Rajiv Gandhi, Indira’s oldest son, succeeded his mother after she was assassinated in 1984 and held onto office for four years until 1989 when he was voted out of office after opposition forces united against him. He was attempting a comeback when he was assassinated in 1991

Rajiv was Indira’s second oldest son. He studied technical engineering at Cambridge University. He wasn't a very a good student. He dropped out before he flunked out and ultimately became an airline pilot with India Air. He had no ambitions of getting into politics but ultimately felt obligated to out filial duty.

Rajiv Gandhi was the son of Indira Gandhi, the grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and the great grandson of Motilal Nehru, the patriarch of the Nehru-Gandi dynasty. Motilal was an early member of the Indian National Congress. In 1929 the Congress drafted its own constitution under his guidance, demanding full independence for India.

After Gandhi's death in 1984, power shifted from Delhi to state and local governments, where politicians more interested in winning the votes of villages that national directives. The government led by Rajiv Gandhi was weak. Salman Rushdie wrote, "Rajiv Gandhi delivered a stunningly tedious oratation in broken schoolboy Hindi, while the audience, simply and crushingly walked away." The Rajiv Gandhi government prosecuted no one for the murders of Sikhs that took place after Indira Gandhi's assassination. Rajiv reportedly old one friend, "Blow the bastards away."

Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi

In Cambridge, Rajiv met his future wife, Sonia, who was sent at the age of 18 by her family to Cambridge to study English, at a Greek restaurant, the closet thing to an Italian or Indian restaurant in the town. Sonia later wrote, "We greeted each other and, as far as I was concerned, it was love at first sight." Rajiv seems to have been equally smitten with her. He tried to introduce to his mother on a visit to London. At the last minute Sonia panicked and couldn't go through with it. A second try was successful; Sonia found Indira to be “surprisingly friendly."

Sonia's parents reportedly initially objected to the romance. Rajiv worked 10 hours a day at a construction job in Britain to earn enough money to visit Italy and won over Sonia's parents. Rajiv and Sonia were married in New Delhi in 1968. Sonia wore a pink sari that Nehru himself made while he was imprisoned by the British and that Indira wore when she was married. Rajiv promised his wife Sonia that would remain an airline pilot and never expose his children to the turbulent world of Indian politics.

Sonia tried to convince her husband to stay out of politics. Later she said, "I was angry and resentful toward a system which, as I saw it, demanded him as a sacrificial lamb...I begged him. I said he too would be killed." P.C. Alexander, one of Indira's aides recalled the scene at the hospital where Indira was pronounced dead. Everyone but Sonia wanted Rajiv to immediately be sworn in as prime minister. He told Time, Sonia was in tears "persuading her husband not accept the prime ministership. They were hugging each other and he was kissing her forehead and telling her, 'It's my duty, I have to do it.' Sonia said he would be killed"

Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister

When Rajiv Gandh reluctantly consented to run for his brother's vacant Lok Sabha seat in 1980, and when he later took over the leadership of the Congress youth wing, becoming prime minister was the last thing on his mind; equally, his mother had her own misgivings about whether Rajiv would bravely "take the brutalities and the ruthlessness of politics." Yet on the day Indira was assassinated, Rajiv was sworn in as prime minister at the age of forty. He brought into politics energy, enthusiasm, and vision — qualities badly needed to lead the divided country. Moreover, his looks, personal charm, and reputation as "Mr. Clean" were assets that won him many friends in India and abroad, especially in the United States. Rajiv also had a clear mandate to rule the country with an overwhelming majority in Parliament. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Rajiv seemed to have understood the magnitude of the most critical and urgent problems that faced the nation when he assumed office. As Paul H. Kreisberg, a former United States foreign service officer, put it, Rajiv was faced with an unenviable four-pronged challenge: resolving political and religious violence in Punjab and the northeast; reforming the demoralized Congress (I), which was often identified with the interests of the upper and upper-middle classes; reenergizing the sagging economy in terms of productivity and budget control; and reducing tensions with neighbors, especially Pakistan and Sri Lanka. As Rajiv tackled these issues with singular determination, there was optimism and hope about the future of India. Between 1985 and 1987, temporary calm was restored by accommodating demands for regional control in the northeast and by granting more concessions to Punjab. Although Rajiv acknowledged the gradual attrition of the Congress, he was unwilling to relinquish control of the leadership, tolerate "cliques," or conduct new elections for offices at the state and district levels. *

Rajiv Gandhi’s Policies

Economic reforms and incentives to private investors were introduced by Rajiv Gandhi by easing government tax rates and licensing requirements, but officials manipulated the rules and frequently accepted bribes. These innovative measures also came under attack from business leaders, who for many years had controlled both markets and prices with little regard for quality. When the Ministry of Finance began its own investigation of tax and foreign-exchange evasion amounting to millions of dollars, many of India's leading families, including Rajiv's political allies, were found culpable. Despite these hindrances, Rajiv's fascination with electronics and telecommunications resulted in revamping the antiquated telephone systems to meet public demands. Collaboration with the United States and several European governments and corporations brought more investment in research in electronics and computer software. [Source: Library of Congress *]

