Rajiv Gandhi (1944-1991) entered Indian politics after the death of his younger brother Sanjay in 1980, serving as adviser to his mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and as an elected member of Parliament. He became prime minister shortly after the assassination of his mother in 1984.
Rajiv Gandhi, India's sixth prime minister and general secretary of the Congress (I) party, was born on August 20, 1944, in Bombay, India. He was the grandson of India's first prime minister, Jawarharlal Nehru, and the eldest son of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her journalist, parliamentarian husband, Feroze Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi). Brought up surrounded by politics, Rajiv Gandhi stayed out of the political world until the death of his younger brother Sanjay, who had been active politically as his mother's adviser and as a member of Parliament.
Gandhi's early years were spent at the prime minister's residence in New Delhi where his mother served as her father's official hostess. He was educated at Welham Preparatory and Doon schools, both elite Indian institutions. Following graduation from Doon School, Gandhi went to Britain where he attended the Imperial Scientific and Technical College in London and Cambridge University's Trinity College, studying mechanical engineering. His other interests included music (both Indian and Western), photography, ham radios, and flying.
While at Cambridge Gandhi met an Italian student studying English, Sonia Manio. They were married in New Delhi in 1968 and lived with his mother, who by then was prime minister. They had two children, a son, Rahul, and a daughter, Priyanka. Surrounded by political figures, the family nonetheless managed to keep its personal life out of the public eye.
Although he studied mechanical engineering, Gandhi chose to pursue a career as an airline pilot. Upon return to India he got his commercial pilot's license and joined Indian Airlines, the domestic carrier. He remained in this position until he entered politics.
In June 1980 Sanjay Gandhi was killed while learning to fly when the plane he was piloting crashed in New Delhi. He had been instrumental as his mother's adviser in guiding Congress (I) party and governmental affairs from the mid-1970s on. He was also a member of Parliament elected from the Amethi district of Uttar Pradesh state of northern India.
After the death of his brother, his mother urged Gandhi to enter politics. Resigning his position with Indian Airlines, Gandhi served first as an adviser to his mother, and then, like his brother, entered Parliament by winning the seat made vacant by his brother's death. He was elected general secretary of the Congress (I) party and also supervised the completion of arrangements for the Asian Games which India hosted in 1982. Additionally, he remained one of his mother's chief advisers on a range of both domestic and foreign policy matters.
In dealing with party affairs, Gandhi showed little tolerance for those members who were incompetent, corrupt, or sycophantic followers of the Gandhi family. He started to streamline the Congress (I) organization by introducing modern managerial techniques and trying to bring younger, more dynamic people into the decision-making process. With these attempts and his rather gentle, soft-spoken personality, he gained an honorable reputation, although observers often wondered whether he had the political acumen and experience to deal with the knotty problems of state faced by his mother's administration, such as national integration and economic development.
The problem of national integration eventually catapulted Gandhi into the position of prime minister. In the northern state of Punjab demands by the predominant Sikh community had grown for more autonomy for the state, greater retention of the state's resources, and solution of border problems with neighboring states and had combined with what might be termed Sikh ethnic and religious revivalism. A small group of so-called "extremists" held what the government considered to be an untenable position on the issue of autonomy bordering on a call for complete independence. Talks between the government and Sikh leaders faltered, violence erupted, and some extremists were implicated in the murders of Punjab government officials. Those accused and some of their followers sought sanctuary in the Golden Temple, the most holy shrine of the Sikhs, in the city of Amritsar. They were protected essentially by the government's reluctance to violate holy places by sending in the police. The stalemate continued for about three years.
In the meantime, however, violence between various factions of the Sikh community escalated, and those hiding in the temple were accused of directing the murders of other Sikhs who disagreed with their position. Eventually the violence spread to the non-Sikh, primarily the Hindu population of Punjab. As it did, the government decided it had to act. In June 1984 troops were sent into the temple complex. During the armed confrontation most of those in the temple were killed, and hundreds of others throughout the Punjab were arrested. The government's action shocked the Sikh community and threats were made against the lives of the prime minister and other high ranking officials. The threat against Indira Gandhi was carried out on October 31, 1984, when Sikh members of her own bodyguard assassinated her.
Rajiv Gandhi was then chosen by his party as prime minister. General elections to Parliament which normally would have been held in January 1985 were held one month early at the end of December 1984. The Congress (I) party won an overwhelming majority, securing 401 out of 508 contested seats. This was better than any previous electoral victory. Gandhi proved himself as a tireless and effective campaigner in the weeks preceding the election and was widely credited, along with an improved economy, with the party's success. His standing within the party was also improved by his denial of electoral districts to party members considered to be corrupt. In March 1985 elections were also held in 11 states for the states' assemblies. Although the Congress (I) party did not win in all 11, it did win in eight, and again Gandhi was credited with the success. He refused to let numbers of corrupt politicians run on the Congress (I) ticket.
Yet observers were skeptical. Gandhi entered politics and became prime minister as a result of his mother's death. Whether or not Gandhi's instincts about public policy could compensate for a lack of experience remained to be seen. He appeared to be off to a promising start in 1985 by initiating new talks with the Sikhs and attempting to streamline and modernize the administration. However, the vexing issues of national integration and economic development were still of paramount concern. With only minor diplomatic successes, Sikh radicalism did not cease during Gandhi's term in office.
Under his 1986-1990 plan Gandhi launched India towards strong economic growth by removing many restrictions on imports and encouraging foreign investment. Beyond this effort, Gandhi was seen as indecisive. Despite the firing of his mother's aides and surrounding himself with a constantly changing array of cabinet members, government corruption continued, including accusations that Gandhi and his party members were receiving kickbacks from a Bofors arms deal.
In the November 1989 elections a former Gandhi loyalist, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, led a coalition to unseat the ruling party hurt by the numerous charges of corruption and incompetence. The Congress (I) party lost its majority and Gandhi was forced to resign as prime minister. Although displaced, Gandhi's opposition to Singh's administration proved tireless. His determination to return to office inspired a campaign in 1991 that political analysts believed would result in an absolute majority for Gandhi and his party. But he would not resume his former position. On May 21, 1991, Gandhi was assassinated by a terrorist bomb while campaigning in Tamil Nadu. Tamil separatists claimed the killing was an act of revenge for Gandhi's intervention in the Sri Lanka civil war of 1987.
For additional information see "Rajiv Gandhi, Super-salesman," Newsweek (June 17, 1985); "Rajiv the Son," New York Times Magazine (December 2, 1984); "India After Indira Gandhi," MacLean's (November 12, 1984); "Indira's Intrigues: India Elects a New Crown Prince," The New Leader (July 13, 1981); "Gandhi's Reluctant Heir," MacLean's (November 12, 1984); Underwood, N.-DeMont, J.al, et, "The End of a Dynasty?" MacLean's (June 3, 1991)