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When Rajiv Gandhi, Indira's eldest son, reluctantly consented to run for his brother's vacant Lok Sabha seat in 1980, and when he later took over the leadership of the Congress youth wing, becoming prime minister was the last thing on his mind; equally, his mother had her own misgivings about whether Rajiv would bravely "take the brutalities and the ruthlessness of politics." Yet on the day Indira was assassinated, Rajiv was sworn in as prime minister at the age of forty. He brought into politics energy, enthusiasm, and vision--qualities badly needed to lead the divided country. Moreover, his looks, personal charm, and reputation as "Mr. Clean" were assets that won him many friends in India and abroad, especially in the United States. Rajiv also had a clear mandate to rule the country with an overwhelming majority in Parliament.
Rajiv seemed to have understood the magnitude of the most critical and urgent problems that faced the nation when he assumed office. As Paul H. Kreisberg, a former United States foreign service officer, put it, Rajiv was faced with an unenviable four-pronged challenge: resolving political and religious violence in Punjab and the northeast; reforming the demoralized Congress (I), which was often identified with the interests of the upper and upper-middle classes; reenergizing the sagging economy in terms of productivity and budget control; and reducing tensions with neighbors, especially Pakistan and Sri Lanka. As Rajiv tackled these issues with singular determination, there was optimism and hope about the future of India. Between 1985 and 1987, temporary calm was restored by accommodating demands for regional control in the northeast and by granting more concessions to Punjab. Although Rajiv acknowledged the gradual attrition of the Congress, he was unwilling to relinquish control of the leadership, tolerate "cliques," or conduct new elections for offices at the state and district levels.
Economic reforms and incentives to private investors were introduced by easing government tax rates and licensing requirements, but officials manipulated the rules and frequently accepted bribes. These innovative measures also came under attack from business leaders, who for many years had controlled both markets and prices with little regard for quality. When the Ministry of Finance began its own investigation of tax and foreign-exchange evasion amounting to millions of dollars, many of India's leading families, including Rajiv's political allies, were found culpable. Despite these hindrances, Rajiv's fascination with electronics and telecommunications resulted in revamping the antiquated telephone systems to meet public demands. Collaboration with the United States and several European governments and corporations brought more investment in research in electronics and computer software.
India's perennial, see-sawing tensions with Pakistan, whose potential nuclear-weapons capacity escalated concerns in the region, were ameliorated when the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC--see Glossary) was inaugurated in December 1985. Both nations signed an agreement in 1986 promising that neither would launch a first strike at the other's nuclear facilities. However, sporadic conflicts persist along the cease-fire line in Kashmir (see South Asia, ch. 9).
Relations with Sri Lanka degenerated because of unresolved Sinhalese-Tamil controversies and continued guerrilla warfare by Tamil militants, under the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who had bases in Tamil Nadu. Beginning in 1987, India's attempt to disarm and subdue the Tigers through intervention of the Indian Peace Keeping Force proved disastrous as thousands of Indian soldiers and Tamil militants were killed or wounded (see Peacekeeping Operations, ch. 10).
Rajiv Gandhi's performance in the middle of his term in office was best summed up, as Kreisberg put it, as "good intentions, some progress, frequently weak implementation, and poor politics." Two major scandals, the "Spy" and the "Bofors" affairs, tarnished his reputation. In January 1985, Gandhi confirmed in Parliament the involvement of top government officials, their assistants, and businessmen in "a wide-ranging espionage network." The ring reportedly infiltrated the prime minister's office as early as 1982 when Indira was in power and sold defense and economic intelligence to foreign diplomats at the embassies of France, Poland and other East European countries, and the Soviet Union. Although more than twenty-four arrests were made and the diplomats involved were expelled, the Spy scandal remained a lingering embarrassment to Rajiv's administration.
In 1986 India purchased US$1.3 billion worth of artillery pieces from the Swedish manufacturer A.B. Bofors, and months later a Swedish radio report remarked that Bofors had won the "biggest" export order by bribing Indian politicians and defense personnel. The revelation caught the nation's attention immediately because of the allegations that somehow Rajiv Gandhi and his friends were connected with the deal. When Vishwanath Pratap (V.P.) Singh, as minister of defence, investigated the alleged kickbacks, he was forced to resign, and he became Rajiv's Janata political rival. Despite relentless attacks and criticisms in the media as well as protests and resignations from cabinet members, Rajiv adamantly denied any role in the affair. But when he called parliamentary elections in November 1989, two months ahead of schedule, the opposition alliance, the National Front, vigorously campaigned on "removing corruption and restoring the dignity of national institutions," as did another opposition party, Janata Dal. Rajiv and his party won more seats in the election than any other party, but, being unable to form a government with a clear majority or a mandate, he resigned on November 29. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by Sri Lankan terrorists on May 21, 1991, near Madras. The Gandhi era, as future events would prove, was over, at least for the near term.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress