Rajiv Gandhi, son of Indira Gandhi and grand-son of Jawaharlal Nehru, was the sixth and youngest Prime Minister of India, aged 40 at the time of his ascent to the position. He is remembered as the Prime Minister that provided the basis for telecommunications and Information Technology in India.
The eldest son of Feroze and Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi was the third generation in the politically affluent Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that ruled India since gaining independence in 1947. He studied courses in engineering at Trinity College, Cambridge, and the Imperial College London, but did not obtain degrees at both institutions.
Upon his return to India in 1966, at the time of his mother’s Prime Ministership, he went to the Flying Club in Delhi and trained as a pilot. In 1970, he became a certified pilot and was employed by Air India. Unlike his brother, Sanjay Gandhi, he had no inclinations of becoming a politician, let alone become Prime Minister. However, upon the death of his brother on 23rd June 1980, in an unexpected plane crash; Rajiv was compelled to joining politics ‘if it meant helping his mother’.
Rajiv Gandhi entered politics on 16th February 1981, addressing a national farmer’s rally in Delhi. On 17th August, he became a Member of Parliament after defeating a Lok Dal candidate by a margin of 2,37,000 votes.
The assassination of his mother by her Sikh body guards on 31st October 1984, triggered violent riots against the Sikh community. Commenting on the riots, Gandhi said, “When a mighty tree falls, it’s only natural that the ground beneath it shakes a little’; a statement for which he was widely criticised.
Rajiv Gandhi asked President Zail Singh to dissolve the Parliament and hold fresh elections, as the Lok Saba had completed its five-year term. As party president, Gandhi won a landslide victory with the largest majority in the history of the Indian Parliament. He took oath on 31st December 1984 and at age 40, became the youngest Prime Minister in India.
As Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi introduced policies and reforms that broadened the then existing economic model which was based on Soviet Union‘s ‘Protectionist government’ policies. He introduced reforms that reduced taxes on the technological industry, and reformed import policies related to telecommunications, defence and commercial airlines. His policies were aimed at modernising industries, in a bid to attract higher foreign investments in the economy.
Unlike his mother, he was against traditional socialism and decided to improve bilateral ties with the United States of America, expanding on economic and scientific cooperation with the western nation. In his revived foreign policy, the emphasis on economic liberalisation and information technology moved India closer to the west.
Here are some of the achievements of Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister of India.
- I. Information Technology & Telecommunications in India
- II. Anti-Defection Laws (52nd Amendment)
- III. Expansion of National Policy for Education (NPE)
- IV. Improving ties with USA
- V. Maldives Coup D’Etat
- VI. Intervention in Sri Lankan Civil War
I. Information Technology & Telecommunications in India
Rajiv Gandhi is often credited with bringing in Telecommunications to India, but a head start in software exports was brought in through a policy introduced by his mother weeks before her assassination.
The 1984 policy providing the provision for exports through satellite links was approved by the Indira Gandhi cabinet but was announced by Rajiv Gandhi’s government on 18th November 1984. Gandhi, along with the Public Information Infrastructure & Innovations Advisor, Sam Pitroda, is responsible for shaping India’s foreign and domestic telecommunications policies.
Pitroda was a naturalised US citizen, but renounced his citizenship to work for the Indian government, when he was invited to return to India in 1984 by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
In 1987, as an advisor to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Pitroda headed six technology missions related to telecommunications, water, literacy, immunisation, dairy and oil seeds. He was the founder and chairman of India’s Telecom Commission. He is considered as one among many to bringing the telecommunications revolution in India.
Prior to the 1984 IT policy, software specialists were not recognised as entrepreneurs, and software was not considered as a business. This made people of this sector ineligible for bank loans, leaving them devoid of start-up capital.
Post 1984, Pitroda, with the help of the government, set out to build a series of of rural and urban telephone exchanges across the country, in an effort to bring phones to the masses.
Pitroda started the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT), which is a government owned telecommunications technology development centre, in 1984. It was initially mandated with designing and developing digital exchanges. Eventually, C-DOT expanded to develop intelligent computer software applications.
2. MTNL and VSNL
In 1986, the Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) was created by the government of India to oversee the telephone services of Delhi and Mumbai.
In the same year the Videsh Sanchar Network Limited (VSNL) was established by the government, to cater to overseas communication services.
