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What would India have been like if Rajiv had not been assassinated?

There has been a lot about Rajiv Gandhi in the news lately.

There was, first of all, his birth anniversary followed by the publication of Mani Shankar Aiyar’s memoir.


Though most of Mani’s book covers his life before he entered Rajiv’s PMO (a second volume called The Rajiv I Knew will be published next year), he deals briefly and convincingly with many of the controversies that dogged Rajiv’s tenure including a rebuttal of the misinterpretations of the “When a big tree falls” speech.


   My own view is that we have forgotten much of what Rajiv achieved at last partly because it is in nobody’s interests to remember it.


   The current BJP position is understandably convenient. It states that Indira Gandhi, the most absolute ruler India has ever had, was a wonderful person and that absolute rulers are good for India. (The Emergency is a slight inconvenience when it comes to pushing this view but if you look closely you will notice that today’s BJP blames the Emergency more on ”the Congress party” than on Mrs. Gandhi herself.)


   Rajiv Gandhi, on the other hand, fares less well in the BJP’s version of history. Whereas once Bofors was the main area of attack, the focus has now shifted to the 1984 pogrom because it serves as a useful counterpoint to the Gujarat riots.


   The Congress continues to praise Rajiv (as the huge ads that state governments released on his birth anniversary remind us) at least partly because his family still calls many of the shots in the party. But most Congressmen still secretly prefer Indira Gandhi.


   And the middle class looks past the Gandhis to venerate Narasimha Rao because they see him as their benefactor: the man who opened up the economy, ended the licence-permit-quota raj and, in their view, set India on the path to greatness.


   But while Indira Gandhi may have been a great leader who broke up Pakistan and saw India through food shortages and economic crises, she was also the woman who began the process of destroying the institutions of Indian democracy.


   Liberals should forget for a moment that she was a Congress leader and imagine that she was a BJP Prime Minister. Would they still remember her with so much misplaced admiration?


   She damaged the impartiality of the civil service by promoting people who shared her views. She played havoc with the judiciary, appointing judges on dodgy grounds and passing over Supreme Court judges till she found those who were certain to take her side. The most powerful man in India in her time was not a senior minister but her personal assistant RK Dhawan who shamelessly pushed his own favourites into top jobs. She ran the country with a court of powerful unelected advisors including a yoga teacher who became a globe-trotting “swami” at whose feet her ministers prostrated.


   And all that’s even before we get to the subject of dynasty which she legitimised by anointing her motor-mechanic son as crown prince during the Emergency. Or to the Emergency itself, when the Opposition was locked up, the press censored and civil liberties suspended.


   If a BJP Prime Minister had done all this, how would liberals remember him or her?


   Even the argument that all this was fine because she was ‘secular’ is open to dispute. By her second term, she was not only relying on Hindu godmen and astrologers, she was also pushing a pro-Hindu agenda. The main difference between her and today’s BJP was that she was careful not to paint Muslims as the villains but pro-Hindu and anti-Sikh sentiment was encouraged by the Congress. The hatred led directly to the 1984 massacres where Congressmen were clearly involved.


   It is inconvenient for the Congress and for liberals to remember all this. That is one reason why Rajiv never gets the credit he deserves for putting the institutions of Indian democracy back on track and for healing the wounds his mother had left behind. He ended the Dhawan-is-King style of government-by-stenographer, did not play around with judicial appointments, was not surrounded by the likes of Dhirendra Brahmachari and did not impose any kind of Emergency.


"India was a much better place under Rajiv than it had been under his mother. And I think it would be a far better place today, had fate not intervened."

   Most significantly, though it took time for him to find his feet, he abandoned the soft Hindutva of his mother, removed Arun Nehru and the last survivors of the power-at-any-cost regime that Indira Gandhi had run (though not before Nehru could order the opening of the locks of the Babri-Masjid) and sought to make peace with those his mother had demonised. Indira Gandhi had used the Air Force to bomb the Mizos; Rajiv signed an accord with them and brought the rebel leader Laldenga into the political system. He brought peace to Assam and signed an accord with the Sikhs.


   We are now so conditioned to see politics in BJP versus Congress terms, that we forget that when Rajiv was Prime Minister, the BJP had only two seats in the Lok Sabha and was no threat to liberal India. The real problem was the institutional destruction of the Indira Gandhi-era. While never once criticising her, Rajiv ended many of the abuses of the system that she had initiated.


   Unfortunately, the Congress can’t admit this. And of course, the BJP won’t.


   That leaves us with the big question: what would India have been like if Rajiv had not been assassinated? There is no doubt that he would have been Prime Minister again (as head of a minority government, just as Narasimha Rao became). But would he have implemented the economic reforms that Rao did?


   Frankly, he would have had no choice. He was, by instinct, much more a free-marketer than Rao. So when the IMF held a gun to India’s head and forced us to liberalise he would have been happier to go ahead with the reforms than Rao was. So that’s not a question worth asking.


   The more important one is this: what would he have done to the social fabric of India?


   We know that he was, himself, either an atheist or, at the very least, an agnostic. He had no sectarian or religious loyalties. He was disgusted by the swamis, tantriks and soothsayers Mrs. Gandhi surrounded herself with.


   If he had a weakness in this area, it was that he was too inclined to buy the secularism-means-protecting-the-minorities line even when it was wrong thing to do: as his turnaround on the Shahbano case, against his initial instincts, demonstrated.


   On the other hand, Narasimha Rao was clearly sympathetic to the Hindutva cause. Havans were regularly performed at Race Course, his astrologer NK Sharma became an incredibly powerful man who ministers paid homage to and the sleazy Chandraswami ruled the roost.


   Many excuses are offered for why Rao let the Babri Masjid be demolished and they may be valid but I don’t think there is any doubt that the masjid would still be standing today if Rajiv had lived and become Prime Minister. He would never have accepted Kalyan Singh’s assurances and would not have trusted a BJP government that had encouraged the Ayodhya movement to keep the mosque safe.


   The usual counter to all this is that Rajiv’s we-understand-the-needs-of-the-minorities approach led to a Hindu backlash and the rise of the BJP in 1989. Had he become Prime Minister again, this trend would have increased, say his critics.


   May be. May be not.


   But ask yourself this: did the reign of Narasimha Rao who, whatever else he did, never put minority concerns ahead of Hindu interests, prevent the rise of the BJP? Did the demolition of the Babri Masjid on his watch satisfy Hindu fundamentalists? Or did it just encourage them?


   We can argue about that. But it is quite wrong to suggest that soft Hindutva could prevent the rise of the BJP while secularism would only encourage it. Narasimha Rao’s reign proved that.


   And of one thing, there is no doubt: Rao ensured that no Muslim would vote for the Congress again. By alienating part of the Congress’s electoral base, he more or less sealed its fate. And he opened the doors of power to the BJP.


   India was a much better place under Rajiv than it had been under his mother. And I think it would be a far better place today, had fate not intervened.




  • Upnworld 25 Aug 2023

    Interesting perspective. You should start publishing more comments from readers - there are hardly any at present. Like Indira, it has become one-way traffic.

Posted On: 23 Aug 2023 09:56 PM
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