"Rajiv Gandhi was indeed a noble son of a nation that has produced leaders and statesmen like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. He was a true patriot who rose selflessly to the call of duty and service to his country, a leader who constantly strove to improve the quality of life of his people and inspired for a legitimate role for India in the family of the nations. He was fully committed to building India into an economically strong country where poverty would be removed and where every living being could live in dignity, an India that had taken her rightful place in the world and stood for peace and universal brotherhood."
So wrote Jigme Singye Wangchuk, then King of Bhutan a few months after India's youthful former Prime Minister attained martyrdom on May 21,1991.
Though India stood for, and passionately propagated, peace and universal brotherhood since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi realised early in his premiership the importance of the country being a strong economic and military power for safeguarding its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Besides his many splendoured achievements like computer & IT revolution benefitting millions of young Indians and ushering in grassroots democracy through the panchayati raj institutions, covering 33% reservation for women, it is Rajiv Gandhi's far sighted Foreign and Defence policies that really stand out no less than his political and economic achievements.
Under the headline “Super India”, The Timemagazine, in its April 9, 1989 issue, ran a cover story about how India was spending enormous amounts on “its weaponry and seemingly preparing itself for war”. 1989 was the fifth year of Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministership. The Timearticle also carried the views of a number of critics of India’s defence policy. One of them, Thomas Thornton of John Hopkins University, wrote: “India’s military build-up has taken a momentum of its own and India is increasingly pushed to find a threat to justify its strength.”
The country’s youngest ever PM had begun his foreign innings by according priority to friendly relations with India’s neighbours. During his first visits to Moscow and Washington in 1985, Rajiv declared that India has initiated talks with its neighbours to improve cooperation. He also stated before the US Congress that the contours of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation had been etched and SAARC would be launched by 1985.
Rajiv emerged on the world stage as the greatest champion of nuclear disarmament. In June 1988, he presented at the UN his famous action plan on nuclear disarmament. Earlier, Rajiv promoted the cause vigorously through the Delhi Declaration signed with Russian (then USSR) leader Gorbachev and the Six-Nation, Five-Continent initiative.
If Moscow and Washington were the most important world capitals Rajiv visited in his first year in office, it was his visit to Pakistan and China, especially the latter, in his last year that drew worldwide attention.
Rajiv was the first PM after Nehru to visit both Pakistan and China after over 30 years. By the end of his term he had made more than 60 visits abroad. Besides all the important countries, including the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, he visited all neighbouring countries. According to one of Rajiv’s biographers, Nicholas Nugent, “Rajiv was not the first Indian PM to want to see India strong enough to assume the role of regional policeman and, just as important, prevent others from aspiring to that role.
However, his policies towards three smaller neighbours suggested he was more ready than his predecessors to use India’s military for foreign policy ends. On the one hand he espoused the cause of regional cooperation, while on the other, he made sure that none of the neighbouring countries failed to appreciate that India considered itself to be the master of the region. In India, people were beginning to talk of ‘the Rajiv doctrine’. Whilst Rajiv preached peace abroad, at home he presided over the largest ever expansion in India’s armed forces.”
Though India’s defence build-up had started in 1963, Rajiv gave a fresh impetus to the process soon after taking over. While defence expenditure doubled during his five years in office, his last two years alone accounted for nearly 20 per cent of expenditure. The modernisation of armed forces involved the purchase of howitzers (Bofors) from Sweden (which proved its mettle in Kargil), a second aircraft carrier (INS Viraat) from the UK, Mirage 2000 from France besides the European Jaguar and Russian MiG-27.
INS Chakra, on lease from Russia, made India the first non-nuclear power to operate a nuclear-powered submarine, thus making the naval force a “blue water Navy.” During the Rajiv years, the Navy’s 99 vessels included 2 carriers, 12 submarines, 21 frigates and 5 destroyers, enough to deter any seaborne invasion. Rajiv Gandhi himself stated, “The defence of India requires our control over the sea approaches to India.”
Though India continues to be a major importer of defence equipment, the Rajiv government gave a tremendous boost to indigenous defence programme. Trishul, surface-to-air missile, and Prithvi, surface-to-surface missile, were tested successfully and inducted in 1988-89. A few months later, Agni, an intermediate range missile with a range of 1,500 miles, was also successfully tested, bringing India into the club of missile manufacturers consisting of the US, Russia, France, China and Israel.
Behind Rajiv’s statesmanship lay a steely determination to ensure India’s military strength following his mother Indira Gandhi, whose leadership in 1971 gave the country its greatest ever victory. The impetus given to India’s defence capability was carried forward by both Vajpayee and Manmohan governments. Mr AK Antony, Defence minister in Manmohan Singh government, ensured that the momentum created during the Rajiv Govt was continued throughout UPA1 and UPA 2 .
Unfortunately, the short-sighted policies of the Modi govt. since 2014, and especially after 2019, are taking India to a self-destructive path which, unless changed, may have serious repercussions for the future of our beloved Bharat Mata.
(The writer is a former Secretary, AICC and Editor, The Secular Saviour)