| Potting the future
In 1989, when asked about the significance of the French Revolution of 1789, a Chinese mandarin called Zhou Enlai said that it was too early to make any comment. From such a perspective — or what French historians call the longue duree — any assessment of Rajiv Gandhi will be premature. Yet, since the stigma on his name and reputation has been removed by the Delhi high court, may be a pro tem evaluation can be attempted in the context of today. The estimate might, of course, change when the context changes.
History has not been very kind to Rajiv Gandhi. His reputation is the proof of the words Shakespeare put into the mouth of Mark Antony: “The evil that men do lives after them/ The good is oft interred with their bones.” Rajiv’s name is inextricably — and one can now say, unfairly — linked to the Bofors scandal. The smoke from the Bofors gun has put a murky cover on all other aspects of Rajiv’s life and personality. Now that that smoke has been blown away, legally speaking, some of these aspects may be recognized and commented upon.
Rajiv Gandhi was catapulted into the top job. He was a greenhorn in politics, serving his apprenticeship under his mother. He was, till he succeeded his mother, low-key and non-intrusive. Indira Gandhi’s assassination ended all that, much to his own surprise. When he first got the news in the heart of rural West Bengal, even he didn’t know that Congressmen would want him as the prime minister. He took the job against the pleadings of his wife. He came to the prime ministership without any kind of baggage and pull of the past. Politics was not his chosen vocation and he brought to it a kind of freshness — much as a beginner brings luck to the gambling table.
Within weeks of his coming to power, Rajiv Gandhi began drawing out a vision for the nation. It will not be an exaggeration to say that after Jawaharlal Nehru, he has been the only prime minister who had a clear idea about where he wanted to take the nation. This statement might raise a few eyebrows since that vision did not have, then, very many takers, even within the Congress. It can also be said to counter this proposition that it is unfair to Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The former had no vision about India. She had a vision about her own power and she veered from the left to authoritarianism to acquire and keep that power. Where she wanted to take the nation remains vague. Vajpayee’s vision, if for the moment one takes Hindutva away from it, is actually Rajiv’s vision except that Rajiv dreamt it and Vajpayee has been forced to adopt it.
What was that vision of Rajiv Gandhi' He, as he explicitly stated time and again, wanted to take India to the 21st century. It would be an India that would be free of socialist shackles and be economically powerful. The driving force of this would be the information and the telecommunications sector. It is easily forgotten today that Rajiv Gandhi brought in the computer and ushered in the telecommunications revolution, which makes it possible now to call anywhere in the world directly from India. Rajiv Gandhi masterminded this transformation against considerable opposition and flak. Many will remember today — and if they are honest, somewhat shamefacedly — the kind of derision that both Rajiv and his cupbearer in this realm, Sam Pitroda, had to face. He dreamt of an India that would be in tune with the world.
It was undeniably an elitist vision and it was informed by Rajiv’s social upbringing. Here was a young man born into India’s putative first family; his sensibilities and his lifestyle were both Westernized and affluent. He did not want to discover India’s past, but was eager to script India’s future. He listened to jazz, bred golden retrievers and wore designer sunglasses and shoes. He was one of India’s heaven born — a PLU if ever there was one. He was emblematic of what has come to be called Generation X.
Despite all this — and one can call these drawbacks if one so wants — during Rajiv Gandhi’s early years, there was an earnest attempt on his part to reject the petty politicking that was the birthmark of Indian politics. He wanted to cut through bureaucratic red tape. He wanted to begin anew and look forward. He had a newcomer’s charming innocence about the seamy side of Indian politics. To many, weary as they were of a political process trammelled by rhetoric, intrigue and hypocrisy, all this was like a breath of fresh air.
If politicos were out, who was to implement the vision' Rajiv chose his own cronies, most of whom were professional managers — Arun Nehru, Arun Singh and others who came from a similar background — public school, Oxbridge, the corporate world. Hence, the ridicule from Romesh Thapar, who described Rajiv’s government as baba log ka sarkar. The new men were helped by a select group of bureaucrats working out of the prime minister’s office — Gopi Arora, Ronen Sen and Mani Shankar Aiyar.
This is where the dream began to turn into a nightmare, at least for the new prime minister. The corporate managers, except with the partial exception of Arun Nehru, did not know how to play the Indian political system. The latter did not march in tune with the new vision. The system was still tied to the India of Rajiv’s mother and grandfather. Rajiv himself began to be appropriated by the system: populism, the nurturing of vote banks, playing off one community against the other — the hardy perennials of Indian politics claimed him. Otherwise, how does one explain the Shah Bano case and the shilanyas in Ayodhya' The self-styled architect of 21st century India had harked back to the past — to using religion for political and electoral purposes. It is an empty and irrelevant speculation to suggest that if he had a second innings, he would have done things differently. When he lost the election in 1989, Rajiv had messed things up pretty badly for the Congress, for India and for himself. The visionary appeared to be very ordinary after all.
But no evaluation can remain stuck in 1989. History is nothing if not contemporary. The present looks back on the past and changes its understanding of what happened according to the light of the present. The India that Rajiv Gandhi dreamt of is now about to happen. A new India, economically buoyant, is poised to take on the world. The driving force of this new economic strength is the IT sector, which Rajiv Gandhi pioneered. N. Chandrababu Naidu and even perhaps Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee are the true inheritors of Rajiv Gandhi in this regard. Religion in politics — something that Rajiv dabbled in dangerously — has come to stay in India. In a bizarre irony, the dream of India’s youngest prime minister has been actualized under a prime minister well past the biblical life span of three score and ten. Rajiv Gandhi’s reputation can only be retrospectively illuminated by India shining — if it is shining at all.