It was still the age of innocence. It was then, in the year 1982, sometime in the month of July that I had a brief encounter with Rajiv Gandhi.
I was going on a family visit from Patna to Gauhati as it was then known, with my wife and infant son Aditya by an Indian Airlines flight. The plane landed at Bagdogra for a brief halt and we went to the airport lounge for some snacks and tea. We were climbing back the step- ladder when my wife looked back and saw Rajiv Gandhi coming up a little behind her.
We stood awe struck looking at this extraordinarily handsome man for some time till our reverie was broken by his disarming smile as he walked up, patted my son on the cheek, exchanged pleasantries with the pilot before proceeding to occupy his seat on the front row. Those who think there is nothing like personal charisma should have seen Rajiv Gandhi in person.
Although Indira Gandhi had returned to power in 1980, she felt vulnerable, more so after the death of Sanjay. It was in this state of mind that she asked Rajiv to stand with her. The son could not refuse. Sadly, for Rajiv Gandhi and the nation, Indira Gandhi fell to the bullets of assassins (her own body- guards) on 31st October 1984, a little over three years after Rajiv Gandhi entered politics. It was in the immediate aftermath of this grave national tragedy that Rajiv Gandhi had to take over the reins of the nation as its youngest Prime Minister.
Rajiv Gandhi possessed a concern for human values which, he told TV personality and veteran actress Simi Garewal, he had imbibed as a teenager by interacting with his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru. He also brought with him a scientific temper and a vision for the future, also acquired from the illustrious grandfather.
With a massive mandate of over 400 seats in the Lok Sabha, Rajiv Gandhi embarked on an ambitious plan of taking the nation into the 21st century as he put it. While fact checking for this write-up, I realised how incredible were the achievements of his one-term government in dealing with insurgency, foreign affairs and national policy.
Punjab and North East: His first task was to take up Punjab which needed a healing touch more than any other state. Rajiv’s government released leaders of the Akali Dal imprisoned since operation Blue Star. The ban on All India Sikh Students Federation was lifted. The government set up an enquiry into the anti-Sikh riots. It also signed the Rajiv-Longowal Accord in January 1985. In May 1988, however, a tough decision had to be taken to order Operation Black Thunder to flush out arms and gunmen from the Golden temple. By the end of Rajiv’s tenure, militancy had been reduced to a great extent.
Rajiv Gandhi also signed the Assam Accord in 1985 and brought normalcy to the state. His government also granted statehood to Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh in 1987.
Foreign Affairs: Rajiv Gandhi’s achievements in diplomacy and foreign affairs were no less important. In December 1988, Rajiv Gandhi visited China at the invitation of Chinese premier Li Peng, the first visit by an Indian prime minister in 34 years. This was a major milestone in Sino-Indian relations. Trade with China picked up immediately and by early nineties, there were people from private companies and public sector institutions visiting China.
I remember a delegation of some half a dozen officers from NABARD where I worked, visiting China in 1995 on an exchange training programme. If we can boast of being the second biggest trade partner of China today, it is because the foundation of bi-lateral relations with our giant neighbour was laid by Rajiv Gandhi.
In February 1987 Pakistan President Zia-ul-Haq visited New Delhi. Rajiv himself visited Pakistan in 1988 to meet Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto where they both reaffirmed commitment to the Simla Agreement of 1972.
Alas, the Indo-Sri Lanka accord Rajiv Gandhi signed in July 1987 which ‘envisaged devolution of power to the Tamil majority area’, dissolution of LTTE and recognition of Tamil as an official language of Sri Lanka proved ill-fated and eventually cost him his life.
National Issues: In 1986, Rajiv Gandhi founded the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya- a rural counterpart of his Doon School-to provide free residential schooling to rural children from grades six to twelve. In the same year his government announced National Policy on Education to modernise and expand higher educatRajiv Gandhi is however best remembered for ushering in the era of telecommunication. He realised the potential of telecommunication and appointed former Rockwell International Executive Sam Pitroda as advisor on IT infrastructure. The role of The Centre for Development of Telematics(C-DOT) which had just been set up was fully exploited. Initially mandated to designing and developing digital exchanges, C-DOT was to later expand to developing computer software applications. His government’s decision to allow the import of fully assembled motherboards led to the reduction of price of computers. The seeds of IT revolution were also thus sown during Rajiv Gandhi’s time.
According to Sam Pitroda, Rajiv Gandhi’s ability to resist pressure from multinational companies to abandon his plan to spread telecom services has been an important factor in India’s development. Telecom spread because of Rajiv’s support, says Pitroda and by 2007, India was adding six million phones every month.
Former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh revealed in his speech at the launch of his book Changing India in December 2018 how he had overcome opposition in the Narasimha Rao cabinet on liberalisation of Industrial Policy while initiating financial reforms in 1991-92.
Dr Singh recalled telling Narasimha Rao that what they were doing was nothing new; that it was already in the Government’s agenda and was approved by Rajiv Gandhi; that it was his intention and desire that they go ahead with liberalisation. The proposal was immediately approved by the cabinet.
Thus, the financial reforms announced in 1991-92 also in a way had the imprint of Rajiv Gandhi.