Rajiv Gandhi, born on 20 August 1944 and tragically assassinated on 21 May 1991, was a prominent Indian politician who left an indelible mark on the nation’s political landscape. He served as the 6th Prime Minister of India from 1984 to 1989, stepping into the role following the assassination of his mother, the then-Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. This historic moment not only marked a personal tragedy but also thrust Rajiv Gandhi into the limelight, making him the youngest person ever to hold the esteemed position of the Indian Prime Minister at the tender age of 40. His tenure, although relatively short, was eventful and impactful, leaving a lasting legacy in the annals of Indian politics.
Contrary to popular belief, Rajiv Gandhi was not directly related to the iconic Mahatma Gandhi. He hailed from the influential Nehru-Gandhi family, a name synonymous with the Indian National Congress party. Growing up, he was immersed in a political environment, being the grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, a stalwart in Indian politics who served as the country’s prime minister. Rajiv Gandhi received his education at the prestigious Doon School, a renowned boarding institution, and later pursued higher studies at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Upon returning to India in 1966, he pursued a career as a professional pilot with the state-owned Indian Airlines, indicating his initial inclination away from politics.
In 1968, Rajiv Gandhi married Sonia Maino, and the couple settled in Delhi, embracing a domestic life with their children, Rahul and Priyanka. Despite his family’s deep political roots, Rajiv stayed away from active political engagement during much of the 1970s, even as his mother served as the prime minister and his brother, Sanjay, became a Member of Parliament. It was only after the tragic death of Sanjay in a plane crash in 1980 that Rajiv Gandhi was persuaded by his mother to enter politics, taking on his brother’s Parliamentary seat of Amethi and becoming a member of the Lok Sabha.
Rajiv’s political journey accelerated rapidly; he was appointed the general secretary of the Congress party and given significant responsibilities, including organizing the 1982 Asian Games. However, his life took a tragic turn on the morning of 31 October 1984, when his mother, then the prime minister, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in the aftermath of Operation Blue Star, a military action aimed at removing Sikh separatist activists from the Golden Temple of Harmandir Sahib. Later that same day, Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as the prime minister, inheriting a nation in turmoil. His leadership was tested as mobs of Congress supporters targeted the Sikh community, leading to anti-Sikh massacres in Delhi. The estimated death toll from these tragic events ranged from 8,000 to 17,000. Despite these challenges, the Congress party, under his leadership, secured a significant victory in the December 1984 elections, winning 411 seats out of 542 in the Lok Sabha.
Rajiv Gandhi’s time in office was marked by various controversies and challenges. He faced crises such as the Bhopal disaster, the Bofors scandal, and the Mohd. Ahmed Khan v. Shah Bano Begum case. Additionally, the 1986 Kashmir riots erupted soon after the installation of Gul Shah as chief minister in Jammu and Kashmir. In 1988, he intervened in the Maldives to reverse a coup, but this move antagonized militant Tamil groups like PLOTE. Furthermore, he sent peacekeeping troops to Sri Lanka in 1987, leading to a conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Amidst these challenges, the Bofors scandal significantly tarnished his previously untarnished image, contributing to a major defeat for the Congress party in the 1989 election.
After his defeat, Rajiv Gandhi continued to serve in the political arena as the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. However, his life was tragically cut short in 1991 when he was assassinated by a suicide bomber from the LTTE while campaigning for the upcoming elections. His untimely death shook the nation, leaving a void in Indian politics.
Following his demise, his widow, Sonia Gandhi, took up the mantle of leadership, becoming the president of the Congress party in 1998. Under her guidance, the party achieved significant victories in the parliamentary elections of 2004 and 2009. Rajiv’s son, Rahul Gandhi, also entered politics, becoming a Member of Parliament in 2004 and later serving as the President of the Indian National Congress until 2019. His daughter, Priyanka Vadra, made her mark as a general secretary of INC, contributing to the family’s enduring political legacy.
In recognition of his contributions to the nation, Rajiv Gandhi was posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, in 1991. His legacy continues to be remembered and celebrated, not only within the political sphere but also in the hearts of the Indian people. In 2009, he was honored with the “Revolutionary Leader of Modern India” award at the India Leadership Conclave, reaffirming his enduring impact on the country’s history and political landscape.