The man who had not known the meaning of dishonesty, and would never be mean or shoddy in behaviour
Rajiv Gandhi was also one of the few Indian leaders who won the confidence of both American and Asian leaders of his time immediately upon his induction as India’s youngest PM
“My Ramratti says only three people she knows have the perfect smile. One is Ram on (Ramanand Sagar’s) Ramayana, the other your infant daughter and the third is Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv,” my mother said to me.
Ramratti was my mother’s crusty companion who doubled up as the Fool to her Queen Lear. She only spoke in Awadhi dialect of her native village and in my mother’s eyes she could do no wrong. Right till the end, Ramratti’s observations and predictions about India’s high and mighty, remained valid for the future of the nation.
Ramratti’s deductions about the disarming smile of the above mentioned three showed, she said, that they had not known the meaning of dishonesty, and would never be mean or shoddy in their behavior.
As mothers go, ours was not one to sentimentalise Ramratti’s mysterious aphorisms, but I remember her sighing when news came of Rajiv Gandhi being appointed India’s Prime Minister. “He is like an Abhimanyu entering a maze created by wily operators,” she confided to Ramratti.
The political career of Rajiv Gandhi, which ended so tragically like Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu’s, alarmed, startled and saddened India. As a pilot, a keen ham radio operator and an early computer enthusiast, he was totally different from the generally accepted image of an Indian Prime Ministerial candidate. He was also one of the few Indian leaders who won the confidence of both American and Asian leaders of his time immediately upon his induction as India’s youngest PM.
At 40 perhaps feeling somewhat suffocated by the euphoria generated by an enormous victory, he went full speed ahead with various new ventures in his first two years as PM. He launched the famous technology missions for areas he considered of prime importance for the coming century. These were telecommunication, water, literacy, immunisation, dairy and oil seeds.
He simultaneously signed peace treaties in the North East, in Punjab and extended an olive branch to old enemies across the borders. With the help of Pupula Jayakar, Shrikant Verma, Martand Singh and Rajiv Sethi, even organised a dazzling first ever Festival of India to showcase India’s traditional arts and crafts and literature. The festival was successfully staged in different capitals in the world, in a robust display of Indian culture and soft power.
A few years down the line, on February 26th 1986 to be precise, the Doordarshan at the behest of the Prime Minister’s office, broke the usual format of Prime Ministerial pressers and invited a group of six of us women from varied fields, to interview Rajiv Gandhi jointly.
It was to be his first interview on TV as Prime Minister and was viewed by large numbers across the nation. In the interview Rajiv Gandhi came
through as warm, witty and very optimistic of the future of the country he now led from the front. No jumlas, no histrionics, just plainspeak and a sense of easy bonding with women. Most media, incensed at a posse of women being handed the golden chance to interview the PM on TV, were less than charitable. But even the crusty TV critic Amita Malik remarked on the quiet fireside charm of the interview.
We grilled him relentlessly as I recall, on all aspects of his public policy especially vis a vis India’s women. It was scheduled to be a short interview but lasted for three quarters of an hour. It was clear he was a great believer in the untapped potential of Indian women, and wished to include them at all levels of public decision making.
This showed in his decision to reserve seats for women at all levels in the Panchayati Raj he ushered in, and also launching a mission to prepare a National Perspective Plan for women. Years later, around 2012, as the Chair of Prasar Bharati, I requested Doordarshan bureaucracy to go through their archives to locate that rare interview recorded in the obsolete analogue mode, and have it digitised as soon as possible. But I was told budgets for Prasar Bharati being small and tapes being in short supply the tape had probably been re used to record another programme!
All through his remaining years in power, Rajiv’s political opponents subjected him to the harshest criticisms. They compared him unflatteringly to the earlier Khadi clad generation of straitlaced leaders who were reluctant to be seen as a family man, let alone a loving one. Rajiv’s obvious fondness for his family, his holidaying with them and close friends to relax what must have been a traumatic period for them, his pushing for computers in musty government offices, his declaring the weekends as non-working days all came in for harsh criticism.
But today in retrospect it was his ‘rediscovery’ of a youthful aspirational India that prepared the ground for gender equality, scientific thinking and triggering of the great communication revolution that are cited as one of India’s major achievements by the present-day leaders on global for a.
What makes Rajiv Gandhi a memorable figure today is not necessarily his verbal performance or political alignments. His life itself is a mirror of a nation living out the fears and hopes of any young Asian democracy and surviving into the next decades with its wit, wisdom and hopes intact.
His career, cut short so cruelly, advanced a prophetic insight that India’s democracy can and will outlive repeated threats to its extinction, and that memorably humane, young and genuinely secular dreamers will continue to emerge amongst the arid and dehumanised arena of Indian politics. The fight for a secular democratic India of Gandhi’s dreams will carry on.