II. Anti-Defection Laws (52nd Amendment)
The government of India under Rajiv Gandhi presented the 52nd Amendment to the Constitution in 1985; the Anti-Defection Law contained in the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution. Indira Gandhi first introduced a constitution amendment bill against defection in May 1973, but was overtaken by the emergency and eventually buried.
The amendment bill saw an opposition walk-out in the Parliament upon being enacted. It proposed putting an end to the then 35 years of legislative anarchism in India politics by making floor-crossing almost impossible.
Members of either houses of Parliament or state legislature would cease to be a member if; they resigned from the part from which they were selected, abstained from voting or voted against their own party, or if the party itself forced their eviction from it.
The move came as a result of dissidence from within the Congress party in which party-men openly revolted against the leadership.
III. Expansion of National Policy for Education (NPE)
The National Policy for Education (NPE) is a policy by the government of India to promote education amongst the people of India. The policy is aimed at providing education from elementary levels to university and college levels, both in rural and urban India.
The First NPE was first introduced by Indira Gandhi’s government in 1968, in which ‘radical restructuring’ of the education system was called for, along with the equalisation of educational opportunities; for the purposes of achieving national integration and greater cultural and economic development.
In May 1986, the Rajiv Gandhi government introduced a new NPE. Under this policy, special emphasis would be given to the removal of disparities and equalisation of educational opportunities, especially for women, Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) communities.
1. Operation Blackboard
Operation Blackboard is a centrally sponsored scheme which was started in 1987 after the Rajiv Gandhi government introduced the new NPE of 1986.
The objective of the scheme is to provide primary level students with the necessary institutional equipment and instructional material to facilitate their education. There is a provision to provide a salary for an additional teacher to primary schools that have an enrolment of more than a hundred students.
2. Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU)
The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), is a government-designated central university located at Maidan Garhi, New Delhi. The University was set up by the government of India under Rajiv Gandhi in 1985, with a budget of Rs. 20 lakhs.
The university was set up after the Parliament of India passed the Indira Gandhi National Open University Act 1985.
IGNOU was founded to provide ‘distance and open education’, and providing higher education opportunities to all segments of society. The university aims at setting standards for distance and open education in India, and to increase the quality of human resources of the country.
IV. Improving ties with USA
Unlike his mother, who headed a socialistic government with affiliations to the Soviet Union, Rajiv Gandhi was inclined towards developing military ties with USA and showed that he could move India’s foreign policy in new and innovative directions.
According to a declassified CIA document, Gandhi’s visits to the Soviet Union, Middle East, France and USA in May 1985 highlighted signals about Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘evolving personal and diplomatic style’.
It was his apparent willingness to give fair hearing to others’ points of view, which showed that he was willing to cut through emotionally charged issues to achieve problem-solving. The reports observed that Gandhi made apparent efforts to improve his performance points, with an aim of projecting a positive image.
The Directorate General of Intelligence further said in its outlook, that Gandhi was more favourably inclined towards the West and the USA than his mother Indira Gandhi. It also observed that Gandhi’s ‘reasoned approach’ to issues suggested that his opening to the West could not be ‘easily derailed’. The report further said, in a separate box titled ‘Gandhi and High Tech’, that Gandhi’s visit confirmed and clarified his widely advertised penchant for western ‘high technology’.
V. Maldives Coup D’Etat
The 1980s witnessed a series of coup d’etat attempts being staged against Maumoon Abdul Gayoom‘s presidency in the Republic of Maldives. The first two attempts, in 1980 and 1983 were not considered serious. However, a third attempt was staged by Abdulla Luthufi in 1988, which involved armed mercenaries of a Tamil secessionist organisation from Sri Lanka; the People’s Liberation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), to overthrow the government of Gayoom.
About 80 armed PLOTE mercenaries landed in the capital city of Male before dawn aboard speedboats, dispatched from a freighter. An earlier group, disguised as visitors had already infiltrated the capital city earlier. All major government buildings, the airport, sea-port, TV and radio stations had been captured by the mercenaries. President Gayoom managed to escape, however, fleeing from house to house until finally asking military intervention from India, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi immediately dispatched 1,600 paratroopers to restore order in Male.
The operation began on the night of 3rd November 1988, when the aircraft Illyushin II-76 of the Indian Air Force airlifted elements of the 50th Independent Parachute Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Farukh Balsara, the 6th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment and the 17th Parachute Field Regiment from Agra Air Force Station; and flew them continuously over 2,000 kilometres over to the Male International Airport on Hulhule Island.
