The choice of a successor to Indira Gandhi did not prove difficult. The Congress Parliamentary Board members formally presented their recommendation to the President and Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as the Prime Minister on 31 October 1984. He had already entered politics in June 1981, after the death of Sanjay Gandhi in June 1980, by getting elected to the Lok Sabha from Amethi. In 1983 he had become one of the seven new General Secretaries of the Congress.
Challenge of Terrorism and Fissiparous Tendencies
When Rajiv Gandhi took the reins of Government, the situation was grave. In reaction to Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her two Sikh guards, there were nationwide riots against the members of the Sikh community. Nearly 2,800 people were killed in Delhi alone. The first task of Rajiv Gandhi was to quell the riots and restore confidence among the Sikh community. Another crisis that had to be handled was the Bhopal Gas Leak tragedy in which 2,000 people lost their lives and thousands were affected. The next task was to secure a mandate from the electorate.
The general elections to the Lok Sabha were anyhow due in a few months in the normal course. He considered it necessary to hold the elections on schedule as that would help him get the people’s mandate also. The elections demonstrated the people’s sympathy and love for Indira Gandhi.
The party under her son’s leadership was returned with an unprecedented majority. Of the 543 seats, 415 had been secured by the Congress Party, a record not achieved ever before in its history. This was attributed not only to the ‘sympathy wave’ but also to the desire on the part of the electorate to ensure unity and integrity of the country.
However, more complex than these was the problem of terrorism in Punjab and Assam on the one hand, and the ethnic issue concerning people of Indian origin in Sri Lanka. Soon after assuming office, he had ordered the release of key Akali leaders in January 1985 who had been detained since the days of Operation Blue Star and lifted the ban on the All India Sikh Students Federation. He ordered an enquiry into the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and elsewhere in November 1984, and soon talks began with Akali leaders in order to find a settlement to the Punjab problem.
In August 1985, he announced a settlement with Shiromoni Akali Dal led by Sant H.S. Longowal according to which the major Akali demands were conceded and others were to be reviewed. The elections were fixed for September 1985. However, Longowal was assassinated on 20 August, the very day he announced that Akalis would take part in the elections. Not long thereafter, the Akali Dal Government led by Barnala got destabilized and had to quit.
The State was back under the Central rule. Along with this, lawlessness and killings of innocent people escalated. The Punjab problem called for fresh initiatives and Rajiv came out with an action plan. This included “Operation Black Thunder”, a smoothly carried out operation to clear the Golden Temple of arms and gunmen. A number of incentives were offered to the state to tackle the problem of terrorists. While all this was a setback to the terrorists the final solution to the problem was to take a few more years.
In the case of Assam too, Rajiv Gandhi succeeded initially in defusing the crisis by reaching an accord with the main warring group on 15 August 1985. Apart from the general grievance of underdevelopment, their agitation was against the influx of illegal Bengali-speaking immigrants who had reduced the Assamese to a minority in their own region. According to this accord, foreigners who had come between 1951 and 1961 were to be given full citizenship, including the right to vote, and those who came between 1961 and 1971 would not have voting rights for 10 years.
Those coming after 1971 would be deported. This put an end to the agitation by the students and cleared the way for elections to the state assembly. The student agitators, under the banner of Assam Gana Parishad, formed the government. However, a series of agitations began in different parts of the country including one in the North-East for Bodoland. The Gorkhas of West Bengal were also agitating for greater degree of independence.
In Bihar, the Jharkhand agitation started. In Mizoram, there had been insurgency for a number of years under Laldenga and Rajiv Gandhi arrived at an accord to put an end to it. Meanwhile, the unrest in Jammu and Kashmir was assuming serious proportions. In July 1986, the government of G.M. Shah was dismissed and President’s rule imposed.
Rajiv Gandhi entered into an alliance with Farooq Abdullah for the assembly elections in 1987. However, Abdullah proved to be ineffective and after that, the secessionist movement became active in the state.
