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Rajiv Gandhi and his work to take a leap into the 21st Century

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Rajiv Gandhi and his work to take a leap into the 21st Century

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The world observed May 21 as a day to mark several social occasions ranging from International Tea Day to Learn to Swim Day depending on what endears people. In India, the day is observed as Anti-Terrorism Day reminding the country of the ghastly assassination of its former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 in the midst of an election campaign to elect a new government. What if...

Rajiv Gandhi and his work to take a leap into the 21st Century
In the country’s political history, May 21 will remain as a permanent reminder as a day when in 1991 one of India’s youngest leaders was assassinated by a terror outfit. The country observes the day as Anti-Terrorism Day, while the world observes many other events associated with social activities.
The ghastly attack literally blew up Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi and 14 others by a suicide bomber owing allegiance to the deadly Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam for the role of the former Prime Minister to work out a solution to the decades-old problem of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
The assassination took place at an election rally at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu as the country was in the midst of electing the 9th Lok Sabha, two years after the government led by Rajiv Gandhi was voted out of office in 1989. The wounds from the tragedy remain as one can gauge from the reaction of the Congress on the release of one of the convicts in the case A.G. Perarivalan last week.
In the 1990s the political landscape was vastly different. The country had just experienced two tumultuous years of a coalition government that was propped up from the outside by two diametrically opposite poles – the Left parties comprising the Marxists and Communists and other end represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party.
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Now, after having commanded a 400-plus seat majority in the Lok Sabha (1984-1989) Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress presence in the Lok Sabha (1989-1991) plummeted to a shade less than half of that strength.
The trials and tribulations during Rajiv Gandhi’s Prime Ministership matured the leader after a stint in the opposition at a time the world was undergoing a structural change. One of the biggest challenges emerging before governments was the making of a new trade order in the form of the World Trade Organisation.
A debate had well begun during Rajiv Gandhi as the Prime Minister and ironically, his successor Vishwanath Pratap Singh had led the delegation as India’s Finance Minister at the first round of talks in 1986.
On the other hand, the fractious politics of Janata Dal and Jan Morcha led by V.P. Singh began to take its toll on the policies and programmes of the government just as politics of Mandal and Kamandal queered the national political pitch.
It is anybody’s guess what direction the country would have taken had Rajiv Gandhi returned to the top political post in the country. The blend of turbulent experience in the office and then time in the opposition could have made a difference. This stint in the opposition should have been an asset to the Congress and the leadership had Rajiv Gandhi survived. Now that remains in the realm of what if…
Even though he was living in the eye of the political needle, Rajiv Gandhi consciously steered clear of a life in that world only to be drawn into the vortex following the death of his younger brother Sanjay in an aircraft accident, he was piloting. Rajiv Gandhi, a commercial pilot with Indian Airlines stepped in to help his mother. The rest, as it is said, is history.
Under the guidance of Indira Gandhi and her set of close advisors, Rajiv was gradually provided with a soft launchpad. His first major grooming was to oversee India’s preparation for the 1982 Asian Games.
The young leader immersed into the new role with verve and commitment. A sports journalist of that era, recalled that on the day of the India-Pakistan Hockey final at National Stadium, Rajiv Gandhi reached the venue early morning to make sure everything was in order befitting the occasion, as a showpiece event of the Games.
Well as day meandered, Rajiv Gandhi as party general secretary took greater interest in party work then October 31. 1984 happened. Travelling as he was in West Bengal with Pranab Mukherjee, the young leader struggled to confirm the tragic news of the assassination of his mother and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. By that evening the world for him changed forever. In the midst of a sense of palpable tension, he took oath as the Prime Minister even as his mother’s body lay in state barely a kilometre away.
The general elections followed in December 1984 and when the ballot boxes opened, the Congress party won 400-plus seats, a feat never accomplished before or since by any party. In the office, the inexperienced leader underwent baptism by fire.
Of the few things the country can always remember for his lasting contribution was introducing computers. His vision was to prepare India for the 21st Century even as his political opponents scoffed at the idea, apprehending loss of avenues for the uninitiated. Four decades later, the computer or the laptop itself seems like a thing of the past as the world moves to the tap of a finger on the screen. The other revolution was in the field of communications, and electronic telephone exchanges laying foundations for the IT revolution in the country.
Accent on telecom was part of the five technology missions launched by PM Rajiv Gandhi. The other focus areas were drinking water, immunisations, literacy, and oil seeds. A sixth on dairy production was added with his key advisor Sam Pitroda tasked to drive these missions.
Each of these areas was approached with modern tech tools. For instance, through geohydrological mapping, one lakh problem villages were identified to drill new wells and water tested in a lab to check for consumption; while a turnaround could be seen in the programme to immunise 20 million women and children each year.
For instance, in 1987, polio was widespread in the country and by 2013, the country was declared free of the virus. Similarly targeted approach helped India to turn an exporter of oil cakes to an importer of oil seeds for edible oils. These are some of the areas that moved away from memory as the country’s quest continues to march forward.
— KV Prasad is a senior journalist and has earlier worked with The Hindu and The Tribune. Views expressed are personal.
Read his other columns here
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