The Paratroopers were transported to Male within nine hours of the President’s appeal.
President Gayoom was rescued by the Indian Army, after they had secured the airfield and crossed over to Male using commandeered boats. Order was restored to President Gayoom’s government within hours.
Though some of the mercenaries fled towards Sri Lanka in a hijacked freighter, others unable to reach the ship were rounded up and handed over to the Maldives government. The mercenaries who escaped in the freighter were intercepted by the Indian Navy frigates ‘Godavari‘ and ‘Betwa‘, and captured.
The swift operation by the military and precise intelligence information were successful in eliminating the coup d’etat attempt in the Island nation.
VI. Intervention in Sri Lankan Civil War
The history of the Civil War in Sri Lanka goes back to the 1940s, where the British occupations left India in 1947 (After creating Pakistan) and Sri Lanka in 1948. At the time there was a sudden surge in nationalist sentiments in Sri Lanka post-independence. The Ceylon Citizenship Act caused over 7 lakh Tamilians to have no citizenship and over the years, some 3 lakh Tamilians were deported back to India.
With the Indira Gandhi government came a socialist regime that saw India develop close ties with USSR. Sri Lanka was forming close relations with USA and was also warming their ties to Pakistan, much to the ire of Indira Gandhi.
After the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, there was a surge or organised resistances from the Tamils in Sri Lanka. The Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) rose to prominence in 1976, and became the main fighting faction amidst others. It is alleged that the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) were responsible for training the Tigers. Political parties in Tamil Nadu openly supported the Tamil rebel group, and training camps for many of these groups were set up in Tamil Nadu.
The Morarji Desai government sought to weaken the jurisdiction of R&AW as Desai saw it as a personal army of Indira Gandhi. With the waning of their oversight on the tigers, the situation escalated in Sri Lanka. the Sri Lankan government effectively enforced a blockade on Tamil dominated regions. This gave rise to a scarcity in food and supplies, to a point where Rajiv Gandhi gave into pressure from Tamil parties within India, and provided aid to the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Food and Supplies were dropped in those regions on orders of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
In a move that came as a surprise to everyone, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed the Indo-SL Accord with the then President Jayawardene. In it, there was an agreement to send in a peace-keeping force to contain the situation and maintain peace in Sri Lanka.
Rajiv Gandhi then sent in the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to supposedly disarm the Tigers, but encountered their refusal to comply as a result of various political reasons. The Tigers responded brutally by strapping burning tires to the necks of some Indian Para-Commandos, effectively killing them. This prompted India to disarm the Tigers by force. As a result of serious engagements, and back and forth exchanges between the IPKF and the LTTE, there were many human rights violations against the Peace Keeping Force. The massacre in Jafna Teaching Hospital is one such example.
In 1989, President Ranasinghe Premadasa came to power which further intensified the war in Sri Lanka. He was vital in supplying arms and support to the LTTE in their fight against the IPKF. With things taking an ugly turn, he asked India to withdraw its forces from Sri Lanka.
Following this, India promptly withdrew from the island nation.
The events of this civil war were what led to the assassination of the Rajiv Gandhi on 21st May 1991, while campaigning for the Lok Sabha Congress candidate at Sriperumbudur, a village approximately 40 kilometres from Madras.
Justice K.T. Thomas issued the Supreme Court judgement that Gandhi was killed by LTTE chief, Prabhakaran, as a result of him sending the IPKF to Sri Lanka. Prabhakaran had personal animosity for Gandhi, for the alleged IPKF atrocities against Sri Lankan-Tamils.
Rajiv Gandhi was the youngest Prime Minister of India, and though his rule introduced India to the digital age; it was mired with controversies.
The Bofors scam, perhaps, is the biggest event that tainted the clean and corrupt free image of Rajiv Gandhi. V.P. Singh, the finance Minister of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and his successor, found compromising evidence relating to the government and corruption. This was known as the Bofors scandal, in which millions of dollars and payoffs were given by Bofors, a Swedish Arms Manufacturer, to the Indian Government for the sale of Field Howitzer Guns. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was implicated in this, thought he was posthumously cleared of all charges in 2004.
However, Rajiv Gandhi is also responsible for strengthening India’s ties with USA at a time when the latter was critical of Indira Gandhi’s socialist policies in India. He was also responsible for laying the foundations of telecommunications and information technology in India.