The rise of ‘Mr Clean’

The rise of ‘Mr Clean’

Rajiv Gandhi was very popular in his initial years in office. But he could not deliver on his promises.

Rajiv was quick to learn the necessary lessons and acquire confidence.
Rajiv was quick to learn the necessary lessons and acquire confidence.

As indicated already (‘A Dynasty is Born’, IE, October 27) Rajiv Gandhi’s ascension to his mother’s office was welcomed by the country, even though some had complained that there was departure from established procedure during his swearing-in. The general feeling, however, was that because of his lineage, he would bring to the country “continuity and stability” and, because of his age, he would be the instrument of much-needed change. His good manners, contrasting with Sanjay Gandhi’s brashness, combined with his “Mr Clean” image, added to his popularity. Since most of his close confidants and aides had gone, like him, to the Doon School — often called “Harrow in the Hills” — comparisons were constantly drawn between “Rajiv’s Doons and Sanjay’s Goons”. His penchant for hi-tech and determination to “propel India into the 21st century” were applauded by the people, especially the youth. The key point, however, was whether the dynastic succession would be endorsed democratically. Rajiv courageously advanced the general election by a couple of months.

Ironically, it was exactly then, indeed until the announcement of the election results, that his bright image was dented somewhat. For, after the anti-Sikh carnage following Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh security guards, he had publicly made the insensitive remark: “When a big tree falls the earth is bound to shake.” To make matters worse, he did nothing to even reprimand, leave alone punish, those Congress leaders against whom there was evidence of having engineered the riots. (Disgracefully, for the slaughter of nearly 3,000 Sikhs in the nation’s capital, a very small number of murderers was prosecuted and, sadly, criminal cases against some of them are still dragging on in courts of law.) Even so, as soon as election results came and Rajiv got a mind-boggling mandate, winning 415 seats in a House of 543, all his faults were forgotten almost instantly. After his stunning victory, I heard his first telecast in a large room full of friends and acquaintances who had gathered for a celebratory party. Men cheered him; women simply swooned.

Rajiv was quick to learn the necessary lessons and acquire confidence. He stopped being confrontational — as during the election when he played rather heavily on the anti-Sikh sentiment — and opted for compromise and consensus instead. As a perceptive observer remarked, “seduction, rather than bullying”, became his guiding principle. Rajiv’s prestige and popularity soared because one of the first acts of his government was to pass a law to put an end to “defection” or “floor-crossings” that had become a bane of Indian politics since 1967. The sale and purchase of political loyalties had become scandalously widespread. No wonder both Houses of Parliament passed the legislation without a single dissenting voice, and the press and the people smothered Rajiv with praise. Many even believed his extravagant claim that his law would put an end to the “politics without principle”.

Only after the thunderous cheers for the anti-defection bill had died down did it dawn on his admirers that Rajiv’s main purpose was to discipline and control his own embarrassingly large party. His law, therefore, provided that any individual MP or a small group of them defying any party would be immediately expelled from Parliament or state assemblies, but a split in the party was permissible on the strict condition that one-third of its members must quit at the same time. Whether a split in a party was legal or not was to be decided by the speaker of the legislature only, and this led to quite a few bizarre and unfair rulings, against which there was no appeal.


Meanwhile, Rajiv had won the applause of the middle class by increasing connectivity in the country. Before him, it took the public in general well over a year to get a telephone connection. He called in an advisor, an Indian American settled in the United States, to expand the telephone network as speedily as possible. A successful visit to the US in June 1985 and the welcome he received from President Ronald Reagan further boosted his image. He got even greater credit when he signed an accord with Sant Longowal, leader of the Akali party, aimed at redressing the Sikh grievances and thus ending the daily death dance in the wounded state of Punjab. A similar agreement was reached with the leaders of an equally destructive agitation in Assam against illegal immigration from Bangladesh. In both states, the situation had almost gone out of hand during his mother’s time.

It was in December 1985 that Rajiv’s popularity reached its peak. The occasion was the centenary of the Indian National Congress, and his key address was masterly. In it he turned mercilessly on the “brokers of power and influence” infesting his party. “Riding on the backs of ordinary Congress workers,” he thundered, they “have converted a mass movement into a feudal oligarchy.” He vowed not only to eliminate “these self-perpetuating cliques” but also to “break the nexus between political parties and vested interests”.

Had these promises been kept, if not fully but substantially, to borrow words from his grandfather in a different context, Rajiv would have been remembered as India’s greatest political reformer. But that, alas, was not to be. On the contrary, instead of honouring his pledges, he was to flout them largely because of his self-created compulsions, but that was still a long time away. In the afterglow of his performance at the Congress centenary celebrations, he was still being hailed as the “messiah of a new, modern India” and “India’s hope for the future”. In fairness, it must be stated that a relatively small number of thinking Indians did consider Rajiv to be a novitiate dependent largely on the advice of his cousin, Arun Nehru, and crony,

Arun Singh. All three were blamed for running the government of so complex a country as India as if they were managing a multinational company. On the other hand, there were some of his admirers in the younger generation who called him the country’s “sole leader”. This honorific had never been bestowed either on his towering mother, or his far more illustrious grandfather.

Alas, such euphoria does not last long. Nor did it, in the case of Rajiv.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator