Birth of the first child of Indira and Feroz Gandhi was a solitary moment of joy for a family going through a difficult period. The year was 1944, the struggle for independence was at its peak with several leaders still in prison in the aftermath of August Kranti of 1942. While transiting from one prison to another Jawaharlal Nehru, grandfather to the newborn finally got a chance to get a glimpse of his first grandchild, in the light of a street lamp outside jail.
Destiny and Dynasty
Rajiv Ratan, the child was named after both of his grandparents; Rajiv a synonym of Kamla or lotus(his grandmother) and Ratan a synonym of Jawahar (the first prime minister of India and a forefront leader of freedom struggle).
As the fait would have it, Rajiv’s mother too became the first woman prime minister of India, while his father was a lifelong serving member of parliament in newly independent India. Weight of politically heavy legacy was already on the shoulders of this child, and yet he chose to tread away from the dynastic politics over years. He remained away from glare of politics till an untimely demise of his brother Sanjay Gandhi propelled him to take up the mantle of dynasty in 1981.
Even though he was a newbie with non-existential political experience, Rajiv appeared to take challenges in his stride, right from his first election win in Amethi till becoming party general secretary and managing internal affairs of an increasingly fictionalised congress. He tried to lobby for reforms like intra party democracy, election of chief ministers of state by elected legislators, regular election to party working committee while trying to satiate egos and ambitions of local straps of party, basically trying to rid the Congress off the rust that plagues it to this day.
Largely in his lifetime the reforms fail to bear fruits but his style of functioning brought new energy and specialization to the party much to the chagrin of khadi clad old guard politicians. His electoral planning to capitalize on sympathy wave, in aftermath of assassination of PM Indira Gandhi, in 1984 as well as tireless campaigning like a seasoned politician saw him rising to pinnacle of political life with massive victory of 404 seats in Lok Sabha and becoming 7th Prime Minister of India.
Race Course Road
The Prime ministership of Rajiv saw plethora of challenges right from the beginning. The Punjab Unrest was far from over, North east was boiling with Assam protests and rise of Naga and Mizo separatism, further down south a new menace in Sri Lanka with oppression of Lankan Tamils. Rajiv-Longowal accords, Assam accords and operation of Indian peace keeping forces, were responses of Rajiv regime, respectively.
On Foreign turf too Rajiv took major strides in furthering India-US defence cooperation, engaging with his Pakistani counterpart to stop ISI backing of separatism in Punjab as well as normalizing relations with China although a major setback he faced in his handling tackling of the Sri Lanka situation and LTTE.
Soon things went sour at home, as political and corruption scandals started to unfold (read VP Singhs and Boforses)then the high handedness of his trusted aids like Arun Nehru and Arun singh alienated him from grass root politik of his party. In other words the star of 1984 elections went into 1989 elections exposed and politically vulnerable against a unified opposition led by euphoria of VP Singh. The brilliant insight into the back room politics of this period with great penchant and detail is something any politically curious reader would relish.
The book all over gives a picture of a man who had aspirations and great hopes for his country which he was chosen to lead. However as destiny would have it, he couldn’t achieve much before tragedy stuck and Rajiv was assassinated by LTTE in 1991. Riding on the hopes, Rajiv phenomenon had emerged as dawn of clean politics with technocratic handling of affairs and quick enactment of laws like anti defection act; yet his legacy remained stained with charges of corruption due to Bofors scandal. A progressive man as he was, he failed to dissuade from worst of vote bank politics and appeasement which we see in handling of Shah Bano case and Ayodhya dispute. As a man of modernisation and liberalism he failed to liberalise and reform economy enough to sustain growth of country nor could he protect the Sikh community that was massacred allegedly by his partymen in aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. There were hopes and potential but much remained unfulfilled as the destiny had its own way. Good, bad or ugly no-one can deny that Rajiv Ratan Gandhi did leave his mark on Indian politics.
The book doesn’t try to build a case for Rajiv nor does it try to highlight his failure, it simply represents a tour de france through the political life during “Lotus years” of Indian politics. It also touches upon personal life of Rajiv and gives an idea of what kind of man he was as it affected his politics and its brand. It is a compelling read with easy language that would engage anyone interested in The Great Indian political drama.