Rajiv Gandhi

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Rajiv Gandhi
Rajiv Gandhi (1987).jpg
7th Prime Minister of India
In office
31 October 1984 – 2 December 1989
President Zail Singh
R. Venkataraman
Preceded by Indira Gandhi
Succeeded by V. P. Singh
Leader of the Opposition
In office
18 December 1989 – 23 December 1990
Prime Minister V. P. Singh
Preceded by Vacant
Succeeded by L. K. Advani
President of the Indian National Congress
In office
Preceded by Indira Gandhi
Succeeded by P. V. Narasimha Rao
Member of Parliament
for Amethi
In office
Preceded by Sanjay Gandhi
Succeeded by Satish Sharma
Personal details
Born Rajiv (Sharma) Gandhi
20 August 1944
Bombay, Bombay Presidency, British India
(now Mumbai, Maharashtra, India)
Died 21 May 1991 (aged 46)
Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, India
Nationality Indian
Political party Indian National Congress
Spouse(s) Sonia Gandhi
Children Rahul, Priyanka
Parents Feroze Gandhi
Indira Gandhi
Alma mater Trinity College, Cambridge
Imperial College London
Religion Hinduism

Rajiv Ratna Gandhi (Listeni/ˈrɑːv ˈɡɑːnd/; 20 August 1944 – 21 May 1991) was the seventh Prime Minister of India, serving from 1984 to 1989. He took office after the 1984 assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, his mother, to become the youngest Indian prime minister.

A scion of the politically powerful Nehru–Gandhi family associated with the Indian National Congress party, for much of Rajiv's childhood his Maternal grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru was prime minister. For his college education, he went to Britain where he met and began dating Antonia Maino, an Italian waitress. Rajiv returned to India in 1966 and became a professional pilot for the state-owned Indian Airlines. In 1968, he married Maino—who changed her name to Sonia Gandhi—and the couple settled down in Delhi to a domestic life with their children Rahul and Priyanka. Although for much of the 1970s his mother was prime minister, and his brother Sanjay wielded significant unofficial power, Rajiv remained apolitical. After Sanjay's death in a plane crash in 1980, Rajiv reluctantly entered politics at the behest of Indira. The following year he won his brother's Amethi seat and became a member of the Lok Sabha (the lower house of Parliament). As part of his political grooming, Rajiv was made a general secretary of the Congress and given significant responsibility in organising the 1982 Asian Games.

On the morning of 31 October 1984, his mother was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards to avenge Operation Blue Star; later that day, Rajiv Gandhi was appointed Prime Minister. His leadership was put to the test over the next few days as organised mobs rioted against the Sikh community, resulting in the death of thousands in Delhi alone. Nevertheless, that December, a nationwide sympathy vote for Rajiv's Congress party helped it win the greatest Lok Sabha majority (411 seats out of 542) in history.

Rajiv Gandhi was also mired in many controversies: the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Bhopal disaster and Shah Bano case. In 1988, Gandhi reversed the coup in Maldives antagonising militant Tamil groups such as PLOTE. He was also responsible for first intervening and then sending Indian Peace Keeping Force troops for peace efforts in Sri Lanka in 1987, which soon ended in open conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In mid-1987, the Bofors scandal damaged his honest, corruption-free image and resulted in a major defeat for his party in the 1989 elections.

Rajiv Gandhi remained Congress President until the elections in 1991. While campaigning for the elections, he was assassinated by a suicide bomber from the LTTE. His widow Sonia became the president of Congress party in 1998, and led the party to victory in the 2004 and 2009 parliament elections. His son Rahul is a Member of Parliament and Vice President of the Congress. In 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award, by the government of India.

