Rajiv Gandhi was an outsider in politics, his political life, accidental. An accident born out of a marriage between sheer social privilege and shattering personal trauma. As Sanjay Gandhi, his younger brother ignored his constant warning to wear proper shoes in the cockpit and lost his life untimely in an air crash in 1980, Rajiv Gandhi had to step in as an MP despite his reluctance to politics.
Rajiv’s major responsibilities in the initial years included organizing the 1982 Asian Games and working as the general secretary of the Indian National Congress. What was ahead of him was much more compelling. Four years later, at the age of 40, on the eve of the assassination of his mother, Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as the Prime Minister of India.
Gandhi portrayed himself as the young prime minister of a young democracy. A prime minister who had dreams, but unlike these days, he didn’t have the privilege to dream exclusively in verbal format.
Gandhi aimed at a responsible and representative government and took concrete steps to merge ‘Gandhian Swaraj’ into the political structure of India. He was instrumental in giving constitutional status to Panchayati Raj with a uniform three-tier system where one-third of the seats were to be reserved for women and separate reservations were earmarked for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.
Gandhi didn’t bulldoze a structural reform in a day. He introduced a ‘responsive administration program’ as part of a 20-point program. He went to rural and tribal areas and workshops for district magistrates were conducted. He also conducted meetings with chief secretaries of each state. It was after four years in 1989, he called for Panchayat Sammelan in Delhi.
It was in the same year that he also made our democracy younger by lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 which ensured better participation of youth in determining India’s representatives. He was convinced of our democracy’s need for full involvement of our population to move forward which means we can’t leave half of our population in the process. Along with strengthening laws prohibiting ‘Sati’ and dowry, he ensured political representation in nation-building. A historical anti-defection law was made against the deception of political leaders.
Rajiv Gandhi is known as the architect of digital India with IT and telecom revolutions. In 1984, he established the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT). Indian telecommunication networks brought connectivity between villages. Public call offices which are best known as STD booths were established in villages.
It could help industrial growth and the daily lives of people. In 1986, under the guidance of Sam Pitroda, Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) was established. It was introduced in public governance.
Computerization of the railway ticket system was one of the major steps. Seeds of India’s new economic policy which happened in the early 1990s were also been planted during this time with a reduction in imported taxes and tariffs on computers and telecommunications.
He identified IT as a potential tool to democratize and decentralize administration and to eliminate power brokers from the system through the transparency which technology offers.
Digital interlinking of ministries and departments was initiated. One of the most insightful efforts was to make computers friendly to Indian languages. The Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC) was set up at Pune in 1988 for this vision.
Rajiv focused on building an indigenous base of science and technology for self-sufficiency. National technology missions were created in 1987 with six missions. Technology Mission on immunization which was launched by Gandhi is instrumental in India’s success over Polio.
His vision was to cover six vaccine-preventable childhood diseases such as diphtheria, pertussis. tetanus, tuberculosis, polio, and measles with special emphasis on polio.
While it is discovered that polio vaccines were almost entirely imported, plans were made to establish manufacturing facilities. Bharat Immunologicals and Biologicals Corporation Limited (BIBCOL) was established in UP in 1989, which now supplies 60% of polio vaccines used in India. Existing facilities in Pasteur Institute (Coonoor) and Haffkine Institute (Mumbai) were upgraded.
It was with the suggestion of Rajiv Gandhi that Sam Pitroda opened a dialogue with the NGO, Rotary International which played an important role in the Pulse Polio Campaign.
Technology Mission was also extended in the areas of drinking water, dairy production, oilseeds, literacy, and telecommunications. In 1987, India was importing one billion US dollar worth of cooking oils each year and even now India is the number one producer of milk. In terms of literacy too, India has progressed.
In 1986, Rajiv introduced a new national policy on education. Scholarships, recruitment of a greater number of teachers from SCs, incentives to poor families to send their children to school regularly, development of new institutions, and providing housing service were some of the steps taken to “remove disparities and to equalize educational opportunities”.
It called for a child-centred approach in primary education and launched ‘operation blackboard’ to improve the infrastructure of primary schools.
The vision of providing an opportunity for growth at a faster pace for children with special abilities irrespective of their economic condition was behind establishing Navodaya Vidyalayas.
One of the biggest steps taken in higher education was the expansion of the open university system with the establishment of Indira Gandhi Open University (IGNOU) that happened in 1985. The UGC NET, JRF initiatives to assist students in higher education were also of this era.
Welfare schemes like Indira Awaas Yojana were introduced to help rural poor in housing. He tried to address the need for prioritizing both the preservation of the environment and the livelihood of farmers. National Wasteland Board was set up in 1985 to bring 5 million hectares of land every year under fuelwood and fodder plantation. Emphasis was on developing a nationwide people’s movement for afforestation.
In 1987, India was affected by a severe drought, with Odisha being the most affected state. The news came in that people in the state were selling children because of hunger. A lifesaving KBK project was implemented to help three worst-affected districts of Odisha. It had a comprehensive vision with providing jobs to youth, food for the elderly, complete cropping solutions to the farmer.
In 1988, Rajiv proposed a world free of nuclear weapons and an ‘Action plan for ushering in Nuclear-weapon free and non-violent world order’. He had a three-step plan for nuclear disarmament that was global, universal, and non-discriminatory. Rajiv re-established ties with China after the war of 1962. He became the first PM in 30 years to visit.
It helped to open the Chinese market for Indian companies, Bollywood and yoga became the largest cultural export to China. In the same year, Rajiv negotiated with Pakistan to gradually deploy troops from Siachen, and along with Benazir Bhutto, he had discussions for permanently settling Indo-Pak conflicts. Africa Fund was set up in 1987 by India with nine members to fight apartheid in South Africa.
Our youngest PM committed mistakes too. He stepped into the game of religious appeasement in politics and couldn’t master it. The inexperienced leader has failed to keep a lot of close ones intact.
He and the country have paid the biggest possible price for the foreign policy in Sri Lanka, though it had goodwill. But he was a PM who contributed profoundly in the short span of five years and had a constructive role in shaping modern India.
At a time of stagnation, undemocratic centralization of power, inconsiderate overnight reforms, the demonization of neighbouring countries for internal political mileage, lack of a concrete vision, and insensitivity to suffering, Rajiv is shining more than ever.
He was just 46 and would have been 76 by now. There are no ifs and buts in history. But an inevitable sense of loss will ponder India when she looks back at Rajiv Gandhi from the present. We as a country have to start marching from where he left unfinished with his vision of ‘Sadbhavna’.