Debating Rajiv Gandhi: when the house believes there is more than one Rajiv

Rajiv Gandhi. What were his core values? Did he have clearly identifiable ones - and if he did,does it matter given that he was prime minister over two decades ago?

Written by Mihir Sharma | New Delhi | Published: February 18, 2009 1:34:45 am

Rajiv Gandhi. What were his core values? Did he have clearly identifiable ones — and if he did,does it matter given that he was prime minister over two decades ago? What’s his legacy? Do we see reflections of them in our time?

These,and other related questions,were debated tonight by an unusually high-powered and eclectic panel — occasionally marked by digressions into the history and habits of Mani Shankar Aiyar,the launch of whose book set the stage.

The book,A Time of Transition,is a collection of Aiyar’s columns between 1996 and 2004 in The Indian Express,and is published by Penguin and the Express Group. Some of these columns,as fellow-columnist Swapan Dasgupta mentioned,were sharply critical of some people with whom Aiyar is now in government.

The book’s subtitle — and,as Vice-President Hamid Ansari reminded the gathering,subtitles are important — mentions Rajiv Gandhi and the 21st century.

Shashi Tharoor,formerly an undersecretary-general at the United Nations,mentioned this was particularly poignant given that Rajiv Gandhi began his tenure in office promising to take India into the 21st century; in his famous speech to the US Congress,he said as much. CPM politburo member,Sitaram Yechury,acerbically pointed out that India would have entered the 21st century anyway — the question was,how.

The columns are organised according to the five principles that Aiyar believes animated Rajiv Gandhi’s ideology — which he thinks continue to be relevant: secularism,socialism,neighbourhood policy,non-alignment and democracy.

Some of these principles were accepted without question as being part of Rajiv’s legacy,and still relevant today. Democracy,as deputy chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia pointed out,was deepened in a special way during the Rajiv years,and a way in which Aiyar was closely involved — through the development of initiatives that eventually became the Panchayati Raj amendments.

For former Sri Lankan president Chandrika Kumaratunga,Rajiv’s commitment to democracy and devolution (and secularism) were central to the Indo-Sri Lankan Agreement that he signed with President Junius Jayawardene — and are,she said,still relevant as the Sri Lankan conflict appears to be reaching its final conclusion.

Rajiv’s principles,and the Sri Lankan constitutional amendments he inspired,animated political life in the non-Tamil provinces even today; the challenge would be to extend them to all Sri Lankans,she said.

K T S Tulsi of the Planning Group said that the lessons from Rajiv’s handling of the Punjab problem were applicable: that human rights and ethnic integration were needed to resolve conflicts.

Neighbourliness,too,came in for universal approbation. Former Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri said relations between the two countries were strong regardless of who was in power. (He also said that Aiyar,even if famously brusque,had been an enormously popular and successful diplomat in Pakistan.)

Non-alignment was similarly praised,at least in the form in which Tharoor said it was relevant: as the answer to a question that US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles once asked Nehru (and was echoed many years later): “Are you with us,or against us?” Nehru,apparently,answered: “Yes.” Tharoor said that the country reserved the right to give the same answer to the same question if asked today.

For The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta,however,the most questionable idea was the identification of Rajiv Gandhi as a “socialist”.

This subject led to a spirited debate between Aiyar and Gupta after the moderator,NDTV’s Barkha Dutt,asked a leading question about Rajiv Gandhi’s socialism.

He was primarily a reformer,Gupta said,and had Rajiv been alive today,he would have been embarrassed at being identified a socialist. Neither was he a Nehruvian,Gupta argued,instead he represented a break — sending troops to Sri Lanka,the Maldives,even his blockade of Nepal.

Tharoor said that if socialist goals were lifting people out of poverty,than Rajiv’s popularisation of telecommunications and the consequent cellphone revolution were his greatest socialist achievements. Green Revolution scientist M S Swaminathan made a similar point about oilseeds.

Gupta also made the point that insufficient political history was written in India and that was why Aiyar’s book was so valuable. As if to underscore the point,Aiyar narrated two stories about how decisions were made: one about him carrying bad news about the economy from the then economic adviser,Deepak Nayyar,in early 1991 to Rajiv Gandhi and then,on his instruction,to the Congress Working Committee and later,to an extremely unwell Manmohan Singh for confirmation; and another,about how Rajiv Gandhi had,at the last minute,included in the speech that launched the 1989 election campaign,a controversial reference to “Ram rajya” that completely altered the focus of the subsequent electoral battle.

BJP’s Arun Jaitley said that with the benefit of hindsight,he could say that the first two years of Rajiv Gandhi’s government displayed a certain sense of idealism and promised an opportunity which was then frittered away. On secularism,Jaitley pointed out that Rajiv had on the one hand allowed shilanyas at the site of the Babri Masjid,and on the other,permitted the Shah Bano amendment.

Was this a sign of what Pratap Bhanu Mehta called the “two Rajiv Gandhis”? Or was it,as Shekhar Gupta said,a sign that in the end,Rajiv was willing — and eager — to enter the 21st century but his party was not perhaps forcing him to go against his instinct?

Either way,the question of Rajiv Gandhi’s relevance was answered: it still matters what he thought — or,at any rate,what people think he thought.

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