Recollections of a communicator, Remembering Rajiv Gandhi (Article)

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By I. Ramamohan Rao

New Delhi: India is remembering today Rajiv Gandhi, the youngest person to have occupied the office of Prime Minister since the country attained Independence in 1947.

Traditionally India has been used to geriatric political leaders, in the belief that age is associated with wisdom. The country did not find it easy to accept Rajiv Gandhi, who was just 40 years old when he became Prime Minister in 1984.

Rajiv Gandhi would have been 63 today had he not fallen a victim to an assassination in Siriperambudur in May 1991 just, as he was about to address an election gathering.

During the five years that he was Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi took many initiatives, which are coming to fruition now and placing the country ahead in the world in many spheres.

If India is ahead in the field of information technology, it is due to the decisions taken by Rajiv Gandhi. As Prime Minster, he had allowed computers to be imported to India with little or no tax in the eighties. The older generation, including civil servants, used to make light of the decision and kept the computers in the offices as showpieces.

But the younger generation has taken to them and the result is evident today.

Rajiv Gandhi was keen to bring about a technological revolution and liberalise the country's economy. He used to say in almost every public gathering that India had missed the industrial revolution, and he was keen that it should not miss the technological revolution.

A man in a hurry, he set up six missions-to make available drinking water in all villages in the country, to promote literacy and promote health care. He set up the technology mission, which sought to spread communications across the country The aim then was to ensure that each village in India would be connected by a telephone.

Today one could reach across the country at a moment's notice and millions of Indians have access to a mobile telephone. Gone are the days when one used to wait in telephone offices for a trunk call to materialize.

I had the advantage of functioning as the Principal Information Officer of the Government of India when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister. The first three years of my tenure was a period when there were no tensions, though challenges were many. Because Rajiv was a man in a hurry.

He had assumed office with no political baggage behind him. The tragic circumstances in which he became Prime Minister following the assassination of his mother did not leave bitterness in him,

The first step he took was the engage in a conversation with the opposition groups in the Punjab. The Punjab accord concluded in July 1985 - known as the Rajiv -Longowal Accord - opened the road to peace in the State, though it took almost a decade for the accord to yield fruition.

The Punjab accord was followed by the Assam Accord. The final round was discussed at 7 Race Course Road and the announcement was made by him at the Independence Day speech at the Red Fort.

Mizoram was in turmoil. Rajiv was able to get the militant groups to engage in a discussion. The Mizo Accord was signed in June 1986.

He was also keen on promoting peace and tranquility in the sub-continent. When Bangladesh was stuck by unprecedented cyclone, he visited that country and promised all assistance.

He was keen that the Indian sub-continent should give up misunderstandings, and promoted the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation. The first session of the SAARC was held in Bangalore in 1986.

Rajiv was also convinced that India had a great role to play in world

Affairs. He established close relationships with President Reagan and the Russian leadership. President Gorbachev visited India and interacted with Rajiv Gandhi on the promotion of Perestroika, which changed the Cold War atmosphere.

Rajiv wanted to end the violence in Sri Lanka. He sent his emissaries to get in touch with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, particularly their leader Pirabhakaran, and sought to find a solution to the problem faced by Tamils in Sri Lanka.

He worked behind the scenes in Bangalore with President Jayawardene of Sri Lanka for a peace accord in that country. He succeeded in doing so, even though it was not supported by the hardliners. He was attacked by a Sri Lankan soldier, when he went to Colombo to sign the accord.

The LTTE was assured a role in the new federal set up to look after the problems of the Tamils. But there were hardliners among the Tamils who did not support the accord. Ultimately, the conflict erupted, and still does not seem to come to an end. The issue also claimed the life of Rajiv in 1991.

Rajiv was known as Mr. Clean. He was against the Permit-Licence Raj, for liberalization, and never thought there was any need for corruption. He refused to believe that money changed hands in the Bofors gun deal that India concluded with Sweden on the eve of his visit to that country.

The Bofors gun deal, according to reports involved a kickback of 64 crore rupees, and the initial Swedish Radio report linked it to elements close to the Prime Minister. The report was denied, but the controversy dogged the Rajiv Gandhi Government till the end of its term in 1989.

I recall my conversation with late Narasimha Rao in 2003 that the biggest loss that India suffered was the death of Rajiv Gandhi. Narasimha Rao said that Rajiv Gandhi would have provided leadership to the country for at least two decades, and his loss was the greatest that the country had suffered.

In India we believe that whenever the country faces danger there emerges a great man. Rajiv was one of them.. When will we have another?

I. Ramamohan Rao, former Principal Information Officer, Governement of India. E.-mail :

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