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Remembering Rajiv Gandhi: Father of IT in India

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

/ by Satyagrahi

On this day, 75 years ago, Rajiv Gandhi was born. After his brother died and his mother, the formidable Indira Gandhi, was assassinated, Rajiv at 40 became the youngest Prime Minister of India. The dismantling of Licence Raj, which had dogged India's progress and development, began during Rajiv's time. But his legacy is tainted by the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the Bofors scandal. This 'heir to tragedy' was himself tragically assassinated in 1991.
What set Rajiv apart in his formative years?

Rajiv Gandhi was born in Bombay on 20 August 1944 to Indira and Feroze Gandhi. In 1951, Rajiv and younger brother Sanjay were admitted to Shiv Niketan School, where the teachers said Rajiv was shy and introverted, and "greatly enjoyed painting and drawing".
He was admitted to the Welham Boys' School and Doon School in 1954, where Sanjay joined him two years later. Rajiv was sent to London in 1961 to study A-levels. From 1962 to 1965 he studied engineering at Trinity College, Cambridge, but did not obtain a degree.

In 1966 he began a course in mechanical engineering at Imperial College London, but did not complete it. Gandhi really was not interested in “mugging for his exams”; as he went on to admit later.

Rajiv Gandhi returned to India in 1966, the year his mother became Prime Minister. He went to Delhi and became a member of the Flying Club, where he was trained as a pilot. In 1970, he was employed as a pilot by Air India; unlike Sanjay, he did not exhibit any interest of joining politics.

In 1968, after three years of courtship, he married Edvige Antonia Albina Màino, who changed her name to Sonia Gandhi and made India her home.
Gandhi's younger brother Sanjay died in an airplane crash on 23 June 1980. At that time, Rajiv Gandhi was in London as part of his foreign tour. Hearing the news, he returned to Delhi and cremated Sanjay's body.
In the week following Sanjay's death, Shankaracharya Swami Shri Swaroopanand, a saint from Badrinath, visited the family's house to offer his condolences. He advised Rajiv not to fly aeroplanes and instead "dedicate himself to the service of the nation". 70 members of the Congress party signed a proposal and went to Indira, urging Rajiv to enter politics.

Indira told them it was Rajiv's decision whether or not to enter politics. When he was questioned about it, he replied, "If my mother gets help from it, then I will enter politics". Rajiv entered politics on 16 February 1981, when he addressed a national farmers' rally in Delhi.

Why did Rajiv have to become Prime Minister?

Many in the press, public and opposition criticized his political plunge. They saw the entry of this Nehru-Gandhi scion into politics as a forced hereditary participation.
Within a few months of his election as a Member of Parliament from Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, Rajiv Gandhi acquired significant party influence and became an important political advisor to his mother. He was also elected as the general secretary of the All-India Congress Committee and subsequently became the president of the Youth Congress.

Following the assassination of Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984, by her bodyguards at her New Delhi residence, Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as the Prime Minster. The Congress Party, riding high on the tragedy, witnessed a landslide victory in the parliamentary following elections.
The economic policies adopted by Rajiv Gandhi were different from his mother, Indira Gandhi, and grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru. He introduced policies that bordered on light-footed reforms of the existing economic agenda of the country, which was based on protectionism following a Soviet model. These reforms paved way for the more extensive linearization efforts of the economy in 1991.

Another major decision during his tenure as Prime Minister was the decision to do away with the license and quota Raj. He reduced tax on technological industry, reformed import policies related to telecommunication, defense, and civil aviation. He put emphasis on introduction of contemporary technological advances in various sectors, thus modernizing industries to attract higher foreign investment in the economy.

When did Rajiv change India’s role in the world order?

Going against the traditional demands of socialism, Rajiv Gandhi decided to improve the bilateral relationships with the United States of America and subsequently expanded India’s economic and scientific cooperation with it. A revived foreign policy, emphasizing on the economic liberalization and information and technology moved India closer to the West.

As the Prime Minister of India, he promoted the Gandhian philosophy of non-violence at the United Nations General Assembly by declining to join the Nuclear Weapon bandwagon and vocalizing in favor of a “Nuclear-Weapon Free and Non-Violent World Order”.
He decided to lend his helping hand in dealing with domestic issues of several neighboring countries. In 1988, Maldives faced a coup and they sought Rajiv Gandhi’s help. He readily ordered the deployment of the Indian Army in an operation code-named Cactus. During the Sri Lankan Civil War, Gandhi sent the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to the country to protect the civilians. This would prove to be a fatal mistake.

When did Rajiv get entangled in controversies?

While commenting on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots (which had started in response to Indira’s assassination by Sikh bodyguards), which followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi in Delhi, Rajiv Gandhi said, “When a giant tree falls, the earth below shakes". The statement was widely criticized both within and outside the Congress Party. Many viewed the statement as "provocative" and demanded an apology from him. He, it is alleged, did not do enough to prevent the riots from spreading. At least 8000 Sikhs lost their lives during the riots.

The Bofors Scandal was a major black mark on the political image of Rajiv Gandhi. The then Finance Minister turned Defense Minister, V. P. Singh, uncovered details of corruption involving the Government and a Swedish arms company called Bofors. The company allegedly paid the Indian Government Rs. 64 crores in return for contracts for the Defense Department. The deals were being mediated by Ottavio Quattrocchi, an Italian businessman who was a close associate of the Gandhi Family. Top tier Congress leaders along with PM Rajiv Gandhi were implicated in the scandal, and were accused of receiving kickbacks from Bofors for winning a bid to supply India's 155 mm field howitzer (a type of artillery piece). Although Rajiv Gandhi’s name was later cleared (posthumously) in 2005, the media storm that the scandal kicked up ultimately led to his abysmal defeat in the 1989 elections.

In 1987, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was formed to end the Sri Lankan Civil War between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan military. The deployment of the Indian military contingent was opposed by the Opposition parties of Sri Lanka and as well as the LTTE. But Rajiv Gandhi refused to withdraw the IPKF. The idea also turned out to be unpopular in India, particularly in Tamil Nadu. The IPKF operation cost over 1100 Indian soldiers and a cost of over Rs 2000 crores.

Where were the other highlights of the Rajiv era?

Inarguably, ‘the Rajiv era’ can be regarded as the most distinguished period of initiating sets of break through reforms involving India’s modernization, economic liberalization, inclusive growth, democratic decentralization, co-operative federalism, technological advancement, resource-based agricultural growth; economic reform and the concept of India as an emerging and independent power. The young PM built institutions with utmost care and extreme sagacity.

He conceived of India as a global power, an experience we are witnessed to in the 21st century world. Gandhi initiated substantial changes in the economic policy framework. The first step towards liberalization of the economy in India was taken up by Rajiv Gandhi. After he became the Prime Minister, a number of restrictions on various sectors were eased, control on pricing was removed, and stress was given on increased growth rate and so on. The new reforms led to easier international trade and investment, privatization, deregulation, inflation controlling measures and tax reforms.

He is credited with promoting the introduction of computers in India. He had the vision and foresight to see that information technology will play a key role in the 21st century and worked actively to develop India’s capacity in this realm. In his words “India having missed industrial revolution cannot afford to miss the ‘Computer revolution”. Undoubtedly, the seeds of revolution in Information technology were sown during his tenure.

Rajiv Gandhi’s scientific temper is attested to by the fact that there was increased governmental support for science and technology and associated industries, and reduced import quotas, taxes and tariffs on technology-based industries, especially computers, airlines, defence and telecommunications. In his scientific temper he stands as a true inheritor of Nehruvian legacy.

Rajiv Gandhi announced a national education policy to modernize and expand higher education programs across India.
Hailed as the Father of IT and Telecom Revolution of India, Rajiv established Centre for Development of Telematics (CDoT) for designing and developing digital exchanges. This kick-started the public call office (PCO) booth revolution and connected India to the world as millions of new telecom micro-entrepreneurs connected the grassroots through the PCOs and their own innovations.

It was Rajiv Gandhi’s views regarding decentralization that became the guiding spirit behind the enactment of the 73rd constitutional amendment act in 1991 and according of constitutional status to the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs).
Realizing the potential of youth in a young nation, Rajiv gave political voice to the younger generation. The 61st Amendment Act of the Constitution was passed in 1989 which lowered the voting age from 21 years to 18 years.

Who assassinated Rajiv Gandhi?

Congress lost the 1989 elections and Gandhi became the leader of the opposition. The National Front collapsed in early 1991 and elections were announced for May 1991. He died in a tragic bomb blast in Tamil Nadu.

On 21 May of that year, after successfully campaigning in Visakhapatnam, his next stop was Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu. About two hours after arriving in Madras (now Chennai), Rajiv Gandhi was driven by motorcade in a white Ambassador car to Sriperumbudur, stopping along the way at a few other election campaigning venues.

When he reached a campaign rally in Sriperumbudur, he got out of his car and began to walk towards the dais where he would deliver a speech. Along the way, he was garlanded by many well-wishers, Congress party workers and school children.
At 22:21 the assassin, Dhanu, approached and greeted him. She then bent down to touch his feet and detonated an RDX explosive-laden belt tucked below her dress. Gandhi, his assassin and 14 others were killed in the explosion that followed. The assassination was caught on film by a local photographer, whose camera and film was found at the site though the photographer also died in the blast.

The Supreme Court held that LTTE's decision of eliminating Rajiv was prompted by his interview to Sunday magazine (August 21–28, 1990), where he said he would send the IPKF to disarm LTTE if he came back to power again. Rajiv also defended the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka accord in the same interview. The LTTE decision to kill him was perhaps aimed at preventing him from coming to power again. Thereafter, the Justice J S Verma Commission was formed to look into the security lapses that led to the killing.

The final report, submitted in June 1992, concluded that the security arrangements for the former PM were adequate but that the local Congress party leaders disrupted and broke these arrangements
After Rajiv’s death, his widow, Sonia Gandhi, took over the leadership of the Congress Party.

How must one view his legacy?

In some senses Rajiv Gandhi was a visionary – though some of his policies were either shortsighted or ill-conceived, his good faith desire to see the country progress was frequently in evidence.
One could well recall the following words from him: “India is an old country, but a young nation; and like the young everywhere, we are impatient. I am young and I too have a dream. I dream of an India, strong, independent, self-reliant and in the forefront of the front ranks of the nations of the world in the service of mankind.”

Rajiv Gandhi saw rapid economic growth as the principal instrument for ensuring a dignified place for India as a global power. He saw clearly that rapid economic growth that generated much needed employment was the only real means to uplift the people while at the same time keeping intact their self-dignity and building the economy’s productive capacity.

Rajiv Gandhi’s achievements cannot be undermined regardless of what one’s political agenda may be. The thrust given by Rajiv Gandhi to Panchayati Raj as an effective way to utilise local resources and decentralise power yielded largely positive results.

A bright spot in the legacy of Rajiv Gandhi, for many Indians, is that he created an impulse to look outward from a nation that had always found it hard to shake the myths of its romantic and mystical past. Not ashamed to wear jeans and drive a fast car, he appealed to the imagination of a new generation of Indians impatient with the asceticism, puritanism and zealous self-reliance enshrined in the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi.
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