to dream bigger dreams unshackled by possible constraints and weakness because his lack of experience made negotiating through the officialdom that much tougher. Tough for today’s generation to understand but after decades of having our hands tied, we had actually begun to believe that India will always be a laggard; he was the first leader to publicly disagree with that assumption.
At a time when even mid-sized corporations had just about issued calculators to their staff and procured electric typewriters for the MD, Rajiv evangelized the computer. This was an extraordinary leap of faith when most people, including this writer felt that computers were too expensive, too complex to use and basically inappropriate for Indians. Banks and Railways and several other departments went on strike. There was an uproar in Parliament. Atalji turned up at Parliament House on a bullock cart in a misguided protest against computers. Even the most radical among us would smirk at him and his so-called ‘computer brigade’. But he bashed on regardless.
Whether by design or by default, Rajiv seemed to understand that computers and telecom will go together. He invited Sam Pitroda to help herald a telecom revolution. Interestingly after IT, the telecom revolution is India’s biggest success story and the two together lie at the heart of our positioning as one of the knowledge leaders of the world.
Something that is hardly ever spoken about. He identified a few critical issues where absence of coordinated and focused effort retards progress and set up inter-disciplinary ‘missions’ like the Drinking Water Mission, Education Mission, Telecom Mission, Watershed Management Mission which would and so on. This was the first time any Prime Minister had tried out a structural change in the bureaucracy. To the best of my knowledge no one tried it after him either.
Having shut ourselves for decades, India had been forgotten by the world. In an effort to represent a new face India to global audiences, he organised Festivals of India in several countries. He was the first PM to use mass media to create a sense of nationhood with the ‘mile sur mera tumhara’, the ‘40 years of Independence’ series and several other similar initiatives under Mera Bharat Mahan, though that line was misused later.
The first wave of structural reforms in the economy happened in 1985 after he took over. Several commodities and categories were de-licensed, duties reduced, and foreign currency controls eased. Then there was the focus on the Panchayati Raj and devolving power and financial autonomy all the way to the village level. Whether this worked or not this writer is not qualified to say but yes it was again a structural change the likes of which no one else has yet tried.
By the time he took over, with countless killings, Operation Bluestar and the 1984 Sikh pogrom in Delhi, the Khalistan movement had reached a dead-end. To his credit despite a resentment caused by his perceived inaction during the 1984 pogrom, Sikhs found him to be more approachable and transparent. What is often forgotten is that he actually managed to break the ice with Sant Longowal and signed a hastily-drawn peace accord. Some say the accord would never have worked out but the assassination of Sant Longowal made that a purely hypothetical issue. Having said that, the issue which his mother had compounded with virtually every action she took was untangled largely by Rajiv.
Having said that, on three critical issues of the day, he messed up. One of them took his life.
By first sending in an unprepared Indian Peace Keeping Force to fight a jungle warfare and then withdrawing it without achieving anything, he managed the impossible feat of being hated by Tamils and Sinhalese. It was lack of judgement of a high order even if he was misled by babus around him which many say he was. He had been in office for barely a year and a few months and probably did not understand the complexity of the issue involved but it was easily the most pointless waste of human lives.
The second cost him his legacy. No one knows what exactly happened but seems certain money was made by some middleman in the deal. It was utterly naive of him to believe that middlemen can be entirely done away with. In fact the current government has brought back the idea of a fixed remuneration for the middlemen only because it understands that their role cannot be eliminated.
And the third was a set of complementary decisions that would lay open the deep divide within Indian society that should never have been exposed. Whether his intentions were genuine we will never know but the way the Shah Bano case and its aftermath was handled was retrogressive to the core. Impossible to believe that in the twentieth century the Indian Parliament passed a law which provided loopholes to men to not pay maintenance to divorced wives. Some say his decision to open the gates of the Janmabhoomi was a kind of reverse appeasement to the majority community. Both have left deep scars on the Indian body politic.
And last, but not the least. 1984.
Till late evening on 31st Oct he was a pilot whose mother had been assassinated. Became the PM at night. By that time the rioting had well and truly begun. Contrary to what is now claimed, the anger against Sikhs was not limited to Congressmen alone. The divide was across the board.
Did he delay sending in the Army? Was he aware how bad it was? Most unlikely. To have to undertake such a serious intervention when you have no access to data as everyone is busy saving their backsides and there is a funeral to attend to is beyond any individual, no matter how miraculous. Modi had been at his job for over 5 months when the riots happened but wasn’t able to control.
My verdict: Not guilty. If anyone should take the blame, it is Narasimha Rao, Home Minister.