Early life and career[edit]

He was born in 1944 in Mumbai, during a time when both his parents were in and out of British prisons. In August 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru became the prime minister of independent India, and the family settled in Allahabad, and then at Lucknow, where Feroze became the editor of the National Herald newspaper (founded by Motilal Nehru). The marriage was faltering and, in 1949, Indira and the two sons moved to Delhi to live with Nehru, ostensibly so that Indira could assist her father in his duties, acting as official hostess, and helping run the huge residence. Meanwhile, Feroze continued alone in Lucknow. Relations were strained further when Feroze challenged corruption within the Congress leadership over the Haridas Mundhra scandal. After Feroze Gandhi had a heart attack in 1958, the family reconciled briefly before Feroze died from a second heart attack in 1960.

Rajiv first studied at Welham Boys' School in Dehra Dun, and then went on to the Doon School. He was sent to London in 1961 to study his A-levels. In 1962, he was offered a place at Trinity College, Cambridge, to study engineering. Rajiv stayed at Cambridge until 1965, but did not finish his degree.[1] In 1966, he was offered and took up a place at Imperial College London, but after a year left that course without a degree.

Rajiv began working for Indian Airlines as a professional pilot while his mother became Prime Minister in 1966. He exhibited no interest in politics. He married a waitress at a Greek restaurant Albina Màino who later became known as Sonia Gandhi. In 1970, his wife gave birth to their first child Rahul, and in 1972, to Priyanka, their second.

Entry into politics[edit]

Following his younger brother Sanjay Gandhi's death in 1980, Gandhi was pressured by Congress politicians and his mother to enter politics. He and Sonia were both opposed to the idea, and he even publicly stated that he would not contest for his brother's seat. Nevertheless, he eventually announced his candidacy for Parliament. His entry was criticized by many in the press, and faced public and political opposition. Rajiv also became a member of the Asian Games Organizing Committee in 1982 with his close friend and then sports minister Sardar Buta Singh as president of the committee. He fought his first election from Sanjay's erstwhile Amethi Lok Sabha seat, a Nehru–Gandhi bastion, and defeated Sharad Yadav. It was widely perceived that Indira Gandhi was grooming Rajiv for the prime minister's job, and he soon became the president of the Indian Youth Congress, the Congress party's youth wing.

Prime Minister of India[edit]

Rajiv Gandhi was in West Bengal when his mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated on 31 October 1984 by two of her Sikh bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, to avenge the military attack on the Golden Temple during Operation Blue Star. Sardar Buta Singh, as well as President Zail Singh pressed Rajiv to become India's prime minister, within hours of his mother's assassination. Commenting on the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, Rajiv Gandhi said, "When a giant tree falls, the earth below shakes";[2] a statement for which he was widely criticized. Many Congress politicians were accused of orchestrating the violence.[3] Soon after assuming office, Rajiv asked President Zail Singh to dissolve Parliament and hold fresh elections, as the Lok Sabha completed its five-year term. Rajiv Gandhi also officially became the President of the Congress party. The Congress party won a landslide victory with the largest majority in history of Indian Parliament[4]—giving Gandhi absolute control of government. He also benefited from his youth and a general perception of being free of a background in corrupt politics.[5]

Economic policy[edit]

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi with Ram Kishore Shukla in 1988.

He increased government support for science and technology and associated industries, and reduced import quotas, taxes and tariffs on technology-based industries, especially computers, airlines, defence and telecommunications. In 1986, he announced a National Policy on Education to modernise and expand higher education programs across India. He founded the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya System in 1986 which is a Central government based institution that concentrates on the upliftment of the rural section of the society providing them free residential education from 6th till 12 grade.[6] His efforts created MTNL in 1986, and his public call offices, better known as PCOs, helped spread telephones in rural areas.[7] He introduced measures significantly reducing the Licence Raj, in post-1990 period, allowing businesses and individuals to purchase capital, consumer goods and import without bureaucratic restrictions.[8]

Foreign policy[edit]

Rajiv Gandhi began leading in a direction significantly different from his mother's socialism. He improved bilateral relations with the United States – long strained owing to Indira's socialism and friendship with the USSR — and expanded economic and scientific cooperation.[9] During his state visit to the Soviet Union he met with Premier Nikolai Tikhonov, Andrey Gromyko of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Security policy[edit]

Rajiv Gandhi (left) congratulates Indian Army explorers for reaching the South Pole.