Initiatives in Foreign Policy
The Sri Lankan Tamils issue was another major concern of the Rajiv Gandhi government. In 1983, thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils took refuge in Tamil Nadu when the Tamil areas in the north-east of Sri Lanka became the site for heavy repression by the government. The government had ordered the blockade of these areas and when India sent relief supplies, these were turned back by the Sri Lankan navy.
This area was the base for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an organization fighting for Tamil independence from Sri Lanka. After discussions with the Sri Lankan government, an Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement to establish peace and normalcy was signed on 27 July 1987.
According to this agreement, the Tamil areas would get substantial autonomy, the LTTE would be dissolved and the Indian army would come to the help of Sri Lanka if necessary. The accord was not popular among certain sections of the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The Sinhalese resented the intervention of a foreign army and the Tamils were unhappy with the forced disarming of the LTTE. After signing the accord, Rajiv Gandhi was even attacked with a rifle by one of the sailors at the guard of honour ceremony.
The whole world condemned this heinous attack on him and admired his cool and fortitude amidst grave provocation. The Indian Army agreed to a phased withdrawal from Sri Lanka which began in 1989. On the Western border, Pakistan was not quiet. When Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister the relations between the two countries were marked by a high degree of mutual suspicion. Before he could do anything to repair the strained relations, new fissures developed.
These arose from a routine military exercise carried out by the Indian army in the deserts of Rajasthan after due notice to Pakistan. Pakistan retaliated by stepping up the troop movements on her side of the border not only across Rajasthan but also Punjab. The tension was soon relieved following official level talks and the pull-back of the troops on both the sides.
It was a few months later that Rajiv Gandhi undertook a visit to Islamabad at the invitation of Pakistan and signed accords with his counterpart Ms. Benazir Bhutto, which envisaged both countries abiding by the Simla Agreement. However, this did not stop Pakistani support to terrorism in Punjab and Kashmir.
He visited China in 1988, being the first PM since Nehru in 1954 to do so. The aim of the visit was to improve trade, extend consular contacts and set up mechanisms to solve long-standing problems. To build good relations with China, India did not condemn the massacre at Tiannanmen Square in June 1989. He also visited the US in 1985 where the US agreed to give India a super-computer for processing weather data.
Rajiv developed a very close relationship with the Soviet leader, Gorbachev. He was very keen on foreign affairs and expended a lot of time on it. Apart from visiting foreign countries, the two main issues which he took up were nuclear disarmament and struggle against apartheid.
As far as disarmament is concerned, he followed in his mother’s footsteps by getting governments in different parts of the world to put pressure on the nuclear super-powers to disarm. He shared this passion with Gorbachev.
In November 1986, on Gorbachev’s visit to Delhi, a plan for disarmament was spelt out known as the Delhi Declaration. The Action Plan for Nuclear Disarmament was presented by Rajiv in June 1988 at the UN General Assembly.
According to this plan, all nuclear weapons were to be eliminated by 2010. Rajiv got most of the Commonwealth countries, except the UK, to support him in his struggle against apartheid. He set up the AFRICA (Action for Resisting Invasion, Colonialism and Apartheid) Fund at the Non-Aligned Summit meeting at Harare in 1986. In support of the independence of Namibia, Rajiv Gandhi gave diplomatic recognition to SWAPO, the main nationalist organization and popularized the cause at all international gatherings which he attended.
Rajiv’s Vision for the 21st Century
Unconventional and dynamic in his approach, Rajiv Gandhi created quite a stir when he questioned the “vested interests” within the party and called them “power brokers”. The occasion for this was the Centenary Celebrations of the Congress Party in Bombay in 1985. He was keen to democratize the party and bring in the youth. Similarly, he was frank to admit that the funds earmarked for development schemes did not reach the targeted groups but gone into the hands of middlemen. He found many shortcomings in the way the state governments implemented the centrally-funded schemes at the grassroots level.
