Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister at 40 without any ministerial experience
Rajiv Gandhi would have turned 74 today. There are no full-length biographies on him till now. But here are some interesting aspects related to Rajiv’s personal and political life, culled from various political biographies.
* When Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as the Prime Minister, barely hours after his mother Indira Gandhi’s assassination on 31 October 1984, he was chosen by a nine-member Congress Parliamentary Board (CPB). But in effect, only two members – P.V. Narasimha Rao and Pranab Mukherjee – did the honours, and not all nine. The parliamentary board had four vacancies at that time, and two members were not in Delhi. Indira Gandhi, who was the sole ex-officio member of the CPB, was dead. As per Article XXV of the Congress party constitution, the parliamentary board is the supreme authority for selection of party nominees for the Lok Sabha and state assemblies, regulating and coordinating all political activities, and framing rules. Curiously, the board has been defunct since the death of Rajiv in May 1991. Successive AICC chiefs Narasimha Rao, Sitaram Kesri, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have not bothered to constitute it for the fear of accountability before a powerful party forum.
* Rajiv addressed the nation through Doordarshan soon after taking over as the Prime Minister and Congress president. He said, “Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister, has been assassinated. She was mother not just to me but to all of you, my countrymen.” He added, “Nothing would hurt the soul of Indira Gandhi more than the occurrence of violence in any part of the country.” [page 389, The Dynasty – A Political Biography of the Premier Ruling Family of Modern India, S.S. Gill, HarperCollins 1996]
* As Indira’s body was lying-in-state at the Teen Murti Bhavan, crowds outside started chanting, “Khoon ka badla khoon”. Congressmen and others seemed unwilling to heed Rajiv’s advice. In the deadly attacks that followed, 2,733 Sikhs in Delhi alone were slaughtered or burnt alive. Delhi had not seen such a massacre since Nadir Shah had ordered qatl-e-aam (genocide). Even the car of Tarlochan Singh, press secretary to President Giani Zail Singh, was not spared and set on fire. [page 106, 24, Akbar Road, Rasheed Kidwai, Hachette 2012).
* Rajiv’s accession coincided with another gruesome tragedy. In Bhopal, poisonous gas leaked from the Union Carbide factory on the intervening night of 2-3 December 1984. Over 40 tonnes of poisonous methyl isocyanate (MIC) killed between 3,700 (official figure) and 25,000 people (activists’ estimate) and poisoned half a million. Its long-term effects – soil and water pollution, lung cancer, liver and kidney diseases, congenital disability – continue to torment people even today
* Rajiv was gearing up for the general elections when the Bhopal gas tragedy struck. Union Carbide’s CEO Warren Anderson landed in Bhopal via Delhi four days after the gas leak and was arrested immediately. But he was let off within hours, apparently after a senior government leader in Delhi put in a word with Arjun Singh, who was the chief minister at that time.
* While the needle of suspicion had been pointed at Rajiv, Singh, in his memoirs (published posthumously by Hay House, 2012) titled A Grain of Sand in the Hourglass of Time: An Autobiography, put the blame of Anderson’s escape on Narasimha Rao who was the union home minister at that time. He claimed that Rao, through union home secretary R.D. Pradhan, had instructed state chief secretary Brahma Swaroop to let Anderson go. “I came to know later that the union home secretary, R.D. Pradhan, upon the instructions of the union home minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, had telephoned Brahma Swaroop (state chief secretary) to ensure Anderson’s release,” Singh wrote.
* Rajiv had become the Prime Minister at the age of 40. He had no prior ministerial experience or interest in politics till 1980 when his younger brother Sanjay died in an air crash. When politician ‘Dumpy’ Akbar Ahmed suggested Rajiv’s name from Amethi after Sanjay’s death, author Gill quoted Indira as saying, “Do not be silly. His [Rajiv] politics is not like ours.” [page 392, The Dynasty – A Political Biography of the Premier Ruling Family of Modern India, S.S. Gill, HarperCollins 1996]. Indira’s friend Pupul Jayakar has written about how Indira told her that Sanjay was very frugal, but Rajiv and his wife “need certain comforts”. [page 417, Indira Gandhi – A Biography, Pupul Jayakar, Viking 1988]
* When Rajiv was born on 20 August 1944 in Mumbai, his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru was in Ahmednagar Jail, busy finishing the book The Discovery of India. Nehru reportedly mulled over the choice of his grandchild’s name for weeks. He even wrote to his sister Krishna Hutheesing to get the baby’s proper horoscope drawn up by a “competent” person. [page 162, Nehru’s Letters to His Sister, Krishna Hutheesing, Faber & Faber, London 1963] By mid-September 1944, Nehru wrote to sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit that if the family did not decide on the baby’s name soon, “we shall have to call [him] the Nameless or the one with innumerable names”. [page 501; Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, edited by Sarvepalli Gopal, Orient Longman, NMML, Delhi 1972]
Rasheed Kidwai is an ORF visiting fellow, author and journalist. The views expressed here are his own.