Rajiv authorised an extensive police and army campaign to contain terrorism in Punjab. A state of martial law existed in the Punjab state, and civil liberties, commerce and tourism were greatly disrupted.[10] There are many accusations of human rights violations by police officials as well as by the militants during this period. It is alleged that even as the situation in Punjab came under control, the Indian government was offering arms and training to the LTTE rebels fighting the government of Sri Lanka. The Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord was signed by Rajiv Gandhi and the Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayewardene, in Colombo on 29 July 1987. The very next day, on 30 July 1987, Rajiv Gandhi was assaulted on the head with a rifle butt by a young Sinhalese naval cadet named Vijayamunige Rohana de Silva,[11][12] while receiving the honour guard. The intended assault on the back of Rajiv Gandhi's head glanced off his shoulder and it was captured in news crew photographs and video.[13]

With his speech while addressing the Joint Session of the US Congress and India, he said, "India is an old country, but a young nation; and like the young everywhere, we are impatient. I am young and I too have a dream. I dream of an India, strong, independent, self-reliant and in the forefront of the front ranks of the nations of the world in the service of mankind."[14]


Anti-Sikh riots[edit]

Main article: 1984 anti-Sikh riots
Meeting Russian Hare Krishna devotees in 1989.

At a Boat Club rally 19 days after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv said: "Some riots took place in the country following the murder of Indiraji. We know the people were very angry and for a few days it seemed that India had been shaken. But, when a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little".[15]

This statement sent a wrong signal to the authorities, who adopted a callous approach of not allowing the truth to come out despite the government setting up probe panels one after the other, including two full-fledged judicial commissions (the first headed by retired Chief Justice of India Ranganath Misra and the second by former apex court judge G.T. Nanavati). As mentioned in the book 'When a Tree Shook Delhi' by senior advocate H.S. Phoolka and journalist Manoj Mitta (who have based the details of the book mainly on evidence produced before the nine panels and trial courts and high courts in the form of affidavits by witnesses), the police ironically cracked down on the Sikh victims, who had been defending their properties when they were attacked by hooligans led by local Congress leaders.[15]

Bofors scandal[edit]

Main article: Bofors scandal

Rajiv Gandhi's finance minister, V. P. Singh, uncovered compromising details about government and political corruption, to the consternation of Congress leaders. Transferred to the Defence ministry, Singh uncovered what became known as the Bofors scandal, involving tens of millions of dollars – concerned alleged payoffs by the Swedish Bofors arms company through Italian businessman and Gandhi family associate Ottavio Quattrocchi, in return for Indian contracts. Upon the uncovering of the scandal, Singh was dismissed from office, and later from Congress membership. Rajiv Gandhi himself was later personally implicated in the scandal when the investigation was continued by Narasimhan Ram and Chitra Subramaniam of The Hindu newspaper. This shattered his image as an honest politician; he was posthumously cleared over this allegation in 2004.[16]

Opposition parties united under Singh to form the Janata Dal coalition. In the 1989 election, the Congress suffered a major setback. With the support of Indian communists and the Bharatiya Janata Party, Singh and his Janata Dal formed a government. Rajiv Gandhi became the Leader of the Opposition, while remaining Congress president. While some believe that Rajiv and Congress leaders influenced the collapse of V. P. Singh's government in October 1990 by promising support to Chandra Shekhar, a high-ranking leader in the Janata Dal, sufficient internal contradictions existed, within the ruling coalition, especially over the controversial reservation issue, to cause a fall of government. Rajiv's Congress offered outside support briefly to Chandra Sekhar, who became Prime Minister. They withdrew their support in 1991, and fresh elections were announced.