The strengthening of Panchayati Raj Institutions was a very important objective that Rajiv Gandhi took up on a war footing in order to meet some of the above deficiencies. A National Perspective Plan for Women drafted in 1988 was meant to provide reservation of 30 per cent of seats for women in panchayati raj bodies. He decided to amend the Constitution to provide for direct funding to the local bodies by the Centre instead of having to go through the state governments.
This provoked a lot of criticism and opposition from vested interests. He ultimately failed to get the necessary legislation passed, as in the Rajya Sabha all the opposition parties combined to defeat the relevant Constitutional Amendment Bill. He also initiated the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana to provide employment to at least one member of every poor family in a village for 50-100 days in a year. This concept was to later evolve into the National Employment Guarantee Scheme.
His new education policy was to focus on the rural areas and envisaged model schools in each district under the name of Navodaya Vidyalaya. Like Indira Gandhi before him, Rajiv Gandhi was also acutely aware of the issue of environmental sustainability. A new ministry of environment was created in his time and environmental clearance was made mandatory for all big projects.
He proposed that a Planet Protection Fund be created. Rajiv Gandhi found it difficult to carry on with some of the members of the old guard. They also found his style of running the party with meticulous professionalism not in tune with their approach. Some senior leaders were removed from the party and a few were replaced by younger persons. In his anxiety to make quick changes, he shuffled and reshuffled his team both in the Party and the Government frequently.
Even some of his colleagues who acted as his main advisers in the early years of his Prime Ministership deserted him, when he refused to toe their dictated line. The promises of reform in the party, which he made in his famous Bombay speech as a corollary to his attack on the “power brokers” in the party, could not be fulfilled. Party elections, long overdue, were put off again and again. But he introduced other measures to deal with the tendency of politicians to cross the floor. The Anti-Defection Act was passed in 1985. He also favoured greater freedom for government media.
Rajiv Gandhi repeatedly reminded the country of the necessity of preparing for the 21st century and took some dramatic steps in that direction. He spearheaded India’s computerization programme. He reduced import duties on components and foreign competition was allowed in this sector. He wanted India to participate in the information and communication revolution.
Every district was to be connected with the Central Government through a computer network. He set up six ‘technology missions’ which aimed at applying science and technology to six areas which were grossly underdeveloped. These were drinking water, literacy, health of pregnant women and children, milk production, edible oil production and telephonic communication.
Besides stressing the use of modern technology like computers and decentralization of decision-making at the community level, Rajiv Gandhi’s government initiated moves for removing controls over industries and demystifying the budgetary process. The process of economic reform which had started with Indira Gandhi’s return to power in 1980 was taken forward considerably by Rajiv Gandhi, preparing the ground for the big shift that was to occur in 1991.
The report of the Economic Administration Reforms Commission, headed by L.K. Jha, came in handy for him to take steps towards liberalization in the industrial sector. During his tenure from 1984-1989, the economic growth rate was 5.5 per cent, breaking the barrier of the 3 to 3.5 per cent growth rate which the Indian economy was hovering around for quite some time.
The Political Challenge and the Resurgence of Opportunistic Anti-Congressism
Rajiv Gandhi also made efforts for strengthening the capability of Indian Defence Forces and arming them with the latest weapons. Among the many deals towards this end was the one involving the purchase of howitzer guns from the Swedish firm, Bofors. This turned out to be the root cause of one of the biggest crisis ever faced by any Government in the past.
The Swedish Radio reported that millions of dollars had been paid as bribes to Indian officials by the Bofors to get the contract. This triggered nationwide agitation for enquiry and action against those found guilty. This came on top of a few other allegations over the purchase of submarines from West Germany and appointment of an American detective agency Fairfax to investigate into the dealings of some industrialists. The opposition mounted an agitation demanding Rajiv’s resignation.
