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OPINION | How Rajiv Gandhi's 10-year Era Made India a Colony of Mere 5,000 'Loyalists'

File photo of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

File photo of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

When Rajiv Gandhi could have used his historic mandate to change the destiny of India, he used it to organise melas in Delhi and poverty tourism in remote corners of India.

“Dynasty, a political tool in the hands of the ruling class, has become the catalyst for a new colonisation of a country whose soul has already been deeply scarred by centuries of it”. This line in the author’s note in Tavleen Singh’s autobiographical book ‘Durbar’ more than aptly sums up the entire history of Congress party and the culture it has spawned.

As the deeds and misdeeds of Rajiv Gandhi become centre stage once again, I decided to revisit Tavleen’s book. Durbar is a chronicle of times of Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. What emerged is a theme running right across the book: Are most of the problems that India faces today, a construct of Rajiv Gandhi era? Consider the evidence:

1. Modern Kashmir problem: There is a historical Kashmir problem which started in 1947 with the way the accession was mishandled by Nehru. However, the historical problem was more or less managed by 1975 with the signing of the Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Abdullah accord.

The free and fair elections of 1983, in which Farooq Abdullah won a majority, finally convinced most Kashmiris about vibrancy of democracy. However, as Tavleen recounts, Rajiv Gandhi and his Doon school friends did not think this was good enough. Under their advice, Indira Gandhi dismissed the Farooq government in 1984 and installed Farooq’s brother-in-law as a Congress stooge. He ruled for a disastrous 20 months before he was dismissed.

By the time elections were held again in 1987, Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister. This time, he along with Farooq, who was coerced into an alliance, rigged the elections. Within a span of five years, Rajiv Gandhi had managed a miracle — besmirched the fair name of Indian democracy in Kashmir.

People who had contested the 1987 elections became overnight Jihadis. By the time Rajiv demitted office in 1989, we had full scale Jihad in Kashmir. That Pakistan was fresh from success in Afghanistan and only too willing to meddle was of course the main reason. But the supply of local Kashmiris to carry out this Jihad, for the first time since 1947, was a direct result of the policies of Rajiv Gandhi. We now had a modern Kashmir problem which we are still grappling with, 30 years later.

2. Punjab and terrorism: By Tavleen’s account, Operation Blue Star was conceived by Rajiv Gandhi and friends and it is they who finally convinced Indira Gandhi for the go ahead. That set-in motion a process which resulted in death of Indira Gandhi, the anti-Sikh pogrom on the streets of Delhi in 1984 and a decade of militancy in Punjab, causing thousands of deaths.

3. Communal Politics: The craven surrender by Rajiv Gandhi in the infamous Shah Bano case is perhaps one of the most shameful chapters in Indian history. But what is even more shameful is that it could have been all so different. It was not as if this episode demanded Rajiv Gandhi to demonstrate any great moral or intellectual leadership. In fact, he had to do nothing.

All that was required was to say — the highest court in the land has opined and that is the law and it will stand. Yet, he chose to use his brute majority in Parliament to subvert the Supreme Court.

Once down this path, it was only a matter of time when compromises would be made to please fanatics each day. Not surprisingly, Rajiv Gandhi’s government became the first government to ban Satanic Verses. So, it was only natural that 20 years later his wife cried when she saw pictures of dead terrorists of Batla House.

4. Compromised Press: Indira Gandhi used the sledgehammer of Emergency to muzzle the press. Rajiv Gandhi realised that it will no longer work and, in any case, it could not be a permanent solution. So, in concert with his wife, Rajiv devised a more sophisticated and long-lasting solution — The Durbar.

If only you were part of the Durbar and saw the world as Rajiv Gandhi wanted it to be seen, were you welcome. What was an experiment in 1985 became a practiced art form by the time Sonia Gandhi became the patron of the dynasty. The mushrooming of ‘darbari media’ during the reign of Sonia Gandhi is a sad commentary on how the ‘umpires’ of democracy were co-opted.

