Rajiv Gandhi and the 'baba log' years

In a famous phrase the late editor and columnist Romesh Thapar witheringly termed Rajiv Gandhi and his team as the “Baba Log government”. This was 1986; Rajiv was into his second year as prime minister, having become the youngest PM, at 40, with a majority of more than 400 seats after his mother’s assassination in October 1984. Even Narendra Modi hasn’t bettered that score nor — it might be wagered — could anyone else easily. Rajiv’s 75th birthday last week was observed with customary tributes by his family and party loyalists, and unuttered criticisms by anti-Congress politicians who abhor — publicly at least — the idea of ongoing dynastic succession.

Many leaders acquire an aura of sainthood in death, their halo in afterlife growing proportionately to the number of critiques and reappraisals. 

Rajiv’s political life was bookended and propelled by terrible tragedies. A contented family man and airline pilot, he was forced into politics after his brother’s death in a plane crash. There was an amiable lack of guile about him in the early days; he had joined up, he said, because “Mummy needed me”. Ten years later, on May 21, 1991, at an election rally north of Chennai he was himself assassinated by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber.

I was in Bhubaneshwar when it happened. Rajiv had been touring Odisha and I had attended his public meeting the evening before. He crossed the border to Andhra Pradesh, then Tamil Nadu, on that ill-fated last day of his life. 

A menacing quiet descended on the state capital. I silently watched as Congress party workers mauled cutouts of the formidable chief minister and Janata Dal leader, Biju Patnaik. Seven years earlier Indira Gandhi too had returned home from touring Odisha before she was gunned down in her garden. The coincidence lent a special poignancy to the Congress slogan: “Ma Bete Ka Ye Balidaan, Yaad Karega Hindustan.” On the plane back to Delhi, a visibly stricken Patnaik (an old friend-turned-fierce opponent of Indira Gandhi) mused: “What sort of a world is this, where elected leaders are maimed and killed?” while Kalpnath Rai, a Congress politician, sobbed loudly, beating his chest in grief and hurling invective at the LTTE.

I met Rajiv only briefly a few times — once in Amethi, introduced by his friend Arun Singh — but requests for interviews were brushed aside, with small talk and gracious smiles. He was approachable and polite (in sharp contrast to his abrasive brother) and was usually accompanied by one of his cronies — Arun Nehru or Vijay Dhar or his former co-pilot Capt. Satish Sharma. An air of baba log entitlement clung to him; it showed up in his language. “Hum apne virodhiyon ko unki nani yaad dila denge” and “Chahey hum jeetey ya loosey gey” seem comically inept. But infinitely thoughtless and wounding was his rationale of anti-Sikh violence in 1984: “The earth shakes when a big tree falls.”

A friend later described him as “kaan ka kacha” (easily susceptible to hearsay). An example of this was in 1987, when, apparently miffed by some routine statement by the well-regarded foreign secretary A P Venkateswaran, Rajiv, at a press conference, blurted, “You will be talking to a new foreign secretary soon.” Venkateswaran was present and — stunned like everyone else — quit soon after.

Domestically, his cardinal error was upturning the Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano case through constitutional amendment, a case of minority appeasement so retrograde that its reversals infect the body politic today and have come to haunt his party with ludicrous half-hearted pandering to Hindutva sentiments. Overseas, his worst mistake was the misadventure in Sri Lanka. In July 1987, I was on Rajiv’s Colombo trip to sign the India-Sri Lanka accord when an honour guard stepped out of line to attack him with his rifle. It should have been a portent of the perilous path ahead. By then too the lengthening shadow of payoffs in the Bofors’ deal cast a pall on the prime minister and his family. Key friends and allies left his side.

Like his son Rahul — also accused of leading a new generation of entitled baba log during his tenure as party chief — Rajiv tried to purge the Congress of an entrenched old guard. He railed against its network of “power brokers” and “opportunists” but he failed. The economy suffered, with the country’s foreign reserves so depleted that successor governments had to pawn India’s gold reserves and push through key economic reforms.

On three fronts, however, his reforms had a far-reaching impact. He introduced panchayati raj, devolving power at village level; he picked Sam Pitroda to spearhead radical changes in telecom infrastructure — PCOs and telephones became widely accessible; and he promoted the knowledge economy. 

It is said that a person is made aware of his worst faults after cohabiting in personal relationships. Of political leaders it can be said that their most glaring errors are made at the nation’s expense. It is the running leitmotif of the baba log years.

 



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