India's perennial, see-sawing tensions with Pakistan, whose potential nuclear-weapons capacity escalated concerns in the region, were ameliorated when the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was inaugurated in December 1985. Both nations signed an agreement in 1986 promising that neither would launch a first strike at the other's nuclear facilities. However, sporadic conflicts persist along the cease-fire line in Kashmir. Relations with Sri Lanka degenerated because of unresolved Sinhalese-Tamil controversies and continued guerrilla warfare by Tamil militants, under the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who had bases in Tamil Nadu. Beginning in 1987, India's attempt to disarm and subdue the Tigers through intervention of the Indian Peace Keeping Force proved disastrous as thousands of Indian soldiers and Tamil militants were killed or wounded. *

Rajiv Gandhi's performance in the middle of his term in office was best summed up, as Kreisberg put it, as "good intentions, some progress, frequently weak implementation, and poor politics." Two major scandals, the "Spy" and the "Bofors" affairs, tarnished his reputation. In January 1985, Gandhi confirmed in Parliament the involvement of top government officials, their assistants, and businessmen in "a wide-ranging espionage network." The ring reportedly infiltrated the prime minister's office as early as 1982 when Indira was in power and sold defense and economic intelligence to foreign diplomats at the embassies of France, Poland and other East European countries, and the Soviet Union. Although more than twenty-four arrests were made and the diplomats involved were expelled, the Spy scandal remained a lingering embarrassment to Rajiv's administration. *

Rajiv Gandhi Voted Out of Office After the Bofors Scandal

Rajiv was implicated the Bofors scandal, in which $20 million money intended for international arms deals found their way into the accounts of Rajiv Gandhi supporters. Bofors is the name of a Swedish armaments company that was bidding for a contract to sell the army new artillery pieces. Rajiv's family says that Rajiv himself was not involved. Sonia worked hard to clear his name after his death. Rajiv once admitted that corrupt officials took 80 percent of the money intended for poor in his 1984 development project. Questions were also raised about the awarding of an oil pipeline deal to Gandhi cronies and a German submarine contract that involved some dubious bidding procedures

In 1986 India purchased US$1.3 billion worth of artillery pieces from the Swedish manufacturer A.B. Bofors, and months later a Swedish radio report remarked that Bofors had won the "biggest" export order by bribing Indian politicians and defense personnel. The revelation caught the nation's attention immediately because of the allegations that somehow Rajiv Gandhi and his friends were connected with the deal. When Vishwanath Pratap (V.P.) Singh, as minister of defence, investigated the alleged kickbacks, he was forced to resign, and he became Rajiv's Janata political rival. Despite relentless attacks and criticisms in the media as well as protests and resignations from cabinet members, Rajiv adamantly denied any role in the affair. [Source: Library of Congress *]

But when he called parliamentary elections in November 1989, two months ahead of schedule, the opposition alliance, the National Front, vigorously campaigned on "removing corruption and restoring the dignity of national institutions," as did another opposition party, Janata Dal. Rajiv and his party won more seats in the election than any other party, but, being unable to form a government with a clear majority or a mandate, he resigned on November 29. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by Sri Lankan terrorists on May 21, 1991, near Madras. The Gandhi era, as future events would prove, was over, at least for the near term. *

Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi

Rajiv Gandhi was killed on May 21, 1991 in the southern Indiam temple town of Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu just as he was ready to begin a political rally in an effort to regain the office of Prime Minister. The bomb that killed him contained one pound of RDX plastic explosive and was packed with 10,000 metal pellets. Seventeen people, including nine policemen were killed, along with Gandhi. The partial head of the assassin was found on the grass near where Gandhi was killed.

The bomb was strapped to the body of a female suicide commando who working for the Liberation Tigers if Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the pro-Tamil terrorist group in Sri Lanka. The bomb exploded as the assassin went to shake Gandhi's hand and offer him flowers. In 1987, Gandhi had sent troops to disarm the Tigers under an agreement with the Sri Lankan government. The troops were withdrawn in 1990 but that didn’t stop the Tigers from getting revenge by assassinating Rajiv.

In 1998, 16 Sri Lankan and 10 Indians were sentenced to hang for conspiring or playing a part in the assassination. Only two were directly involved in the murder, including the man who built the bomb. The rest were charged with lesser charges such as conspiracy, for helping the killers by providing transportation, housing or food. The trial lasted for five years, compared to two years for the killer of Mahatma Gandhi and 15 months for the killer Indira Gandhi.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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