Added to these, Rajiv Gandhi faced innumerable problems from within the party. The electoral debacle in Haryana, Kerala and West Bengal also damaged the image of the Party. V.P. Singh, Arun Nehru and others, who were very close to him in earlier years, left the Party and joined the opposition parties. By then, the five-year term of Rajiv Gandhi’s Government was coming to an end. The first year and a half of his tenure was quite smooth sailing for him.
He was projected as a leader with a clean image and as a man of vision, keen to prepare the country technologically for meeting the challenges of the 21st century. This euphoria heightened the people’s expectations which could not be fulfilled. The second half of his term was not that smooth. His problems were aggravated by a severe drought in many states following the failure of the southwest monsoon. However, the worst drought situation of 1987-88 was handled most efficiently.
But, by far the most serious problem was the one created by the Bofors deal. On this issue, all the opposition parties were united. They demanded his resignation on the basis of a report of CAG, and the Opposition members of the Lok Sabha resigned en masse in mid-1989. It paved the way for electoral adjustment among the non-Congress parties reviving the practice of opportunistic anti-Congressism as a central mode of political mobilization rather than substantive ideological issues.
It was against the backdrop of a series of unfavourable factors that Rajiv Gandhi ordered the general elections to the Lok Sabha in November 1989.
The National Front
The right-wing opposition parties that had earlier combined and broken up, started moving closer once more to give a united fight to the Congress. They combined under the banner of a National Front, keeping intact their separate identities.
The National Front had electoral adjustments with the Left Front and the BJP. By then, V.P. Singh had left the Congress Party and aligned himself with the Janata Dal, a constituent of the National Front. A disturbing feature of this period was the coming together of many otherwise diverse anti-Congress groups like the Left and the BJP, ensuring their support to V.P. Singh.
This association lent political legitimacy and credibility to BJP and also blurred the mark of communalism from its image to some extent. This political collusion also led to the coming together of regional and national secular non-Congress parties with the Left parties and the BJP. By October 1988, the Janata Dal came into being with the merger of Jan Morcha, Janata Dal, Lok Dal and Congress (S).
The Bofors deal and the Nehruvian concept of secularism became the main issues at the polls. The latter had come to the fore with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s claims over the site at which Babri Masjid had been erected and its moves to build a temple for Lord Rama there. This had led to communal clashes. The VHP went ahead with the laying of the foundation stone a few days prior to the Lok Sabha elections. The BJP secured electoral advantage from this move.
The 1989 elections were marked by unprecedented violence and the results went against the Congress Party. In fact, no party could get the majority to form the government. The Congress emerged as the single largest party with 197 seats and 39.5 per cent of the vote share and as such was invited to form the government with the help of its allies. But, Rajiv Gandhi chose to stay in the Opposition. The National Front took the reins of government with V.P. Singh as the Prime Minister.
The Congress Party reposed its faith in the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi undeterred by the election reverses. In the Southern states, the party’s performance was quite impressive. Both Andhra and Karnataka had been recaptured by the Congress. Soon after the Lok Sabha elections, the Assembly elections were held in eight states. In most of these, Congress suffered heavy losses. Only in Maharashtra and Arunachal Pradesh could it form the government.
However, the scenario did not remain static. The National Front government soon got into trouble, some inherent in the very composition of the Front and some others made by itself.
In the latter category, fell the now famous Mandal Agitation. In his zeal to project himself and his Front as the champion of the downtrodden, V.P. Singh sought to implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission set up during the Janata rule in 1977-1979 in respect of reservation quota for backward classes in educational institutions and employment.
The recommendations reserved 27 per cent of the jobs in government and public sector undertakings for the backward classes. This increased the total reservations to 49.5 per cent since SCs and STs already had a reservation of 22.5 per cent. Reservations in educational institutions and promotions were also to be implemented in the future.
