Why Rajiv Gandhi is a poll issue, 28 years after his death

Following the end of five phases of Lok Sabha polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited massive criticism last Saturday for his “vulgar” and “desperate” remarks on former Congress-era PM Rajiv Gandhi, who was implicated in the Bofors scam and assassinated in 1991.

He targeted Congress president Rahul Gandhi in particular, saying, “Your father was termed ‘Mr Clean’ by his courtiers, but his life ended as ‘bhrashtachari No. 1’ (corrupt number 1).”

It is this personal attack that has inflamed masses and begged the question, does Modi’s belief that Rajiv tolerated corruption make it okay to tell his son 28 years later that he ended his life as India’s most corrupt man? What should we make of this fundamental disrespect for a former PM who was killed under cruel circumstances?

But that wasn’t the end of it

Throwing down the gauntlet and doubling down on his attack on Monday, Modi is reported as saying, “A few days ago, I called a member of the naamdar parivar (dynasty) bhrashtachari (corrupt) no. 1, and some people got such a severe stomach ache that they started crying aloud.”

Believing that the late leader should be made the poll issue for the remaining two phases, Modi then challenged his primary Opposition in the Indian National Congress to canvass in Rajiv Gandhi’s name.

“The more they cry, the more will today’s generation come to know…how a family looted the country in the 20th century, destroyed it—the youth of the country should know,” the prime minister who is seeking a second term announced to the sound of thunderous applause, while addressing a tribal constituency in Jharkhand.

A gathbandhan of Congress, RJD, and regional parties are contesting against the BJP in the state.

How the Opposition responded

After the PM’s acrimonious conduct, the Congress immediately appealed to the Election Commission, seeking a campaign ban on Modi, later filing an affidavit with the Supreme Court.

The younger Gandhi who is contesting from Amethi and Wayanad, however, responded gracefully with a tweet: “Modi Ji, the battle is over. Your Karma awaits you. Projecting your inner beliefs about yourself onto my father won’t protect you. All my love and a huge hug. Rahul.”

At a rally in Delhi on Monday, Gandhi was reported as saying, he only has love for Modi despite the prime minister insulting his father, a martyr in his eyes and a visionary leader to many.

“I told him whatever hatred you have for me, you can belittle me, you can say whatever you say about my father, mother, grandfather, grandmother,” Rahul told the press. “Whatever hatred you direct against me, I will only return it with love. Hatred can only be defeated by love. Remember, the same love will defeat you Narendra Modi ji on May 23”, which is when the election results will be declared. 

Above all, critics are questioning if by dragging Rajiv Gandhi into poll campaigning, the BJP has sunk Indian political discourse to its lowest depths.

Nearly 200 professors of the University of Delhi have issued a public statement condemning PM Modi’s derogatory remarks against Rajiv Gandhi. A Facebook community of academics wrote, “To speak of Rajiv Gandhi’s ghastly end in these crude, coarse terms is no political critique, butto taunt a son about his slain father is utterly despicable.” Though the clean chit is shortly to follow, of course, it added in parenthesis.

Many political analysts have also wondered that Modi might be baiting the Congress and targeting the Sikh vote in Delhi and Punjab with this comment, while Opposition leaders have expressed their utmost anguish at Modi’s unprecedented potshot at Rajiv Gandhi.

Congress leader Sam Pitroda was quoted as saying, “I cannot believe that a man from Mahatma Gandhi’s soil Gujarat would go to that level and make a comment on someone who died with great honour.” Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel claimed Modi has lost his “mental balance” while senior leader Mallikarjun Kharge said it clearly reflected his frustration and lack of “sanskar.”

Former Union Minister P Chidambaram also said this comes from a place of deep despair and fear of imminent defeat. In a series of tweets, the former Union Finance Minister wondered if any religion sanctioned speaking ill of the dead. 

My @IndianExpress Column | #AcrosstheAisle : With every new speech, PM Modi is testing limits of liberty a person may take with truthhttps://t.co/jeFbCeW7Am— P. Chidambaram (@PChidambaram_IN) May 5, 2019

Why Rajiv Gandhi matters in an election 30 years after his death

Coming to the man who is now the talk of the town nearly three decades after his demise, Rajiv Gandhi according to Indian Express was indeed dubbed “Mr Clean”—not by sycophants or those close to him but by what was then a fairly independent media.

The same, however, cannot be said for Modi today.

Second, Gandhi’s involvement in the Bofors deal was never proven beyond doubt. Justice JD Kapoor of Delhi High Court said in 2004, “So far as the public servants—Rajiv Gandhi and S.K. Bhatnagar—are concerned, 16 long years of investigation by… the CBI could not unearth a scintilla of evidence against them for having accepted bribe/illegal gratification in awarding the contract in favour of A.B. Bofors.”

The Rafale controversy, on the other hand, has not been investigated yet due a premature “clean chit” from the Supreme Court. There is none of the evidence to exonerate Modi and quite a lot of it pointing to foul play of some form with marked involvement of the PMO in bringing about the overpriced defence deal, according to leaked documents now under review by the top court.

A point of reference

Following this effort to drag Rajiv Gandhi’s name into the mud and to discredit his contributions, many historians and those who have lived to witness his visions come to life, rushed to his defence. Tech entrepreneur Ninad Vengurlekar wrote, “Rajiv Gandhi was a futurist who engineered a tectonic shift to disrupt the future of India for the next 100 years.”

He is not wrong; Gandhi was the one to launch India’s own telephone network MTNL and VSNL; he reduced import duties on computers and peripherals and also promoted research and development in Information Technology at a time politicians and economists thought it was a big gamble to allow foreign intervention in our economy.

“The words “taking India in the 21st century” were first uttered by Rajiv Gandhi when Indians were wondering how they will survive the 20th century. That 21st century has turned out exactly how he had imagined for his country. Those public phones and computers were seeds of a larger vision. He did not live to see it succeed. But that does not matter. What is amazing is that all this was initiated by Rajiv Gandhi in a short political life of 7 years,” Vengurlekar wrote in a Facebook post.

“He is the architect of India being the leader in IT and IT Services which contributed Rs.113,00,000 crores to India’s GDP in 2018-19,” he adds.

Why this matters

The biggest lesson for Indian voters in all this is, perhaps, how the ruling dispensation eludes questioning on their own failures and flawed policies, while nitpicking flaws of those who came before it.

Modi has, till date, failed to take on basic challenges like granting a press conference, and recently, the call for open debate on the Rafale deal with Rahul Gandhi. He is keen, however, to keep the naamdar vs kaamdar line of argument going, as is evident from his relentless potshots at the Gandhi-Nehru family.

In the PM’s defence, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley responded to the backlash saying, former prime minister Indira Gandhi was also assassinated but the Congress is still questioned about the Emergency and the Operation Blue Star.

With the standard for contemporary political discourse set at a previously unimaginable low, the recent exchange between a civilian at a public meeting and the BJP MP of the West Delhi constituency makes perfect sense.
When Parmesh Verma was asked to list the work he has done in the past five years, he responded, “Bharat mata ki jai.”

Thus, even if Rajiv Gandhi’s place in the ongoing elections seems unclear, the debate around him serves to embody several key flaws of the ruling party, starting with a basic lack of human courtesy, real accountability, decency and dignity that should come with political power.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

General Elections 2019Indian PoliticsLok Sabha Elections 2019