Rajiv Gandhi was the last member of the Nehru-Gandhi family to hold the position of prime minister in India. A reluctant entrant into the political arena, Gandhi was a pilot before he joined politics and showed barely any interest in following the footsteps of his mother and grandfather. Circumstances, particularly those surrounding his brother, Sanjay Gandhi’s death, however, necessitated his decision to enter politics. As we remember Rajiv Gandhi, on his birth anniversary, here are five lesser-known facts about him.
On May 21, 1991, while on an election campaign at Sriperumbudur near Chennai, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a human bomb that killed 17 others and left 44 injured. (Express Archives)
From engineer to pilot
After completing his A-levels in London, Rajiv Gandhi went on to study engineering at Trinity College in Cambridge. However, after studying there for three years, he did not obtain a degree. He went on to study mechanical engineering at Imperial College London but did not complete that either. He later confessed that he was not interested in “mugging for exams”.
He later joined the Flying Club in Delhi where he was trained as a pilot. In 1970, he was employed by Air India. In an interview with talk show hostess Simi Garewal, Rajiv is noted to have said that his fondness for flying goes back to the time when his grandfather, Pandit Nehru, first took him to the Gliding club. “I enjoyed it, I still enjoy it. It gives you a certain freedom. It takes you away from it all in a way,” he had said.
A passionate photographer
Few are aware of the fact that the youngest prime minister of India was also a keen photographer. While photography was a source of immense pleasure to him, he is believed to have been extremely modest about it. Reportedly, he was approached by a publisher on several occasions to author a book of photographs, but he had consistently declined. It was only after he died that his widow, Sonia Gandhi, came out with the book “Rajiv’s world: Photographs by Rajiv Gandhi,” in 1995. Carrying photographs clicked by Gandhi over four decades, the book is considered to be almost biographical, as it proudly displays everything that mattered to the former prime minister, through his lenses.
While Gandhi’s photography interests spanned from nature to wildlife, interiors, and his pets, he was most fond of clicking pictures of his family. “A fair amount of this photography was at home. While he took numerous photographs of his mother and brother, of his friends and our pets, his most frequent subjects were Rahul, Priyanka and myself,” wrote Sonia Gandhi in the book. She went on to add that while she was always averse to being photographed, with Rajiv she was completely at ease.
When Rajiv Gandhi entered politics in the early 1980s, he was not just visibly reluctant to do so but was also a complete outsider to the sphere. Scholars have noted in retrospect that his status as an outsider was to his advantage as in the popular mind he was unassociated with any form of controversies. “His appeal was enhanced by his youth- he was under forty in 1984- his good looks, and his open manner,” writes historian Ramachandra Guha in his book, “India after Gandhi.” It is believed that even the opposition had very little to criticise him and he soon earned the epithet “Mr. Clean” on account of his promise to root out corruption from the country.
However, his image of “Mr. Clean” would soon be tarnished after getting involved in a number of scandals. Of particular importance was the Bofors scandal that implicated several Congress politicians including Gandhi of being involved with a Swedish arms manufacturing company. The scandal cost the Congress dearly in the 1989 elections and the media was quick to drop the epithet “Mr. Clean” following the public release of the case.
Rajiv Gandhi was perhaps one of the only prime ministers of the country who frequently drove himself around. He is known to have driven himself around even during his election campaigns. In his book, “My date with history: A Memoir,” journalist Suman Chattopadhyay writes about his experience of being driven alongside Rajiv Gandhi’s self-driven car during his election campaign in Bengal in 1986. “He drove like a Grand Prix driver on the state roads, sanitised, well in advance, by the security forces,” he writes. He goes on to narrate that the security cars trailing behind the prime minister often fell far behind on account of their struggle to maintain pace with his breakneck speed.
Insistence to join politics by saint from Badrinath
It is a well-known fact that Rajiv Gandhi was not keen to join politics. However, few people are aware of a little anecdote that had soon followed the death of his brother Sanjay Gandhi in a plane crash. After the untimely death of Sanjay Gandhi, among the people who visited Indira and Rajiv to offer their condolences was the Jagadguru of Badrinath, Shankaracharya Swami Shri Swaroopanand ji. In the course of the meeting, Swami ji is believed to have told Indira Gandhi, “now Rajiv should not fly planes for too long.” When Indira Gandhi explained that if Rajiv stopped flying then he would not be able to support his household, Swami ji is believed to have told him, “the person who offers himself to God, Gold looks after the person himself…It is my belief that Rajiv should dedicate himself to the service of the nation.”
In the ensuing days, though a Congress MPs were persuading Rajiv Gandhi to join politics, Indira Gandhi is believed to have left the decision completely to her son. While Rajiv kept putting off the decision, ultimately he gave in. “If my mother gets help from it, then I will enter politics,” he had said.
The period between 1989 and 1991 was one of unrest in India. On one hand, the Congress had lost out miserably in the general elections of 1989, and on the other hand, the opposition too remained rather fragmented leading to the fall of two consecutive governments. In this atmosphere of uncertainty, the re-election of 1991 was extremely crucial to the president of the Congress party, Rajiv Gandhi. The scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, Rajiv Gandhi had been in power previously between 1984 and 1989. But his term as prime minister was mired in several controversies related to corruption and also issues like the Shah Bano case and the Ram temple impasse. Faced with the challenge of redeveloping confidence of the public in the Congress party, Gandhi left no stone unturned to campaign across the length and breadth of the country.
It was during this election campaign that Gandhi was assassinated by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Tamil militant organisation based in Sri Lanka, that was fighting for a separate state for Sri Lankan Tamils. Gandhi faced the wrath of the secessionist group on account of his decision to use the Indian army to curb the movement in Sri Lanka. On May 21, 1991, while on an election campaign at Sriperumbudur near Chennai, he was assassinated by a human bomb that killed 17 others and left 44 injured.