In his book, Unknown Facets of Rajiv Gandhi, Jyoti Basu and Indrajit Gupta, released in November 2013, former CBI director Dr A P Mukherjee wrote that Rajiv Gandhi wanted commission paid by defence suppliers to be used exclusively for the purpose of meeting expenses of running the Congress party.[17] Mukherjee said Gandhi explained his position in a meeting on 19 June 1989, during a meeting between the two at the Prime Minister's residence.[18]

Sri Lanka policy[edit]

Then Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa opposed the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord, but finally accepted it due to pressure from then President Junius Richard Jayewardene. In 1987, when he was inspecting a guard of honour in Sri Lanka, he was assaulted by a Sri Lankan sailor[19][20] Vijitha Rohana de Silva of Naval rating.[21] His own agility and Indian Special Protection Group saved Rajiv from that brutal attack.[22] In January 1989 Premadasa was elected President and on a platform that promised that the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) leave within three months.[23] In the 1989 elections, both the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and United National Party wanted the IPKF to withdraw, and they got 95 percent of the vote.

The police action was unpopular in India as well, especially in Tamil Nadu, as India was fighting the Tamil separatists. Rajiv Gandhi refused to withdraw the IPKF, believing that the only way to end the civil war was to politically force Premadasa and militarily force the LTTE to accept the accord. Gandhi had concluded a visit to Sri Lanka; this was just after the Indian Peace Keeping Force (a contingent of India armed forces sent to Sri Lanka to help with their battle against Tamil insurgents) had been recalled and there was a good deal of resentment that Indian troops had been deployed there.

In December 1989, Singh was elected Prime Minister and completed the pullout. The IPKF operation killed over 1100 Indian soldiers, 5000 Tamil civilians and cost over 100 billion.[24][25]

Shah Bano case[edit]

Main article: Shah Bano case

In 1985, the Supreme Court of India ruled in favour of Muslim divorcee Shah Bano, declaring that her husband should give her alimony. A section of Muslims in India treated it as an encroachment in Muslim Personal Law and protested against it. Gandhi agreed to their demands.[26] In 1986, the Congress (I) party, which had an absolute majority in Parliament at the time, passed an act that nullified the Supreme Court's judgement in the Shah Bano case. This was viewed in India that it is against the fundamental rule of the constitution that the law does treat everyone equal and was seen as a strategy to appease Muslims and garner their votes.

Allegations of black money[edit]

In November 1991, the Schweizer Illustrierte (Swiss Illustrated page) magazine published an article on black money held in secret accounts by Imelda Marcos and 14 other rulers of Third World countries. Citing McKinsey as a source, the article stated that Rajiv Gandhi held 2.5 billion Swiss francs in secret Indian accounts in Switzerland.[27][28] Several leaders of opposition parties in India have raised the issue citing the Schweizer Illustrierte article. In December 1991, Amal Datta raised the issue in the Indian Parliament – the then speaker of the Lok Sabha, Shivraj Patil, expunged Rajiv Gandhi's name from the proceedings.[29] In December 2011, Subramanian Swamy wrote a letter to the director of the Central Bureau of Investigation which cited the article, asking him to take action on black money accounts of the Nehru-Gandhi family.[30] On 29 December 2011, Ram Jethmalani made an indirect reference to the issue in the Rajya Sabha, calling it a shame that one of India's former Prime Ministers was named by a Swiss magazine. This was met by uproar and a demand for withdrawal of the remark by the ruling Congress party members.[31]

Funding from KGB[edit]