5. High office corruption: While corruption scandals did hit the governments of Pandit Nehru and Indira Gandhi, yet they themselves never faced corruption charges. This changed with Rajiv Gandhi. Their closest family friend was the direct accused in the infamous Bofors scandal. And so, began the saga of loot at the highest echelons of government and the use of state machinery to protect the corrupt.

What we later saw in 2G, Coalgate, Augusta Westland and National Herald is only the manifestation of the Bofors phenomenon — people at the highest levels using official and quasi-official powers to benefit friends and family.

6. Crony Capitalism: Tavleen recounts in some detail the overnight transformation of Rajiv Gandhi’s party circuit friends from middle class lifestyle people to globetrotting businessmen. From rice contract for USSR to high-end defence deals — it all began then.

If the Durbar was doing it — rewarding the loyalists to become rich, why would the minions not follow? So, some 20 years later, coal mining contracts were awarded, arbitrarily, to friends and families. Without apology.

7. Politics of Fake Promises: The politics of promising a lucrative scheme to gain votes got mainstreamed during the Rajiv years. Remember Indira Aawaas Yojana and the fanfare that accompanied its launch? 40 years later, the poor were still homeless before Modi took up the project to build a pucca home for every poor.

In her time, Sonia Gandhi promised electricity to all houses, direct income support to farmers, a house over every head, and a host of similar other promises. Of course, none of these got delivered before the advent of Modi government.

8. Compromised institutions: Justice Ranganath Mishra was appointed to head an enquiry commission into the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom. Ironically, it was done at the possible intervention of Sonia Gandhi, as Tavleen chronicles.

Of course, not one murderer was ever identified by Justice Mishra in his report. What did happen though was that Justice Mishra became a Congress MP many years later. Mani Shankar Aiyar officially joined Congress party in 1989. But he began doing Rajiv Gandhi’s bidding from 1985 itself, while still in service.

Ajit Jogi was able to quit the IAS within hours (normally it takes months) to join and contest on Congress ticket. Everyone saw this. All you needed was to catch the eye of the Durbar and the future of your generations would be made.

Few years later, a Chief Election Commissioner of India would join Congress party and even become a minster. Loyalty would continue to play an important part in the life of these compromised officials.

Wajahat Habibullah, one of the architects of the disastrous Kashmir policy in 1980s, would continue to thrive since he was loyal to the Durbar. The trend would replicate in even cruder form at state levels and with regional parties. The principle was the same though. They learnt it after all from Rajiv Gandhi.

9. Politics of symbolism over substance: What will India rather have — a government that delivers on basic needs or a politician who eats a meal with you but delivers nothing?

The answer might seem obvious now but is it that obvious? When Rajiv Gandhi could have used his historic mandate to change the destiny of India, he used it to organise melas in Delhi and poverty tourism in remote corners of India.

Amethi, the family constituency of the dynasty, is perhaps the most backward tract in Uttar Pradesh. Yet, why should it matter if the natives of Amethi get to see their favourite dynast saunter down the dirty alleys once a while?

Amethi has been represented by Rahul Gandhi now for 15 straight years and the stifling politics of symbolism has continued unabated.

10. Dynasty colonising our country: Rajiv Gandhi’s ascent was the first direct dynastic accession in Indian politics at any level. It opened the floodgates. Except BJP and the irrelevant Left parties, there is not one political party where this plague does not afflict – SP / DMK / NCP / RJD / TDP / NC / PDP / BSP and almost all other new entrants.

A nation of 130 billion people has come to be colonised by a group of roughly 5,000 interconnected families — politicians, bureaucrats and media.

It all began with Rajiv Gandhi’s almost ten-year era in politics — first few years as a MP and adviser to Indira Gandhi and five as Prime Minister himself. We as a nation are still paying the price.

Tavleen Singh’s book has many interesting stories — how a close friend of Sonia Gandhi was under investigation for Indira Gandhi’s assassination, how all Congress people mysteriously survived and only Rajiv Gandhi was killed by the LTTE suicide bomber, the rise of the baba brigade in the Congress party and much more.

(This is a modified version of an article written by me several years ago).

(The author is CEO of Bluekraft Digital Foundation and former Director of MyGov India. Views expressed are personal.)