Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Remembering Rajiv Gandhi -40 years since friendship


On completing 40 years of meeting Rajiv Gandhi, the Avro Pilot

 

 RAJIV GANDHI (1944 – 1991)

P. S. Deodhar

 

1. Rajiv, the person and the friend

On 21st May 1992, Rajiv Gandhi’s first death anniversary, a memorial meeting was called by Mrs. Sonia Gandhi of about 35 to 40 professionals working closely with Rajiv during his tenure as the Prime Minister and later, as the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha. I was sitting next to her and was the last person to speak. It was at this instant that I suddenly realised that all who spoke earlier had met Rajiv Gandhi, the Prime Minister but Rajiv was my personal friend since several years before he was to enter politics. We two had spent time together since ever since 1974; at least twice in week in Mumbai.  He was always Rajiv to me and Rajivji to all others. Everyone had spoken about Rajiv, the PM, covering every facet of Rajiv as a young, honest and progressive technology savvy PM. Some, a little closer, admired his charming personality, agile mind, quick witted responses, his openness and his achievements. So I simply said, “Rajiv was my close friend since 1974 and I always feel deeply concerned that he had to assume the role of Prime Minister too soon in his political life. A life that was too complex for his personality to handle. Unfortunately we are all unlucky to lose him in his prime. It was too soon, cruel and violent.”

Premature responsibilities thrust on him by his seasoned political colleagues hurt Rajiv like nothing else. People were fed up of manipulative politicians and their sleazy tomfoolery. Rajiv was refreshingly different with modest charm in mannarism and looks. Therefore, in spite of his political inexperience and a kind of naivete in handling matters of diplomatic importance, he immediately became a popular and endearing icon. Within a few weeks, his personal image as a charming honest young man and his refreshing presence had enabled the Indira Congress to win a landslide victory with over 80% seats in the 1984 Lok Sabha.

But finally, and very unfortunately, this proved to be a wasted mandate. The leadership vacuum in the Congress obliged him to prematurely assume responsibility as the Prime Minister after the tragic death of his mother. In many ways, as a person, he was different and better. Rajiv believed in conciliation and not confrontation, he depended on well-educated friends and at least till during the first couple of years he had not build a coterie around him. He offered change but it was with a kind of continuity to Indiraji’s rule. But slowly and surely he realised that everybody around him was self-centred and had their own aspirations and wishes. Roots of his post-1986-7 problems can be traced to this inadequacy. Scheming political colleagues and bureaucratic manipulations were a little too much for him to handle. He couldn’t cope up with Vishwanath Pratap Singh’s motivated revolt and allegations of corruption. By then, he was not sure of anyone, not even his friends.

After losing power Rajiv spent the first half of 1990 analysing exactly what went wrong. On the day he became the Leader of opposition, I met him in parliament. We talked and he was frank enough to admit that he made mistakes but also said that he had little time to learn how the system works. Then he began an elaborate exercise of creating position papers on the various aspects of governance backed up with research.

Panchayati Raj, one of his unique concepts had to yet work. Harnessing technology for growth and balanced development was something that some of us were keen to focus on. He was slowly getting confident that if he came back to power he would get it right. I therefore believe that his early death deprived the country to see the new Rajiv as its statesman-like and mature Prime Minister.

 

Rajiv's friendship was an accident

I first met Rajiv, the Avro Pilot, on a rainy afternoon in Mumbai in mid-August 1974, a year before emergency. Our common friend, Audio Equipment Professional Manubhai Desai, the owner of Cosmic Radio, had arranged for us to meet. The reason was Electronics, the glamorous emerging technology that was to link us together for the next 16 years.  As we shook hands, his exceptionally handsome and gentle face broke into a smile as he said ‘Hello’. I did not know then that his winning smile was later to charm an entire nation. His smile was very rare. It had the innocent charm, the warmth and genuineness that would win over anyone’s confidence. It took only a couple of meetings and an early sizzler dinner at the Touché’ Restaurant to turn our acquaintance into a long & close friendship. While electronics and computers was its bedrock, our friendship grew closer week after week when we met during his lay-over in Bombay as an IA Pilot.

Till the untimely death of Sanjay in 1980, there was no place for politics, politicians, bureaucrats or the politically inclined in Rajiv’s circle in Mumbai. All these were scrupulously avoided. Often we would try and give a slip to the mandatory security to this son of the most powerful person in the country. In any case, his low profile resulted in very few recognising him as we moved together everywhere almost incognito. We went to Lamington Road or moved through Vileparle Bazaars for this or that but he remained largely unnoticed. Gokul Ice-cream was often a post-dinner luxury.            

Rajiv possessed a techno savvy inquiring mind and had an inquisitive urge for knowing more about techniques or innovation in a wide range of modern and fast converging technologies like micro-electronics, communication and computers. Interestingly however, Rajiv also showed a keen interest in social issues hurting people at the grass-root level. As he rubbed shoulders with common people while moving with us in Mumbai, we often ended up in thinking of solutions about this and that social issue and about life in general in India. He even willingly offered to visit a public hospital to meet if anyone was ailing from our friend circle. Looking at the face of our ailing friend, I believe that his charming reassuring smile gave them immense relief!  

