Gandhi, Rajiv (India)

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Rajiv Gandhi came to power following the assassination of his mother, Indira Gandhi, the preceding Prime Minister of India. Reluctantly drawn into the political sphere, the changes he made during his tenure did little to alleviate India’s growing economic difficulties. The youngest Prime Minister to have ruled India, his initial appeal as a charming and ingenuous young man had changed, by the end of his government, into alienation towards an aloof political figure. Defeated in parliamentary elections in 1989, he set about revising his political agenda for a return to power. During the 1991 election campaign, however, he was killed in a bomb attack by Tamil Separatist sympathisers.

Early Life

The eldest of two sons, Rajiv was born on 20 Aug. 1944. He was educated at Doon School, Dehradun, before studying at Imperial College, London and then Trinity College, Cambridge. He failed to achieve a degree and returned to India to pursue a career as a commercial pilot, joining the Indian Airlines training course in Hyderabad in 1967.

Married in 1968 to Sonia Maino whom he had met at Cambridge, Gandhi had no interest in the political world. His brother, Sanjay, had followed their mother into politics, playing an important role during the State of Emergency (1975–77). Sanjay’s death on 23 June 1980 deprived Indira Gandhi of her heir to the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty and to the Congress Party leadership. More for filial than political reasons, Rajiv left his career as a pilot to pursue politics.

Rajiv Gandhi joined the Congress (I) Party on 11 May 1981. Winning a seat for his late brother’s constituency in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, he became a member of the Lok Sabha (House of the People) in Aug. of the same year. Rising within the party, on 3 Feb. 1983, Gandhi was appointed General Secretary of the All India Congress Committee (AICC). On 31 Oct. 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards. The following day, Rajiv was sworn in as Congress leader and Prime Minister. In parliamentary elections held in Dec., Indira Gandhi’s martyrdom in the eyes of the nation supplied the impetus behind a landslide victory (401 out of 508) for the Congress Party.

Career Peak

In office, Gandhi immediately instituted a number of reforms, seeking to speed up administrative processes in all areas of government. He invested heavily in research and higher education, believing that expenditure in science and technology would lead to the development of successful strategies for dealing with poverty and illiteracy. These schemes were later lambasted as ineffective and out of touch.

On a grass roots level, he established various missions to increase adult literacy levels and primary school education. In line with this he revived the Panchayati Raj. This scheme, which had lain dormant since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, provided largely autonomous local government for rural areas, with a third of the seats reserved for women.

Gandhi’s foreign policy was essentially one of co-operation and liberalised investment. On a global level, he advocated the total disarmament of nuclear weapons, presenting in 1988 an Action Plan before the UN General Assembly Special Session on Disarmament.

Problems closer to home proved more complex. Gandhi had arrived in power amidst secessionist unrest in the states of Punjab, Assam and Mizoram. He subsequently signed accords (1985–86) with leaders from each state to arrest insurgency with varying degrees of success (the Punjab accord resulted in the extremist assassination of Harachan Singh Longowal with whom Gandhi had signed the accord).

In spite of signing the Indo-Sri Lankan Peace Agreement in 1987 to resolve the Tamil-Sinhalese ethnic crisis, the deployment of Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) in 1987 led to armed conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Between 1987–89 the struggle resulted in the deaths of some 1500 Indian soldiers.

Gandhi took a direct approach to the Indo-Chinese border question, regarding it as integral to resolving tensions. His visit to China in 1988 was the first made by an Indian Prime Minister in over 20 years. A series of high-level talks throughout the 5 day visit produced the Joint Working Group (JWG), to find a resolution to the border dispute.

Corruption undermined electoral confidence in 1987, when Gandhi was accused of involvement in the US$1.3 bn. Bofors Swedish arms deal which saw millions of dollars paid in kickbacks to Indian government officials.

With the loss of public confidence in the Congress Party and its leader, Gandhi resigned his post as Prime Minister on 2 Dec. 1989.

Later Life

Retaining his role as Congress Leader and becoming the Leader of the Opposition against new Prime Minister, V. P. Singh and his National Front Party, Gandhi was assassinated in Sriperumbudur on 21 May 1991. In 1998, 26 people were convicted of conspiring his death, 3 of whom were sentenced to death. The act was seen as a revenge killing for Gandhi’s handling of the Indo-Sri Lankan crisis and the violence which entailed with Tamil Separatist groups.

His wife, Sonia Gandhi, became leader of the Congress Party in March 1998.

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