In 1992, two Indian newspapers, the Times of India and The Hindu, published reports alleging that Rajiv Gandhi had received funds from the KGB.[29] The Russian government confirmed this disclosure and defended the payments as necessary for the Soviet ideological interest.[32] In their 1994 book The State Within a State, the journalists Yevgenia Albats and Catherine Fitzpatrick quoted a letter signed by Viktor Chebrikov, the head of the KGB, in the 1980s. The letter says that the KGB maintained contact with Rajiv Gandhi, who expressed his gratitude to the KGB for benefits accruing to his family from commercial dealings of a controlled firm, and a considerable portion of funds obtained from this channel were used to support his party.[33] Albats later revealed that in December 1985, Chebrikov had asked for authorisation from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to make payments to family members of Rajiv Gandhi including Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.[29][32] The payments were authorised by a resolution and endorsed by the USSR Council of Ministers, and had been coming since 1971.[32] In December 2001, Subramanian Swamy filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court, which the court ordered CBI to ascertain the truth of the allegations in May 2002. After two years, the CBI told the Court that Russia would not entertain such queries without a registered FIR.[32]


Remains of clothing worn by Rajiv Gandhi during his assassination
The stone mosaic that stands at the location where Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in Sriperumbudur

Rajiv Gandhi's last public meeting was at Sriperumbudur on 21 May 1991, in a village approximately 40 km (30 miles) from Chennai, Tamil Nadu, where he was assassinated while campaigning for the Sriperumbudur Lok Sabha Congress candidate.

At 10:10 pm, a woman (later identified as Thenmozhi Rajaratnam) approached Rajiv Gandhi in public and greeted him. She then bent down to touch his feet and detonated a belt laden with 700 grams of RDX explosives tucked under her dress.[34] The explosion killed Gandhi, his assassin, and at least 25 other people. The assassination was caught on film through the lens of a local photographer, whose camera and film were found at the site. The cameraman died in the blast but the camera remained intact. Rajiv Gandhi's mutilated body was airlifted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi for post-mortem, reconstruction and embalming.[35]

A state funeral was held for Rajiv Gandhi on 24 May 1991. His funeral was telecast live and was attended by dignitaries from over 60 countries.[36] He was cremated on the banks of the river Yamuna, near the samadhis of his mother, brother, grandfather and Mahatma Gandhi. Today, the site where he was cremated is known as Vir Bhumi.


Vir Bhumi, the place where Rajiv Gandhi was cremated, at Delhi
Rajiv Gandhi memorial plaque. Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, India

The Supreme Court judgement, by Judge Thomas, confirmed that the killing was carried out due to personal animosity of the LTTE chief Prabhakaran towards Gandhi arising out of his sending the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka and the alleged IPKF atrocities against Sri Lankan Tamils.[37] The Rajiv Gandhi administration had already antagonised other Tamil militant organisations like PLOTE for reversing the military coup in Maldives back in 1988. The judgement further cites the death of Thileepan in a hunger strike and the suicide by 12 LTTE cadres in a vessel in Oct 1987.

In the Jain Commission report, various people and agencies are named as suspected of having been involved in the murder of Rajiv Gandhi. Among them, the cleric Chandraswami was suspected of involvement, including financing the assassination.[38][39][40] Nalini Sriharan is the lone surviving member of the five-member squad behind the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and is serving life imprisonment. Arrested on 14 June 1991, she was sentenced to death, along with 25 others, by a special court on 28 January 1998. The SC confirmed death only for four of the convicts, including Nalini, on 11 May 1999.[41] Nalini, who was a close friend of an LTTE operative known as Sriharan alias Murugan, another convict in the case who has been sentenced to death, later gave birth to a girl, Harithra in prison. Nalini, who was earlier given the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in April 2000.[42] Rajiv's widow, Sonia Gandhi, intervened and asked for clemency for Nalini on the grounds of the latter being a mother.[43] Later, it was reported that his daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who was nineteen at the time of her fathers' assassination, met Nalini at Vellore Central prison in March 2008[44] Nalini regrets the killing of the former Prime Minister and claims that the real conspirators have not been caught yet.[45][46] President of India had rejected the clemency pleas of Murugan and two others on death row, Suthendraraja alias Santhan and Perarivalan alias Arivu in August 2011.[47] The execution of the three convicts was scheduled on 9 September 2011. However, the Madras High Court intervened and stayed their execution for eight weeks based on their petitions. In 2010, Nalini had moved the Madras High Court seeking release as she served more than 20 years in prison. She argued that even life convicts were released after 14 years of prison term. The state government rejected her request.[48][49][50] Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan, the three convicts condemned to death sentence have claimed that they are not ordinary criminals but political prisoners.[51][52][53] On 18 February 2014, the Supreme Court of India commuted the death sentence of Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan to life imprisonment, holding that the 11-year-long delay in deciding their mercy petition had a dehumanising effect on them.[54][55] On 19 February 2014 Tamil Nadu government decided to release all seven convicts in Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, including A G Perarivalan and Nalini.[56] The Union of India challenged this decision before the Supreme Court, which referred the case to a Constitution Bench.[57]

