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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2584

An evening with Rajiv Gandhi

By Atul Cowshish - Syndicate Features

To find the high and the mighty of the city strolling in Connaught Place in the 1960s and early 1970s was quite a common site. It was one place that guaranteed the plebeian a chance to find themselves walking along Delhi’s who-is-who. It was thus that one had the first close look at Rajiv Gandhi who would almost always come with his spouse, Sonia, and walk and shop like any other ordinary citizen and accepting greetings from passer-by.

Decades later, after he had lost the general election, came another chance to be in close proximity of Rajiv Gandhi. It appears he had started the practice of calling journalists in small groups of four or five for an exchange of views. It was a fashion among journalists of the time to be critical of Rajiv Gandhi; some had pathological hatred for him. The paper where this reporter worked was in the forefront of a ‘jihad’ against Rajiv Gandhi with the Bofors gun permanently trained on him. The group that landed at 10 Janpath that evening consisted of at least two vehement Rajiv critics and a ‘lively’ evening was assured.

The invited group of journalists assembled first in an ante-room where one of Rajiv Gandhi’s well-known aide engaged the guests in polite talk. One had no idea of the list of invitees. But soon trooped in a particular reporter who wallowed in his haughtiness and trumpeted his dislike for Rajiv Gandhi even as he functioned as an aggressive but self-styled PR man of V.P.Singh, Rajiv’s nemesis. It was an indication enough that sparks will be flying at the meeting. But it turned out to be quite an anti-climax!

As soon as all the invited reporters had arrived the group was herded into a sparsely furnished inner room which struck one as anything but ostentatious as one might expect at a place where lived India’s ‘first family’. Books and a few flowerpots were about the only pieces of ‘decoration’. Rajiv Gandhi entered soon afterwards. There was an awkward silence for a moment, as the assembled ‘adversaries’ did not quite know how to start the conversation going. A smiling Rajiv Gandhi put everyone at ease by himself opening the conversational gambit with some innocuous remarks and then straightaway inviting opinions or questions.

This, one might think, was the moment when the first salvo will be fired from among the guests to herald a clatter of verbal guns later, booming as loudly as the Bofors Howitzers. Though one does not exactly recall the question one can certainly recall that the maiden ‘salvo’ that was fired was rather subdued or even defused as the question was on far too predictable lines and not what one might call offensive. Rajiv Gandhi showed no signs of being annoyed. He smiled a little more as he replied at length, enlarging the scope of the debate, so to speak. The question, one might add, was from the alleged Rajiv-baiter.

What followed was even more astonishing. This so-called Rajiv-baiter completely monopolised the conversation, sometimes asking inane questions and often offering his own counsel while partaking of a fairly sumptuous spread of refreshments—much welcome at that hour. It was as if the ‘Rajiv-baiter’ was there to advise the former prime minister on how to regain his ‘gaddi’ (throne)—and quickly. At times this man would rub in the point that his family has been a staunch Congress supporter for generations with one of the ancestors being a well-known associate of Mahatma Gandhi. One had the urge to tell Rajiv Gandhi that if the fame or political ties of ancestors is to be talked about than this reporter too could lay some claim to blue-blooded political inheritance!

Anyway, that was not the time for one-upmanship and certainly there was no sign of the expected tension in the air, though other invited guests of the evening were getting a little annoyed over one man completely dominating the ‘show’. Rajiv Gandhi’s aide and Rajiv himself would occasionally prompt others to speak but that was at best only a momentary release from monotony. This reporter had an inadvertent role in terminating the meeting in a most unexpected manner.

What happened was that the digital watch one was wearing used to chime every hour on the hour. And sure enough it did. The time was 7 p.m. The Rajiv aide asked if it was a reminder of an ‘appointment’, with a wink in his eyes that suggested that he thought the chime was meant to remind one of a ‘spiritual’ appointment! Anyway, the ‘alarm bell’ was taken to be a polite way of seeking an end to the meeting.

Frankly, what could have been a more memorable moment was turning out to be a bit disappointing because the conversation was not equitably spread among the guests. Perhaps the fault lay with the others and not with any particular invited reporter.

But looking back what strikes one is the fact that though much maligned during his last year as the prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi had a certain simplicity that appealed directly to any audience, big or small. He could easily win friends, if not influence them. His ‘Mr Clean’ image might have been soiled by political rivals but it had not eroded his youthful exuberance and a genuine desire to listen to others.

He did not talk like a wily politician and would never take offence at criticism. If he had a point of view different from yours he would present it before you sincerely and in humility and it will be up to you to take it or leave it. The ‘hostile’ reporter who appeared to be unexpectedly soft towards his host was only reacting in a more natural manner when sitting with such a man.

Rajiv Gandhi behaved and talked very unusually for an India politician and this became the cause of both the likes and dislike that he evoked among fellow politicians and others. It may be too early to judge him in the historic context but some of his contributions to the progress and growth of the nation cannot be denied or overlooked.

India may still be far away from attaining the status of a ‘super power’ but at least in the world of knowledge India has already established its credentials as a great power. Indeed, India’s information technology strength is a matter of envy for many countries. It is doubtful if India would have reached there so fast had it not been for the initiative of Rajiv Gandhi took when he was prime minister of India (1984-89).

When he started talking about computers and the need to bring them to government offices almost the entire political class, including some in his own party, used to talk derisively about his fondness for ‘fancy gadgets.’ Politicians claiming to be more ideologically inclined openly expressed their opposition to computers, claiming it was a disingenuous way of cutting government jobs.

Rajiv Gandhi’s contribution extends to various other fields, ranging from education and science to economic policies. He had a vision of India that he did not like being clouded by political manoeuvring or dated ideologies. He had taken India away from a beaten political path.

- Syndicate Features -

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