The first few days of a nation’s chief executive in office, indeed the first few hours, set the tone for the months and years to come. The people watch to see if the person chosen fills the bill. And the rest of the world watches too.
Generally, a president or a prime minister comes to the no. one position after a long political career, in which his views are known and there is a record to go by. Even so he has to place a new agenda before the nation and start cracking on day one.
Let us go back to the days when Rajiv Gandhi was called to the Prime Minister’s office. Here was someone who had been in politics for barely a couple of years. He had not done anything during that time that bore a very individual stamp; not said or written anything that indicated that he had a distinct personal philosophy that his contemporaries in politics did not have. Prime Ministers, it is said, are prime persuaders.
For the nation it was a very grave moment. Indira Gandhi’s assassination had not only stunned the people but made them wonder what the future would be. It was at such a juncture that the leaders of the Congress turned to Rajiv Gandhi. They wanted him as Prime Minister because in their judgment only he would hold the Congress together and take the country forward.
Within hours the people felt reassured that he was indeed the right man for the job. He was ridiculously young but he exuded self-control and command as he sat beside his mother’s body while thousands walked past it. Behind his calm countenance they perceived great reserves of strength.
Besides the people of India, there was another set of judges examining Rajiv Gandhi in his first hours in office—the statesmen who had come from all over the world to attend Indira Gandhi’s funeral. They had individual meetings with him. No politics was discussed, it is true, but they were all the time sizing him up.
Here was one of the world’s oldest political parties, the Congress, picking this novice to lead it. Was he merely a beneficiary of dynastic succession in a country basically feudal despite its democratic trappings, or was there something in him to suggest that the party had intuitively made a wise choice that would hold good for a couple of decades?
In meetings between leaders of nations only a few words are exchanged but chapters of meaning are conveyed and registered. This person might be new to the club of managing directors of nations, but he was there to stay. He had spoken to them as an equal, and met their eyes on a level.
It was only some of editors and some of bureaucrats who had reserved their approbation. If the top persons in the law and order set-up when anti-Sikh riots had broken out, had sought Rajiv Gandhi’s directions, they would have received firm orders. His own feelings at the moment had been made clear in his broadcast in which he declared: do not shed blood, shed hatred.
By then, unfortunately much blood had been shed. And a reproach was to hang over his head, that he had not acted more promptly to put down acts of hate and revenge.
This taught Rajiv Gandhi an important lesson—that the bureaucracy and the party leadership needed to be pushed, and could not be trusted to act on their own. Himself a person of limitless daring, he had disdain for those lacking in political courage. His opinion of the party elders was summed up in his famous Bombay Congress speech. The people at large were delighted with his candour and the correctness of his diagnosis.
He was prompt, clear and concise in his directions to officialdom. His mastery of administration was astounding in someone who had never held office, public or private.
Within the first few days I was able to understand what Indira Gandhi had once said to some of us when speaking of her two sons. She had remarked Sanjay Gandhi might be head-strong but it was Rajiv who was the more stubborn. Once he had made up his mind, it was next to impossible to make him change it.
I sometimes wondered if it was the same man who had appeared so demure and self-effacing and so apolitical in his airlines days!
He had a sense of humour and laughed readily. Once when working with his aides on the brief for his visit to Japan, he said in true, boyish banter : “If they make me eat with chopsticks there, on their return visit I shall make them eat off banana leaves, chasing rasam with their fingers…”
In just a few more years…had it not been for that barbarous bomb at Sriperumbudur.
Edited excerpts from a tribute published in National Herald on May 21, 1993. The author was Information Adviser to Rajiv Gandhi