This announcement was criticized by many: even people in support of reservation as a policy thought that the suddenness of the decision was unacceptable. Political allies of the government opposed it as a unilateral move on the part of V.P. Singh. Others pointed out that the method of identifying backward classes was faulty and that no consensus had even been attempted before the announcement. The worst impact was on society: it divided people into castes and engendered caste politics and resentment among the youth. It was also argued that this policy benefited only the elites among the backward classes without helping the really deserving, making it a subject of caste-based political mobilization.
The youth in North India reacted sharply and violently. The students realized that the reservation of nearly half of government jobs would mean a severe restriction of career opportunities and also that this would not help the really underprivileged sections. Students led the agitation and were supported by teachers, government officials and housewives. Anti-Mandal protestors attacked public property, burnt buses, organized demonstrations and meetings and discussions in the press.
The agitation was widespread in urban North India and in many cities like Delhi, Kanpur, Varanasi, protestors were fired upon by the police and some students attempted self-immolation. The main theme in this anti-Mandal agitation was against caste as an organizing principle of society and as a criterion for securing jobs. Caste identities were consolidated in the process and caste consciousness rose sharply among students.
During the 1980s, a new party called the Bahujan Samaj Party emerged in North India under the leadership of Kanshi Ram and later, Mayawati. This party declared that winning elections and entering the government was its primary aim. Initially, it sought to mobilize the backward castes and the minorities. In recent years, it has, become a party of Dalits which forms alliances with any other major political party in order to gain political office.
Apart from this, the problem of terrorism in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir continued. The V.P. Singh government withdrew the Indian Peace Keeping Force from Sri Lanka and following this, there was infiltration of LTTE into Tamil Nadu creating a serious law and order problem. The V.P. Singh government did not last long. The BJP withdrew its support from the government on the Ram Mandir issue. One of the constituent parties of the Front, headed by Chandra Shekhar, broke away and with the backing of the Congress, formed the government. This government lasted only a few months.
Rajiv Gandhi Lost Life for the Nation
Elections to the Lok Sabha were ordered in May 1991. The Congress Party went to the polls well prepared. Being in the Opposition, the party leaders devoted greater attention to the strengthening of the organization at the grassroots level.
For two decades, organizational elections had not taken place in the party. Periodically, attempts were made towards this but they did not materialize. The PCCs were set up with nominated members and the Central leaders decided PCC presidents. However, in order to promote a more effective interaction between the grassroots level party workers and the leadership, training camps, workshops, etc., were organized. This helped the Central leadership to get a first hand idea of the needs and aspirations in each constituency and take suitable steps to fulfill those.
Rajiv Gandhi planned the election strategy on the basis of scientific assessment of the party’s prospects in each state and chose the party nominees with great care. He himself undertook extensive tours to campaign for the party candidates. This took him to Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu to campaign for the Congress candidate. On the evening of 21 May 1991 he reached the venue of the election meeting. All of a sudden, there was a loud bomb explosion close to him. Within seconds, his body was found blown to pieces.
Like Mahatma Gandhi, and his mother, Rajiv sacrificed his life in the cause of the country. His mother paid the price for trying to bring peace in Punjab and he became the victim of his efforts to settle the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka. The LTTE, which had harboured a grievance against him, was suspected to have masterminded the killing of Rajiv Gandhi. He was the youngest among the three martyrs all of whom significantly died in the cause of maintaining secularism, unity and harmony between communities.
Rajiv Gandhi was no more but the electoral campaign he built up paid rich dividends. In the elections, the Congress was returned to the Lok Sabha with enough strength to form a government. But, the question of leadership remained.
Sonia Gandhi made it clear that she would not like to be considered for it. Senior leaders agreed to elect P.V. Narasimha Rao as Congress President.
In the first election in two decades on February 27, 1992, Rao was formally elected as President. Fifty-seven nomination papers, each signed by 10 PCC members from different states, were submitted in support of Rao’s candidature. After the election results were published, again through the process of consultation and consensus, P.V. Narasimha Rao was unanimously chosen the leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party. This marked the beginning of a new phase in Congress history.