NEW DELHI: It was fitting that Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued a message on the occasion of the 71st birth anniversary of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi today.
As the spokesman of the Government of India during Rajiv Gandhi’s Prime Ministership, I recall how he tried his best to realise his dream of ushering India into the 21st century as a modern and technologically advanced nation.
Rajiv Gandhi told the nation repeatedly that India had missed the Industrial Revolution, but it cannot afford to miss the Technological Revolution.
Rajiv Gandhi set up the National Informatics Centre, made it easier to import computers, and set up Technology Missions that today provide communication to each village across the country, make available drinking water to every villager, promote literacy, provide healthcare and usher in a White Revolution.
Rajiv Gandhi had in his person, the gene of his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru. In spite of the assassination of his mother Indira Gandhi by her personal Sikh bodyguards, the first step he took after he became Prime Minister, was to engage himself in reaching a peace accord with the then militant-ridden Punjab, which resulted in the Rajiv-Longowal Accord.
He also concluded the Assam Accord, the Mizo Accord and agreements with militants in Nagaland and Manipur. Conscious of the need for developing north eastern India, he facilitated full statehood for seven states.
If Jawaharlal Nehru was the architect of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Rajiv Gandhi worked for strengthening peace in South Asia and helped in establishing the SAARC. He visited Bangladesh when it was under strain following floods there, and signed the India-Sri Lanka Accord in 1987. In spite of Pakistan’s role in promoting a proxy war in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, he visited Pakistan when Benazir Bhutto was its Prime Minister, and hoped to open up a new chapter in bilateral relations between the two countries.
Rajiv Gandhi also took steps to improve relations with China. In spite of the incidents along the border, which made India give a strong response, he visited China and tried his best to improve bilateral relations with that country. Deng Hsiao Ping extended support to the initiatives taken by Rajiv Gandhi and the firm handshake that he extended will be remembered forever.
Internationally, Rajiv Gandhi played a major role in promoting peace in the world. He established close relations with the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, and played an important role in bringing the Soviet Union and United States together to end the Cold War.
His address to the United Nations on nuclear disarmament in the world is still remembered as an important document.
India would also remember that it was Rajiv Gandhi who strengthened Panchayati Raj institutions and encouraged the participation of women in democratic institutions.
Rajiv Gandhi made mistakes too, which cost him dearly. The amendment of the Constitution to annul the judgment in the Shah Bano case, which provided relief to a Muslim woman divorcee, was the first one. The attempt to have the Defamation Bill passed by Parliament, which put the onus on the defender, was the next one. And, looking back, his reaction to the allegations that Rs. 64 crores had been offered to someone close to the government in the Bofors deal, gave rise to a controversy that never died down.
Finally, his reaction to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which played a negative role in the implementation of the India-Sri Lanka Accord eventually cost him his life.
I do still recall that Prime Minister Narasimha Rao told me that one of the biggest losses to the country was the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1991. If he had survived, the nation would have had a strong leader for at least two decades, he said.