Rajiv Gandhi’s unfinished agenda: the 1991 election he would have won

This time our focus would be on positive things. Rajiv would bring stability. He would bring the people together; he would be inclusive, not divisive…

File photo of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi with Sam Pitroda
File photo of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi with Sam Pitroda

Sam Pitroda

I got a call from Rajiv Gandhi asking me to come over to his house. ‘Sam, we’ve decided to pull the plug and call elections.’

By now V.P. Singh was out of office; he had resigned only a month after my heart attack. He had been succeeded by Chandrashekhar, leader of the minority Janata Party, whose government was in power with support from the Congress. Chandrashekhar, as prime minister, was very supportive of all my initiatives. But now Rajiv thought the time had come for him to return to the forefront.

We immediately began to plan the election campaign. Three of Rajiv’s political advisers were present—Jitendra Prasad, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Oscar Fernandes—as energized and excited as I was. The first order of business was resources: How much of what would we need? The four of us practically ran back to my house to start working the numbers and laying out the details.

We hired a new ad agency. In the previous election, which we had lost badly, we had run a series of negative ad campaigns depicting animals fighting, to convey how the other parties would never be able to create a stable government. If they came to power, politics would turn into a dogfight. It would be utter chaos. Chickens would be clawing at each other.

I hadn’t liked that, but I hadn’t been one of the decision makers. This time I was. This time I decided we wouldn’t have a negative campaign; this time our focus would be on positive things. Rajiv would bring stability. He would bring the people together; he would be inclusive, not divisive. We needed to work together to expand the economy, to create jobs, to reduce inflation, to modernize the country and make it competitive. He was the one who could do that. We created slogans related to progress, stability and growth.

Every day meetings would start at my house at 44, Lodhi Estate. The players included Pranab Mukherjee, Jairam Ramesh, R.D. Pradhan, Suman Dubey, Krishna Rao, and several others. We’d all sit down and lay out a plan for that day, responding to the newspaper headlines, making our own headlines. We planned out all the communication, the logistics, the ads.

The advertising expenses were massive, and we decided they needed to be controlled. We were printing campaign posters by the hundreds of thousands and sending them all over the country. There were 560 parliamentary candidates and each one would be given thousands of posters. But the people in charge were using external printing-presses, even though the party had its own press. When I found out about this, I stopped the work being done outside and turned the job over to our internal printer to save costs.

That move caused a ruckus. We had apparently always used an outside printer for this purpose, and those in charge were mad. They went to Rajiv about it. And they weren’t the only ones. Many people, insiders and external consultants, wanted to do one thing or another—100,000 rupees here, 200,000 there.

They’d go to Rajiv for approval, but he would send them to me. And more often than not, I’d said no, which made me the focus of waves of anger from every corner. One famous person wanted to make a movie on Rajiv Gandhi for a lot of money. ‘No,’ I said, ‘we’re not doing it,’ which was not received well. I became Rajiv’s gatekeeper for a while.

Rajiv was campaigning well, giving speeches all around the country. It looked more and more as though our optimism was going to see us to victory. Everyone was charged up. I was charged up. The stars seemed perfectly aligned.

During his time in the Opposition, Rajiv had strengthened the party. His adversaries, on the other hand, had not demonstrated any real capacity to govern. We knew that we were doing well, that we would win this time. Maybe not with the massive majority we had earlier, but we would win. We were going to be back in power again.

In late April 1991, we were just a few weeks from the elections, and our momentum was building. I was already thinking beyond the formation of a new government, to the new efforts we could make in telecom, education, technology, infrastructure and other initiatives of national importance.

The new digital standards for mobile phones had just been publicized as well, which would open up our own markets to a communications revolution that would change the face of the country…

(Reproduced from the website Sampitroda.com)

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