February 1, 2010
Rajiv Gandhi (1944-1991), sixth prime minister (1984-1989) of India, the third member of his family to attain that post.
Rajiv Gandhi was born in Bombay (now Mumbai). His grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was India’s prime minister from 1947 to 1964; his mother, Indira Gandhi, held the same post from 1966 to 1977 and from 1980 to 1984. Rajiv was raised in his grandfather’s home. He went to the elite Doon School in Dehra Dūn, then studied at the University of London and at Trinity College, Cambridge in Britain. Returning to India, he became a commercial airline pilot. His younger brother Sanjay, also a pilot, became his mother’s chief political lieutenant, while Rajiv showed no interest in politics. After Sanjay’s death in a plane crash in 1980, Indira Gandhi recruited Rajiv to seek his brother’s parliamentary seat, which he won by a landslide in 1981.
Rajiv had only a few years of political apprenticeship before Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh members of her bodyguard in October 1984. The attack was apparently in revenge for her military operation in June 1984 against an extremist Sikh group occupying the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Upon her death, Rajiv was chosen prime minister by the cabinet. In the next days Hindu mobs killed thousands of Sikhs until Rajiv called out the army to restore order. He then called general elections for December 1984 and, on a wave of national sympathy, led the Congress Party to its greatest victory since Indian independence. With 80 percent of the seats in the lower house, he had a popular mandate to negotiate a settlement with the Sikhs and to try to restore calm to India. He signed an accord in 1985 with a moderate Sikh leader who was then assassinated by extremists, and Sikh radicalism did not cease during Rajiv Gandhi’s term in office.
Gandhi removed many restrictions on imports and encouraged foreign investment, helping propel India to strong economic growth under the government’s 1986-1990 economic plan. However, critics accused him of being indecisive. He fired his mother’s aides and frequently changed the membership of his cabinet, appointing a series of young technocrats and old friends. Although Gandhi promised to end corruption, he and his party were themselves implicated in corruption scandals. Gandhi ordered troops into northern Sri Lanka in 1987 to support that country’s efforts to suppress Tamil separatists, and he stepped up army actions against Muslim separatists in Jammu and Kashmīr State.
In elections in November 1989 Gandhi won his seat, but the Congress Party lost its majority and he resigned as prime minister. He led the opposition to the politically left-leaning government of Vishwanath Pratap Singh for a year, then briefly backed the government of Chandra Shekhar before toppling it in March 1991 by blocking passage of a new budget. In 1991 while campaigning in Tamil Nadu State for upcoming elections, Gandhi was assassinated in a suicide bombing by Tamils taking revenge for his intervention in the Sri Lankan civil war. In 1998 26 members of a separatist guerrilla group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were convicted of Gandhi’s murder and sentenced to death.