The five years of being together till 1980 and the several hundred days we spent together, helped Rajiv  experience a different world. I wanted him to know the value of electronics and communication technology as a tool integrate multi-lingual, multi-racial largely illiterate India. He was a good student. He didn’t ever smoke or drink even a beer but often sat with us in evenings as we had a drink or two since our discussions invariably ranged on debating options related to various social and cultural ideas. Using technology as a nation building tool was often the theme.

He was sincere and disciplined in everything he did. He was also a devoted husband though he charmed women as equally as men. He had a dignified but a clean informal presence that nipped any cheap talk in the bud. Even in those days he was the people’s prince in his own right. The canteen boy in our factory would almost melt as he unfailingly got a smile with a nod from Rajiv as he accepted his plate. All our friends who often gathered at Manubhai’s place across the Santacruz Airport were his great fans. They loved him because he hated politics as much as they did in spite of being the son of the most powerful politician India has ever produced. Those were the days of learning, living and loving the common man’s world that later came in handy as his responsibilities grew to manage the country.

On reflection, I later wrote of him;

 

He looked all around
and saw everyone
uniquely engaged
in conducting their life –
some more successfully
and some others less
City bred and educated moved
In technological wonder
and sons of the soil
steering through instinct
in their natural splendour
some blissfully ignorant
rested in material opulence
Some, rich in thought,
.
enjoyed divine obeisance. 
He watched it all
With a great delight
never had he seen
such exciting sights
like angry street fights,
men battling for rights.
He soon learnt the passionate art
of living loving and learning
giving him rare insights
into the depth of human minds Some struggled but with a smile
living in poverty with defiance.
 
 

The most charming part of his persona was not having any air in him of being a son of India’s most powerful person. Even as a pilot, he was professional in his work but never overstepped his position in the organisation. Leave aside benefiting in any way from his enviable lineage and the Gandhi heritage, Rajiv did not want to use his immense shadow power even for a good cause. During the unfortunate days of the emergency, the father of a family friend of mine from Pune was taken away by the police due to his RSS links. This friend was anxious to know the whereabouts of his father after having no news of him for 10 days. I asked Rajiv whether he could ask police officials for the arrested person’s safety. When he declined, I was a bit upset initially but later Rajiv explained that such a thing will lead to his involvement and use of influence. The most important thing I admired about Rajiv was this inner strength to remain politically isolated while being very caring about his mother.

Rajiv lived in the PM House at I, Akbar Road but had his own living areas. He lived very simply but tastefully. Even Mrs. Gandhi's quarters were elegantly simple. His bookshelves were lined up with books on technology and engineering. A music system occupied most of the small living room. Music was his main pastime in Delhi and he liked both Western and Hindustani classical music and the film music was also not wholly unwelcome. His other interest was Amateur Radio and also Electronic Gizmos. All these were common bonds between us. Rajiv, Manubhai and me were bound by our common love for electronics technology and its potential. The first reasonably serious Home Computers were BBC Sinclair ZX80, ZX81 and Spectrum that appeared one after other between 1980 and the end of 81. We together bought ZX80 kit and later ZX81 and Spectrum with 128K RAM and used them patiently. Our IT education and fascination thus became hands on! He also indulged in serious photography. Flying however was his passion and a preferred profession. Our common friends in Indian Airlines vouched that he was a great pilot who also knew a lot about what’s what in the guts of his greatest love, the aircraft. 

Rajiv was a very private person. He guarded his thoughts and controlled his expressions with ease in those days. In his later years he picked up a wrong habit of making occasional smart remarks from our friend Mani Shankar Aiyar. The press was quick to catch on those to embarrass him. He was very friendly and everyone felt close to him but it took years for me to get a shade closer to him and have a glimpse of his private self. He had a difficult childhood and had learnt to live within himself. He had the cultivated art of keeping a cool and peaceful front. He controlled his anger from others but the reddening of his ear lobes gave it all away. I could easily sense his suppressed anger and discomfort even in official meetings.

During the post emergency days, we came much closer. His relationship with Sanjay had deteriorated to a new low. He was deeply affected by his mother's troubles after her political defeat in 1977. He felt that Sanjay was responsible for her political problems. He also disliked some notable others like Dhirendra Brahmachari around her. But he was very protective of her. I personally think that they both came closer like never before during those extremely trying times for her.

 

RAJIV – The Prime Minister

Obviously I saw less of him after he became the Prime Minister. However he would call me occasionally for a five-minute meeting that often stretched into an hour. We also met on Aircrafts when he was touring. That gave us some quiet moments. I  would write to him many comments and he responded often with his opinions. Till the end, I used to address him as Rajiv. Some times even during official meetings, I would occasionally slip and call the PM of India by his first name. He would smile and respond but I would curse myself for my indiscreet behaviour. Rajiv was never ever comfortable in the company of politicians till the end. Till he entered politics he had seen how the senior party leaders behaved, he saw hidden behind their lachari was a cunning mind with a private agenda. We talked of it rarely but his dislike grew more intense during post emergency days. It took some time to persuade him to meet Sharad Pawar and hear him out before Pawar rejoined Congress. The day he took over as the leader of the opposition and was moving his stuff in his new room in the Parliament, I said to him that he must be feeling free of a great burden in his new role that allows one to find faults but not perform. In childlike simplicity, he exclaimed, “No Prabhu! I am now afraid that all my excuses to avoid politicians are gone. I am worried Prabhu!”

