Rajiv Years

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Rajiv GandhiRajiv, son of Indira Gandhi and grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, became prime minister of India on the night of 31st October 1985. That morning, Indira had begun to walk from her home to her office to keep an appointment for a television interview with Peter Ustinov. Instead, she met her fate in the person of two Sikh guards who shot at her to take revenge for her storming of the Golden Temple to flush out Sikh terrorists in June 1984. By the afternoon, Indira was declared dead and, while Rajiv was away in West Bengal, senior Congress leaders had (with the concurrence of the President, Giani Zail Singh, who had rushed back from Yemen) decided to ask Rajiv to become prime minister. A reluctant Rajiv, persuading an even more reluctant Sonia, his Italian-born wife, accepted this decision which would ultimately lead to his tragic death six and a half years later at the hands of a Tamil terrorist human suicide-bomber.

Rajiv Gandhi, a pilot with Indian Airlines for fourteen years, had kept studiously aloof from politics till the death of his younger brother, Sanjay, in an air crash in June 1980. After Sanjay’s death, Indira persuaded him to help her and in June 1981 he formally entered politics by getting elected to the Lok Sabha from Amethi, the constituency in U.P. vacated by Sanjay’s death. He was placed in charge of organizing the Asian Games in New Delhi in 1982. In February 1983, he became one of the seven new general secretaries of the Congress, with the responsibility of rejuvenating the Congress at the grassroots, the urgency of the task having been brought home by losses in provincial elections. But the gradual apprenticeship to politics was cut short and he was catapulted into the driving seat. With elections due in a few months Congress leaders naturally wanted someone who could rally the people. Rajiv, in their judgement, was most likely to harness the sympathy wave generated by Indira’s martyrdom.

Congress won by its largest ever majority in the general elections held from 24-27 December 1984, a little earlier than scheduled the seats won in the polls held later in Punjab and, Assam if counted, the party garnered 415 out of 543 Lok Sabha seats. Rajiv himself won by a huge margin from Amethi in U.P., in the process defeating conclusively Sanjay’s wife, Maneka who wanted to establish her claim to Sanjay’s legacy. The Congress election campaign had focused on the threat to India’s unity and integrity and, since people saw Indira’s death as proof of the threat, the response was enormous.

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