Rajiv Gandhi’s birth anniversary was celebrated this week by the Congress party (and pretty much no one else). He was killed 17 years ago; so most people under 30 have no real recollection of him. Those who do, will have mixed memories. Looking back, it is hard to imagine a country as complex as India being led as prime minister by someone who was all of 40, and whose only real experience till then had been to pilot a plane. As might have been expected, therefore, his 10 years in politics had their peaks, troughs, and terrible mistakes (the Sri Lankan misadventure, overturning the Shah Bano judgment and then opening the locks on the Babri Masjid, and profligate spending). The question is whether the time has come for history to assess the man. So here is one thought: Rajiv Gandhi would not have thought of himself in such terms, but he was India’s last visionary politician.
You only have to look at his amazing list of initiatives, to understand why. He said India must computerise, in order to be ready for the 21st century, and the political class laughed. So did most others, at a time when the PC was barely born. But he was right. He saw the importance of telecommunications, and tried many new ideas: corporatise the phone service (thus was MTNL born), increase access and not just ownership (result: the omnipresent STD-ISD booths of the time), and so on.
He saw the inability of the government to deliver, and thought of the technology missions as an organisational innovation — focusing on such basic (and still relevant) issues as oilseeds development, drinking water supply and literacy. Indeed, he saw that the government was generally knowledge-proof and insisted that all government officers must go for periodic, mid-career training courses —every HR manager today would approve. As was his fate with even the most sensible suggestions, the wise guys just sniggered.
He saw that only privileged kids had access to good schools, so he thought of a Navodaya Vidyalaya in every district so that even poor children could have the best education; these now turn out the best results among all Indian schools. He saw the crisis engulfing India’s rivers, and started a “Clean the Ganga” programme. Unannounced at the time, he saw that Pakistan was close to nuclearising, and gave the go-ahead for weaponising India’s nuclear stockpile.
He was a bigger peace-maker than Nehru. He negotiated with President Jayawardene the best deal that the Sri Lankan Tamils will ever get, but the LTTE didn’t have the wit to understand that, and killed him for his pains. His whirlwind prime ministership saw peace accords to settle the long-running (in some cases, secessionist) agitations in Punjab, Assam and Mizoram; the first fell apart, the other two held; he showed daring and commitment in all three cases.
In the economic sphere, he was the original reformer — slashing the peak income tax rate from 66 per cent to 50 per cent in his first Budget. In the run-up to the 1991 elections, the Congress under him put together a manifesto that has not been surpassed since for the clarity and boldness of its action programme — including most of the steps that were adopted by the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh combine for India’s second liberation.
Only Jawaharlal Nehru launched as many initiatives, on so many fronts, in five short years — all with an eye to the long-term future. If politics wasn’t kind to him, it was because of four failings: impetuosity, a style statement that hinted at rich-kid habits (fast cars, expensive holidays), the Bofors bribery scandal, and the fact that he was just too young. But those are not reasons for denying him his due.