As a young Prime Minister, Rajiv faced many unenviable challenges. He had a plethora of problems to resolve. Political and religious violence in Punjab and the Northeast, a sagging economy in terms of diminishing reserves and lack of adequate budget control, a demoralized Congress (I), chronic tensions with Pakistan and Sri Lanka etc left little time for fixing the far reaching basic inadequacies like the urban rural divide, education and healthcare. Two long years took away time to bring temporary calm. Intra-party politics by power brokers was hurting too. I had seen him exasperated and tense after meeting regional party bosses. 

The pace of economic reforms and policies to stimulate private investments were slow to arrive but focus on technology and new electronic and software policies were widely appreciated. We were doing our job by achieving 40% annualised growth of electronics and IT output. US multinationals and European corporations came forward with investments in software development. We set up four IT Parks and with that Bangalore was set in motion. A letter from Sam Pitroda in 1981 to Indiraji came to Rajiv and then me for comments. But Mrs. Gandhi did not trust Sam's motive. I suspect that her advisers put a fear in her mind that he was a CIA plant. Much later when Rajiv became the PM, he agreed to create CDOT for Sam, much against the DoT resistance. It proved to be major step towards reforms in telecommunications, especially to link rural and urban India. After Rajiv lost power, I was sick enough of Delhi to come back to my pavilion in Mumbai. Sam however told me that does not work for Rajiv but for India and therefore he would continue in Telecom Ministry as its secretary. Rajiv was not happy.

Even after V P Singh became the PM, the bureaucratic stronghold was throttling the development with manipulations by babus to delay reforms that would eventually reduce their hold over industry and spell death for the licence-quota raj. The commerce Ministry under Dinesh Singh was creating numerous roadblocks. I was fed up. Cunning bureaucrats had taken away the powers of the Government given to the Electronics Commission just a month prior to my taking over. I realised this within days but there was no way to reverse it. So it became a toothless body.

After two years, I advised the Government to dissolve the Electronics Commission as it was a waste of time to be an advisor. As they say of advice; the wise don’t need it and the unwise don’t heed it. Then Rajiv called me to say whether I was leaving him. He was already in trouble and I had no heart to desert him. So I became his Advisor still in the Rank of a Minister of State but to me it was more important to be by his side. The change of ministerial portfolios too was proving to be counter-productive. It was not my domain but I spoke with him against it on couple of times. Finally Madhavrao cScindia was the only minister to last the full term in his ministry. By early ‘87, it was clear that VP Singh had his own agenda. As someone has written; Rajiv had good intentions, showed some progress but was hurt due to weak implementation and poor political accumen. And then suddenly out-of-the-blue came the Bofors Scandal that hit Rajiv and his government like a tornado.

That scandal ultimately proved to be his cruel undoing. It hit him below the belt. He lost trust in nearly everyone. He was no Indira to deal with such situations. The system was taking its toll. This was severe trauma especially since he was wholly innocent. In the process out of a misunderstanding he lost his trusted friends and the Doon school mates. In example, both Rajiv and Arun Singh were of the same age and he joined Rajiv in 1981 just before he became a MP from Amethi. He was also Rajiv’s neighbour in 7, Race Course Road with just a wicket gate separating them. Indeed I feel that this was the time he mostly needed men like Arun Singh and not sycophants and the time-servers he had around. Luckily Arun Singh has later clarified that he parted from his close friend since he felt he lost Rajiv’s trust.

After 18 long years and after successive opposition Governments in power going after the Bofors payoffs scandal, Rajiv has been finally absolved of the charges by the Supreme Court. I however knew that from the day one. I never believed that Rajiv personally had anything at all to do with Bofors.  I had several strong reasons but the two of them the most important. From 1975, I found Rajiv to be ever clean when it came to moral behaviour; wine, women and wealth.

Whenever I have got any electronic gadget for him, he had always insisted to pay me the price. It was simply out of his character to even tolerate personal bribes, let alone demanding them. His friends had seen that in Mumbai. Secondly, when the matter was getting fiercely debated in the Parliament, Rajiv had categorically stated that he and the Swedish Prime Minister had together agreed to ensure that there were no commissions paid. Had he  any knowledge of the pay offs, he could have coolly announced that “In such international deals for sale of weapons, there always could be involved paying commissions and we will investigate the matter and if anyone is found guilty we will give severe punishment to everyone involved.” He instead insisted that there were no commissions paid. Why would he do it if he was personally guilty?

Nothing matters anymore. We lost Rajiv, the noble soul, a victim of dirty politics. 

 

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