(This article has been re-contextualised and reposted from The Quint’s archives, in view of Rajiv Gandhi’s birth anniversary. It was originally published on 20 June 2016)
The fear of secession loomed large in the country in the run up to the 1984 Lok Sabha elections. The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated and the people were looking for someone to take them away from the atmosphere of despondency. An unprecedented mandate followed and the country chose young Rajiv Gandhi as the true inheritor of Indira’s legacy.
In the next five action-packed years as Prime Minister, Rajiv took several decisions – Shah Bano case and Ayodhya controversy are just the two of many – that are criticised till date. And the ghost of Bofors Scandal continues to haunt the Congress. But he took some bold steps too. On his death anniversary, let us recount some of them.
- Rajiv Gandhi opened up some sectors of the economy
- His visit to China in 1988 was a historic event
- He pushed for a functional Panchayati raj institution
- He did his bit for eventual IT and telecom revolutions
- He lowered voting age to 18 and pushed for introduction of EVMs
The country’s economy, said Rajiv Gandhi in 1985, had got “caught in a vicious cycle of creating more and more controls. Controls really lead to all corruption, to all the delays, and that is what we want to cut out.” Rajiv Gandhi (quoted in India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha). He did try to break the ‘vicious cycle’ in some sectors which proved to a precursor to what was to come as full-fledged economic reforms a few years later.
On his part, he reduced income and corporate tax rates, simplified the licensing regime and deregulated sectors like computers, drugs and textiles. Duties on import of many items were reduced and incentives introduced for exporters. And inward-looking economy had begun to allow a breath of fresh air from outside. Doesn’t he deserve credit for having sown the seeds of economic liberalisation that followed?
Breaching the Great Wall of China
Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in December of 1988 was a bold and a historic step to normalise relations with our most important but tricky neighbour. It was the first such visit from either side since 1954.
The decision to set up a joint working group to ensure “peace and tranquillity” in the border areas was a breakthrough event. What was widely reported then was Rajiv Gandhi’s personal chemistry with the then premier leader of China, Den Xiaoping. In his 90-minute long interaction with the Indian Prime Minister, Deng is reported to have said, “You are the young. You are the future.” The duration of the interaction too was a rarity as Deng was not known to spend so much time with foreign dignitaries.
Power To The People
This was considered a political gimmick then as Rajiv Gandhi was seen as a moderniser who cared more for urban India. But his pursuit of the idea of power to the people by strengthening Panchayati raj system was a bold reform. The Congress passed a resolution in 1989 seeking to confer Constitutional status to the Panchayati raj institution. It became a reality in the 1990s.
Other than working for devolution of power, Rajiv also introduced a 5-day work week for government employees (1989) and a rejig of ministries. The introduction of Navoday Vidyalay for rural children was a contribution of his regime.
21st Century Dream
One of the recurring themes in most of Rajiv Gandhi’s speeches was the idea of taking a leap forward into the 21st century. He was convinced that technology alone had the power to make that happen. He specifically worked on two areas — telecom and Information Technology (IT).
The introduction of coin-dropping public call offices (PCOs), now almost extinct thanks to the mobile revolution, changed the way we connected with each other. Rajiv Gandhi is credited to have sown the seeds of the eventual IT revolution. His government allowed the import of fully assembled motherboards and processors. The decision made computers affordable and inspired people like NR Narayan Murthy and Azim Premji to set up world class IT companies.
The Potential of Youth Power
The decision to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1988 made 5 crore additional people stakeholders in the political process. The decision came in for some criticism but Rajiv Gandhi was convinced that the youth power needs to be harnessed for nation-building. A comprehensive electoral reform package accompanied that decision including the one of introducing electronic voting machines (EVMs). EVMs have made rigging of elections, so rampant those days, very difficult. Elections these days are mostly free and fair and EVMs have contributed a lot to that.
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