Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister with a difference, says Sam Pitroda

A close associate, friend and advisor to the late Prime Minister, Sam Pitroda shares his memories of Rajiv Gandhi, the person and the Prime Minister. Excerpts from his conversation with Sanjukta Basu

Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister with a difference, says Sam Pitroda
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Sanjukta Basu

An emotional SAM PITRODA said this week that Rajiv Gandhi gave meaning to his life. A close associate, friend and advisor to the late Prime Minister, he shares his memories of Rajiv Gandhi, the person and the Prime Minister. Excerpts from his conversation with Sanjukta Basu

How do you see Rajiv Gandhi’s achievements in just five years as PM between 1984 and 1989?

Rajiv Gandhi’s dream was to take India into the 21st century with respect, dignity and confidence. He wanted to expedite the process of modernization and development by using technology. But his accomplishments, large as they were, should not be seen from the prism of a “five-year term” but from the perspective of the seeds he planted for the future.

When he became PM, we had two million telephones. It used to take 10 years to get a telephone connection. He was convinced that telecom would play an important role but importing western technology would not be enough. He promoted Indian talents, an Indian model with focus on rural communication and access to telephones rather than telephone density. He made IT and telecom “sexy” for young people to pursue. That’s why today we have 1.2 billion phones;from zero software exports we now export software worth 150 billion dollars. Today India is the IT powerhouse in the world, seeds of which were planted by Rajiv Gandhi.

Take immunization. India did not make any substantial vaccine in the 80s but we had the largest number of polio patients in the world. We were importing polio vaccines. Rajiv decided that we should be producing our own polio vaccine. Everyone said it could not be done. Today, we are the largest producer of vaccines in the world thanks to Rajiv Gandhi’s dare to dream. He introduced the immunization mission under which we immunized 20 million pregnant women and 20 million new born every year.

He wanted to increase milk production so our children would have enough milk. He called Kurien and said he wanted to launch a dairy development mission. Today we are the largest producer of milk in the world.

The literacy mission with the objective of making 80-million people in the 15-35 (75% of the adult illiterate) age-group literate, at the rate of 10-million each year. 2,000,000 volunteers worked on this mission. Literacy then was close to 30% but today it is 80%.

India had 40,000 villages with guinea worm. Rajiv Gandhi launched a mission on water to eradicate guinea worm. Do people have any idea of the kind of efforts it took? We set up plants for excess iron removal, fluoride removal plants, we set up water testing laboratories in every district, provided drinking water to 100,000 more villages. Nobody remembers these.

So, you have the six technology missions that changed India forever, telecom, literacy, drinking water, immunization, cooking oil, and dairy.

These are just the subjects I know of. Others would tell you a lot more that he did. Like the Panchayati Raj about which Mani Shankar Aiyar would be able to tell. It was an alien idea. But he was convinced that decentralization of power was necessary for India’s development. He launched economic mission, encouraged privatisation. CII used to be such a small organization then. He encouraged them to expand and today they are so massive.

Why do you think his contributions are not remembered well?

He does not get enough credit because we are narrow minded. We tend to look at the glass being always half empty. The media back then was also rigid. I remember Rajiv and I tried to start a morning programme on Doordarshan. They said, “Who would watch TV in the morning? People watch TV only in the evening. Why are you complicating life?” That was the kind of resistance we faced even from DD.

How would you compare Rajiv Gandhi and Narendra Modi?

Rajiv once said, “Sam, you, V. Krishnamurthy and Abid Hussain please go and talk to the Planning Commission Dy Chairman about privatisation of some of the industries. So, we went and spent an hour with Madhav Singh Solanki but he was not convinced. Rajiv said, “Ok, we would wait for him to be convinced.” He could have forced the issue but he did not want to. That is the kind of leadership missing today, one that can carry everybody along.

The judiciary, police, income tax office, media, universities all of them today take signals from the top and undermine their own autonomy. Their loyalty is to those in power. This is today the biggest threat to our democracy. Societies are being divided in name of religion, our diversity is not respected, the system is not inclusive.

The second big difference is that civil society has no role to play anymore. Major policy decisions are taken by the government and business conglomerates with no inputs from civil society. India’s civil society is one of the biggest and most vibrant. They have done so much work on water, energy, education, women rights, child labour; we need to support them in their work, but this government has killed that support by income tax raids, false allegations and unnecessary court cases.

