As the 1989 elections started drawing near, Rajiv Gandhi became painfully aware of his vulnerability to the mounting challenges he faced. There was little he could do about the Bofors scam, except to stonewall. But he did take a series of steps to restore his fast declining popularity. Since his mind-boggling victory after his mother’s assassination, he had shown little capacity to capture votes. Regional parties were already in power in several states. In Tamil Nadu, in January 1989, the DMK was returned to power. Just before the parliamentary election, the Congress lost badly the assembly elections in Haryana, next door to Delhi.
One of the steps Rajiv had taken in the second half of 1988 turned out to be a mistake, and counterproductive. Tired of the massive criticism in the press of his government’s corruption, he had introduced in Parliament a defamation bill. Under its terms, editors and proprietors of newspapers could be sent to jail if they were guilty of publishing “scurrilous material” or “criminal imputation”. To define the two ambiguous terms was, of course, the government’s privilege. Instead of achieving his objective, Rajiv had to beat a retreat because the bill had evoked a massive, countrywide protest by journalists.
It is rightly said that national leaders in acute domestic difficulties often try to solve them by embarking on foreign missions of “great significance”. So, in December 1988, Rajiv became the first Indian prime minister to visit China since his grandfather had been there in October 1954. The boundary question was delicately sidestepped, although New Delhi ceded to Beijing some ground over Tibet, for which Rajiv was criticised. China’s 84-year-old “paramount leader”, Deng Xiaoping, greeted him cordially, and told him that as a young man, he represented “the future”. Deng added: “If China and India do not cooperate, the 21st century cannot be the Asian century.” By an interesting coincidence, the Saarc summit took place in Islamabad immediately after Rajiv’s China visit. By then, after 11 years of military dictatorship under Zia-ul-Haq, Benazir Bhutto had been elected the civilian prime minister of Pakistan. On the margins of the summit, Rajiv and Benazir had a bilateral meeting that generated intense excitement. Many predicted that South Asia’s two young leaders, “unburdened by the baggage of Partition”, would bring normalcy to the India-Pakistan relationship. Ironically, this hope evaporated in no time. In July 1989, returning from Paris after the 200th anniversary celebrations of the French Revolution, Rajiv stopped over in Islamabad to hold another meeting with Benazir, only to discover that the Pakistan army had taken full control of policy on India, and the civilian PM had no say in it — a situation that seems to be repeating itself currently.
Rajiv realised that he must concentrate on setting things right at home. Whether on the advice of those surrounding him or on his own, he decided to reverse the “outward-looking, growth-oriented” policies of his earlier years in power and returned to the “populist” approach that had served his mother so well, since she devastated the votaries of “Indira hatao” with her retort “garibi hatao”. In the 1989 Union budget, he imposed more taxes and provided additional funds for a major policy alleviation programme. He confessed to his countrymen, however, that of every rupee earmarked for the welfare of the poor, only 15 paise reached those for whom the money was meant; the rest was “siphoned off” by contractors, administrators and politicians. He promised to set this right if he was returned to power.
The most imaginative and popular initiative Rajiv took was to introduce panchayati raj at the grassroots level, the hitherto missing third dimension of the federal system. A highly welcome feature of this move was the empowerment of women, never before attempted so boldly. In every local body from the village upwards, a third of seats were reserved for women, something that has not been possible in state assemblies and Parliament. While panchayati raj was well meant, it was not entirely altruistic. Rajiv hoped to send the Centre’s funds directly to village panchayats rather than through state governments, quite a few of which were hostile to the Congress.
Parliament, therefore, rejected this part of the plan. At the same time, the opposition parties combined to escalate their attack on the PM on the Bofors issue. What enabled them to do so was a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General strongly critical of the government’s handling of the Bofors deal. However, realising that given Rajiv’s overwhelming majority, he could not be forced to quit, the entire opposition resigned from the Lok Sabha. That was when V.P. Singh found his moment.
Till then, V.P. Singh was calling his followers the Jan Morcha (People’s Front). But as more politicians joined him, the combination was renamed the Janata Dal, to which flocked members of the Congress (O), the Bharatiya Lok Dal of Charan Singh, a tall leader of farmers, and socialists, all of whom had earlier merged into the now defunct Janata Party. Two other opposition groupings — the BJP (earlier called the Jana Sangh, which was also a constituent of the late Janata Party), now leading the Hindu right and spearheading the campaign to build the Ram temple, and the Left Front, headed by the CPM — were also in the fray.
Singh promptly entered into seat-sharing arrangements with both. Consequently, the index of opposition unity became the second highest after the one in the post-Emergency polls in 1977. For his part, Rajiv fought the election as best as he could, knowing that his position was weak. He spoke at no fewer than 170 rallies and, to appeal to the Hindu sentiment, promised to provide the country with “Ram rajya”, but in vain. The election results were a body blow to him and his party. The Congress was still the largest party, with 197 seats and 39 per cent of the vote. But it had lost 218 seats. In any case, Rajiv was in no position to form a government, as he candidly told President R. Venkataraman.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator