Remembering Rajiv Gandhi: Those five years of his premiership were eventful years

Among many other accomplishments, he was responsible for enfranchising those over eighteen, the generation of young politically conscious Indians who are today the decisive element in elections

Remembering Rajiv Gandhi: Those five years of his premiership were eventful years

Wajahat Habibullah

On 20th August 1944 India was still not independent but was on the brink of winning freedom. It was in this young India that Rajiv Gandhi, my schoolfellow, grew up and rose to become my Prime Minister and a friend who remained a friend until the end.

Elevated to premiership amidst a violent trauma unprecedented in its expanse in India’s history since our Partition, he, on ascending to that office to which he had never aspired was perhaps reminded of the seventh verse in chapter nine of Bhagwad Gita, which maintained:

सर्वभूतानिकौन्तेयप्रकृतिंयान्तिमामिकाम्‌ ।


(O Arjun, at the end of an era all souls merge within me and I then recreate them at the beginning of a new era)

He had this clear realisation that the power to heal demanded that the healer be strong.

In foreign policy this was to mean what Rajiv came to look upon as his lifetime mission—working towards a nuclear-free world. Within the country this meant reconciliation from a position of strength.

And so, PM Rajiv Gandhi pursued accords with disaffected elements from across India arching from Mizoram bordering Myanmar, and Assam in the Northeast into the Northwest including Punjab and Kashmir bordering a contumacious Pakistan.

In foreign policy this meant using India’s standing as leader of the non-aligned movement (NAM) to urge universal nuclear disarmament, which he did not live to realise, but his endeavour towards which helped restrain nuclear proliferation with the death throes of the Soviet Union even though the latter event spelt the end of relevance for NAM as perceived by his grandfather Nehru in crafting what was arguably the latter’s principal contribution to the world order.

India and the Non-Aligned Movement, Gandhi had proclaimed on the world stage at the UN, giving a new direction to the movement, “fervently advocate disarmament, especially nuclear disarmament. Our ultimate objective must be complete disarmament under effective international supervision.” In that context he sought to give to the faltering cause of non-alignment a renewed vision, “The enlargement of the area of non-alignment reduces the danger of global conflicts.”

Yet, in pursuing peace Rajiv Gandhi stoutly resisted any compromise of India’s defence ability, so that years later as I served as Minister, Community Affairs in our Embassy in Washington DC preparing for Congressional assent to the Bill for establishment of a Mahatma Gandhi Memorial in that proud capital of the world’s only surviving superpower, the National Defence Alliance (NDA) government led by BJP’s Vajpayee was able, in consummation of the nourishment of technology that was Rajiv’s very personal legacy, to conduct Pokhran’s nuclear tests catapulting India into the league of nuclear powers, a position on which Rajiv had consistently maintained that India had long had the capability.

In 1986, Rajiv Gandhi had promoted General K.M. Cariappa to field marshal, thirty-three years after his retirement as free India’s first native Commander-in-Chief. Given that field marshals technically never retire but remain on the active list, this also meant that Rajiv Gandhi broke with army convention to elevate Cariappa to service after his long retirement. Cariappa was responsible for moulding the colonial army into the pride of India’s defence that it had grown into. No one could have conferred a greater honour, thereby also recognising India’s unyielding military spine

The India that Rajiv inherited was and continues to be an enigma, a bundle of contradictions. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s primary concerns springing from his disquiet at what he considered India’s unconscionable levels of

poverty despite forty years of liberation from the colonial leviathan, which became technology missions were:

  • Rural Drinking Water
  • Immunisation
  • Adult Literacy
  • Self sufficiency in edible oil
  • Improving the telecom network
  • Dairy development

His solicitude for the youth led to the draft of another Mission that he had planned for his next term in office that was never to come. Although India had won medals in the Olympics this had until 1980 been almost confined to hockey, with a bronze in Wrestling thrown in (Helsinki 1952).

Today we have world contenders and medallists both in the Olympics and the Asian Games, which India had helped initiate in 1951 and hosted in 1982 with Rajiv chairing the Organising Committee of the Games when India took 57 medals, the highest hitherto but surpassed since, in tennis, weightlifting, shooting, boxing, wrestling and even the sometime Chinese monopoly in badminton.

And Rajiv Gandhi was responsible for enfranchising those over the age of eighteen, the generation of young politically conscious Indians who are today the decisive element in elections.

Today’s India remains beset with poverty that Rajiv saw as his principal challenge, and, despite dramatic growth dating from the liberalisation that followed hard on Rajiv’s vision, is still set upon by a rising gap between rich and poor, an incubus anticipated by Rajiv who was denied the opportunity to address the blight. Yet any disinterested observer will attest that India is today no longer an antique land but a modern nation addressing her challenges with 21st century technologies

Rajiv is today a part of history, a mere flicker in the expanse of time of our ancient land, but he stands as a colossus in the evolution of India’s emergence not only as the world’s largest democracy, but also among its foremost in terms of public participation in governance, bursting forth from what was described at the time of our winning our freedom by Britain’s Winston Churchill as simply a geographical expression, into a nation pulsating with energy, its only uniformity found in its endless contradictions, yet increasingly united.

His stature as human being is best summed up in the words of Shakespeare’s Mark Anony in describing his enemy Brutus:

His life was gentle, and the elements mixed so well in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, “This was a man.”

(Based on the forthcoming book by Wajahat Habibullah My Years with Rajiv: Triumph and Tragedy-Westland)

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