WHEN RAJIV Gandhi had turned 40, and became the Prime Minister of India in 1984 - he actually had to face the proverbial mid-life crisis. His mother and Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi had been assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. The nation was in shock after the traumatic anti-Sikh riots. Rajiv, himself, had not fully recovered from the tragic death of his brother Sanjay Gandhi in 1980, and of course, the sudden death of his mother and mentor.
"Today's generation doesn't know how it was before Rajiv Gandhi took over. We just couldn't believe that the government would be ready to let go of controlling business in India. It was very frustrating to hear stories from relatives traveling back to India about how things were in the US and Europe. But when Rajiv Gandhi used to come on TV for briefings - well, the basic emotion was Rajiv Gandhi was a politician whom you looked and believed - though many said the stalwarts in the Congress party and the seasoned bureaucrats would eat him up alive," Raj Sethi, who used to run a travel company in Delhi in the late 80s, told this citizen journalist. "Despite all the nonsense around him, he gradually made his way to lead the way he wanted to, and make the policies he wanted to. Somewhere there is a lesson for Manmohan Singh," adds Sethi.
Before he took over as the prime minister, it wasn't as if he had parachuted into the role from outer space. Rajiv Gandhi had a keen intelligence, and an ability to take risks moulded by his instincts as a pilot. One must not discount, for one second, what he must have learned at the feet of his mother Indira Gandhi - or perhaps unlearned. "Rajiv Gandhi's greatest legacy is that he brought in an open mind to the idea of India - a restless mind, a sensibility that was not willing to live in the past. This urge to bring reason and method to India's madness gelled brilliantly well with the people of that time. Today, you pick up anything, and you can see his imprint. Rajiv made public call centres possible, he formulated a national education policy, he took steps that took India's IT to the next level, and of course he took many policy steps to make doing business within India and outside India a lot easier," said Jairaj Sevilla, a senior economist working with HSBC Bank.
Rajiv Gandhi's persona became India's signature brand in India and abroad. Tall, slender, a handsome face - his smiling face would put everybody at ease. He is the only Prime Minister after Pandit Nehru who had a personality, and more importantly - the elusive ingredient of charm, which coupled with the Gandhi surname, would make women go into a tizzy, and make grown men insecure. But with popularity came threats.
Many think that he was ineffectual while heading the government - that he made mistakes, and that he was not as tough on his friends as he was on his enemies. "You see, after a point of time, we started to see what Rajiv Gandhi was doing. Three-four years into his prime ministership, we realized he is trying to chip away at the old guard, he is getting frustrated. There was also a lot of mud-slinging by those who wanted the status quo. Statements would be leaked to the press. The idea was to besiege Gandhi with unpopular press. Rajiv Gandhi was a willing listener - may be his trusted advisors let him down. But what happened was that as the Prime Minister who brought in computers in India, freed up access to foreign capital, took foreign relations to the next level, sorted out many issues in cutting red tap in Indian bureaucracy - all this used to, sometimes, take the back seat - given all the politics around him," said Rajona Sen, a professor of English in JNU.
The facts speak for themselves - Rajiv Gandhi had a major hand in making the Asian Games, held in New Delhi in 1982, a success. In time, he became a consummate party campaigner for elections anywhere in the country - a resounding response from him to his critics who said he did not know politics. At the cost of making long-term enemies, he tried to weed out the corrupt, incompetent, and those who were latching on to power due to 'being close to the Gandhis', from the Congress party. What he failed to do in politics was - an eye for an eye - something that he never wanted to do - an aspect that helped VP Singh unsettle Rajiv Gandhi.
But it is not politics that he will be remembered for - Rajiv Gandhi put youth at the centre of policy making in India. While Indira Gandhi adopted the more socialist and bottom-top view and policies, Rajiv broke free, and gave the youth of India the wherewithal of economic freedom, and a sense of possibilities that are resonating till today.
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