The report of the Jain Commission created a storm when it accused then Tamil Nadu chief minister, Karunanidhi of a role in the assassination, leading to Congress withdrawing its support for the I. K. Gujral government and fresh elections in 1998. LTTE spokesman Anton Balasingham told the Indian television channel NDTV that the killing was a "great tragedy, a monumental historical tragedy which we deeply regret."[58][59] A memorial christened Veer Bhumi was constructed at his cremation spot in Delhi. In 1992, the Rajiv Gandhi National Sadbhavana Award was instituted by the Indian National Congress Party.

Institutions named after Rajiv Gandhi[edit]

The International Airport constructed at Hyderabad in Telangana has been named Rajiv Gandhi International Airport. The Cricket stadium is also named Rajiv Gandhi International Cricket Stadium

Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law (RGNUL), Patiala, PUNJAB, India[60]

Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences, centered in Bangalore, India, is a unitary university set up in 1996 by the government of Karnataka, India, for the regulation and promotion of higher education.

Rajiv Gandhi Medical Complex, Tiswadi, Goa: including medical and nursing schools, general hospital, dental hospital and pharmacy services.

Rajiv Gandhi Proudyogiki Vishwavidyalaya, also known as Rajiv Gandhi Technical University and State Technological University of Madhya Pradesh, is an Indian multi-campus-affiliated university in Madhya Pradesh.

Inaugurated on 18 November 2002, Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology (RGCB) is a premier research institute in India, exclusively devoted to research in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology.

Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Technology,[61] in Kottayam district in Kerala

Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Petroleum Technology, Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh.

Rajiv Gandhi Indian Institute of Management Shillong, Shillong, Meghalaya.

Rajiv Gandhi Combined Cycle Power Project (NTPC), Kayamkulam, Kerala

Rajiv Gandhi University (RGU) earlier known as Arunachal University and established in 1984, is the oldest university in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. The foundation stone for the university was laid by Indira Gandhi.

The Rajiv Gandhi National Institute of Intellectual Property Management (RGNIIPM) is a Central Government Organization under the Ministry of Commerce & Industry engaged in conducting various Intellectual Property (IPR) Programs on Patents, Designs, Trademarks and Geographical Indications.

The Rajiv Gandhi Kala Mandir, Ponda, Goa; a Hindu temple renamed in his memory; now undergoing substantial refurbishment.


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Further reading[edit]

  • Sachi Sri Kantha. Prabhakaran Phenomenon. Lively Comet Imprint. 2005. (pp. 207–352 covers Rajiv Gandhi's assassination)
  • R. D. Pradhan. Working with Rajiv Gandhi
  • Mani Shankar Aiyar. Remembering Rajiv. Rupa. New Delhi. 1992.

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Indira Gandhi
Prime Minister of India
Succeeded by
V. P. Singh
Minister of External Affairs
Succeeded by
Bali Ram Bhagat
Preceded by
P. V. Narasimha Rao
Minister of Defence
Succeeded by
V. P. Singh
Preceded by
V. P. Singh
Minister of Finance
Succeeded by
N. D. Tiwari
Preceded by
N. D. Tiwari
Minister of External Affairs
Succeeded by
P. V. Narasimha Rao