Scientific temperament is lost. We are hearing about benefits of cow dung and cow urine without any scientific proof from important leaders, not just the fringes. It is people’s wisdom which you must listen to. Wisdom does not come from the powerful or from the media. It comes from the bottom.


Was Rajiv Gandhi’s interest in science and technology stem from he being a pilot and a ham radio enthusiast...

Well, one day I saw him changing bulbs in the room. The Prime Minister of India doesn’t have to change the bulbs himself. But he was like, “It is quicker to do it myself, I had some free time, rather than call someone and schedule an appointment,give me the screwdriver.”

He also paid attention to details and cared to listen to all, as much as he could. I remember once a group of women leaders came to meet him but he didn’t have time. So, he sent them to me. Later, he asked, “Sam did you talk to so and so?”

Another time there was a State dinner at Hyderabad House with the Italian Prime Minister. As the evening progressed, I got a note from him saying, “Sam, please break the two circles.” He had observed that Indians were only talking to Indians and Italians were talking to Italians.

Rajiv Gandhi introduced five-day week for govt offices, reduced the voting age, provided 33% reservation for women in panchayats–did he face any resistance?

The Government had a substantial majority, so we could steamroll anything. But even then,the opposition did raise minor protests, which were respected. Those were different times. There were debates and discussions on all issues in Parliament. None of Rajiv Gandhi’s decisions were rammed through. He would attend Parliament and answer questions.

There was resistance from bureaucrats and labour unions because people simply do not like change. Government officers refused to use the new computers. The Railway Union resisted computerisation of berth reservations because they were afraid
of job-loss.

Those days we did not have Powerpoint presentations; people would carry stack of files. Rajiv Gandhi wanted presentations made using projectors and slides. The bureaucracy was not used to the idea. Some of them hired an ad agency to make presentations and Rajiv was so angry at them for not being able to do their job themselves. He even fired two senior Secretaries which became a big issue.

Indians these days believe that it is Narendra Modi who has put India on the world map with Howdy Modi and Yoga Day. So, tell us about Rajiv Gandhi’s relations with foreign governments…

I may not be qualified to answer this but I would give a layman’s view. He believed in non-alignment and keeping friendly relations with all. He strongly believed that we could have friendly relations in the neighbourhood and SAARC could become a common market. He had excellent relations with both USA and Russia.

To celebrate India on the world stage, he took the ‘Festival of India’ to Russia and I was given the responsibility to build Science and Technology Exhibition in Moscow, Tashkent, and St Petersburg as part of the festival. It was a bold and challenging idea. We had to fly two Boeing 747 aircrafts full of hardware. Festival Of India was also held in US and France - an unprecedented initiative not taken up by anybody else till date.

Today social media is full of misinformation about Rajiv Gandhi. What is the worst criticism of him that you have heard?

The biggest lie spread against him was by VP Singh raking up a non-existent issue of Bofors. Unfortunately, in India lies sell well and spread like wildfire. So, this lie sold well and he lost the election in 1989. He lost because of one lie. If you ask me, this one blatant lie put India on a downward spiral. It also killed him, because his security was not that strong enough once he was not the PM.

I ignore the fake propaganda. If you have money, you can pay off the social media giants to get any information spread.

It might be difficult but could you please share your memories of the dreadful day when he was assassinated?

I was closely involved with the election campaign. I had spoken to him the day before. On that day I was at home in Delhi and had retired early. But before I could fall off to sleep, the phone rang. It was Mayank Chhaya, the gentleman who wrote my biography. “Rajiv Gandhi has been killed,” he said. It felt like earth had moved from below my feet. The very next call was from Mr T.N. Seshan, the then Election Commissioner. “Sam, you and your wife should come to my residence, it would be safer here,” he said. “If violence breaks, violence breaks, I would be at home,” I
told him.

I basically lost my heart (voice chokes). I realised that our dream of taking India to the 21st century had been derailed. When people today criticise the Nehru-Gandhi family, they have no idea what they are talking about. People do not understand the commitment the family has to the idea of India. Rajiv Gandhi was a custodian of that idea rooted in Gandhian values - democracy, freedom, human rights, inclusion, diversity, truth, trust, love and concern for people at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

Rajiv Gandhi gave meaning to my life. He gave me a mission to help connect India. It was the most satisfying thing in my life. I could have made millions and millions but not have the satisfaction I have today.

India does not realise what she has lost.

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