– BY RAJEEV GOWDA
When it comes to the term Youth Icon, I cannot think of a better person to award the title to than the late Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv was our Prime Minister from 1984 to 1989 and his life, his ideas, and his deeds, remain an inspiration to youngsters even today. More than anyone else in modern Indian history, Rajiv Gandhi is personally responsible for empowering youth in transformative ways. Let’s take look at Rajiv Gandhi’s life and track record in more detail and see why I consider him an eternal youth icon.
At the outset, let us remember that youth is not just an age. Youth is not about being 18 to 35 years old. Youth is a state of mind. It’s an attitude. Youth is about idealism and a sense of unlimited possibilities. Youth is about the power of dreams and visions and the daring and drive to make them reality. When we define youth in this manner, then it would be entirely truthful to argue that Rajiv Gandhi is enduringly youthful.
From the point of view of his family, Rajiv was the perfect youth. He had grown up in the arms of Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. He was surrounded by many of the inspiring figures from India’s independence movement. He grew up with many of the scientists and bureaucrats who helped build and sustain modern India. Being around them, Rajiv Gandhi learned to respect the essence of these leaders, the force that made them tick. He learned to salute their achievements, sacrifice, and integrity. So though he was born in the midst of power, for him power and its possibilities did not intoxicate. He stayed away from politics and focused on professional achievement – he became a pilot so that he could balance his love for flying with a glamorous career.
One of the most magical things that youth discover is love. And romance. While studying in England, Rajiv was lucky enough to fall in love with the graceful Sonia Maino. He succeeded in whisking his Italian lady love on a magic carpet ride to India. When we look at biographies of the Nehru-Gandhi family, we see beautiful pictures of their happy family life. We see pictures of several generations of the family smiling in good times. And recently, on the Internet, I came across a black and white picture of Sonia and Rajiv eating ice cream at India Gate like any other young Delhi couple enjoying the simple pleasures of life.
Youth are also dutiful toward their elders. And Rajiv Gandhi, along with being a loving husband and father, was also a dutiful son. Rajiv had stayed away from political involvement and that portfolio belonged to his younger brother, Sanjay Gandhi. But in 1980, just after the family’s political revival, tragedy struck. Sanjay Gandhi died in a plane crash. A few months later, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi summoned Rajiv and told him that she needed his help. Overcoming his disinterest in politics and his wife’s objections, Rajiv joined his mother in her political mission. He started as General Secretary of the Congress and ushered in a team of youngsters into leadership roles—many of the Congress party’s current leaders are from that era.
And for his first challenge, he took on the task of ensuring that the preparations for the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi were executed efficiently. The games turned out to be a spectacular success and Rajiv Gandhi had proved his administrative mettle.
Within a couple of years, tragedy struck again. The problems in Punjab had been resolved at a heavy cost. And the nation paid another huge price when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984. And that brought Rajiv Gandhi to the Prime Minister’s seat.
As a youthful Prime Minister, just in his 40s, his entry was a breath of fresh air. He talked about a new vision, of taking India to the 21st century. Everywhere Indians started to sense new horizons and new possibilities. Rajiv Gandhi started the process of computerizing India. He brought in dynamic experts like Sam Pitroda and together they ushered in a telecom revolution, bringing connectivity to the masses. Even today, leading scientists like CNR Rao talk fondly about Rajiv’s emphasis on science and research and belief in a strong, technologically modern India. And we must remember that it is Rajiv Gandhi who started the process of economic liberalization that would ultimately unleash the entrepreneurial energies of Indians and free us from some of the constraints that had crept in to our economy over time.
Above all, Rajiv Gandhi was Mr. Clean, the shining idealist who we hoped would get rid of the corruption that was paralyzing India. He spoke plainly about how development funds got diverted. He argued that 85% of the funds allocated to helping the poor never reached them—partly because of bureaucratic waste, but worse, because of heartless corruption. Acknowledging the problem is the first step to finding a solution. Similarly, at the Congress centenary session in Mumbai, Rajiv Gandhi highlighted the problems facing the grand old party and highlighted the need to transform it.
Along the way, though, some of his own trusted aides left him over the Bofors controversy. Even though nothing has been proved even till today, it became an issue that led to the Congress party losing the election. But Rajiv, even though leading the single largest party in parliament, chose to sit in the opposition. And he began the arduous task of fighting back and resurrecting the Congress. Rajiv Gandhi showed us the meaning of resilience.
There are also some mistakes that people criticize Rajiv Gandhi for. Allowing some ceremonies at the Babri Masjid. Or not standing by Shah Bano in her fight with orthodox leaders. But, to me, these reflect the mistakes of youth, caused by a hopeful person’s optimism, and not by a cynical calculation of vote banks. Rajiv Gandhi and cynicism just do not go together.
In the middle of the election campaign that could have returned him to power, Rajiv Gandhi was tragically assassinated. Even at that moment, he had been receiving his people’s love with open arms, but that openness was misused in the worst way. I still remember the moment when I heard about Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. I was studying in America at that time and I was shellshocked and crestfallen. A few days later, I wrote a long 84 line poem in rhyme, lamenting the loss. Here was someone like you and me, someone who didn’t have to take on the perils of politics, someone who had led from the front because so many others have walked away from the challenge. And this tragic outcome was the unhappy reward for all that sacrifice. What is to become of our country, I despaired.
And I think about what all could have been possible if Rajiv had not been assassinated. I believe that under Rajiv’s leadership we surely would have already achieved what the economic soothsayers are now predicting—that India will be one of the leading global economies in the next few decades.
I base that confidence on Rajiv Gandhi’s track record. He was a practical idealist who believed that India had potential. And that India’s youth had unimaginable capabilities. So he unleashed the power of our youth. He lowered the voting age to 18. If our youngsters were eligible to fight on our borders, then surely they had the judgement to vote and vote sensibly, he reasoned.
Rajiv Gandhi also ushered in the decentralization of power through Panchayati Raj. Now, in every village around the country, there are youngsters who can participate in democratic processes, engage with governance, and revitalize politics.
Rajiv’s idealism was also evident on the world stage. Leaders everywhere showered him with affection. His address to the joint session of the United States Congress was breathtaking. And he came to the aid of India’s neighbors when they were in trouble—generous acts that were ultimately to cost him his life.
I had the pleasure of meeting him in 1989, when he was no longer Prime Minister. The meeting was at Bangalore Airport and the memories are still vivid. I was overwhelmed by his charisma, his warmth, his firm handshake. But above all what shone through was an essential goodness that was truly inspiring.
The youth of today have much to learn from this endearing, enduring youth icon. Rajiv Gandhi taught us to dream big and execute bigger. He taught us to be dutiful and brave, forthright and frank. He showed us the power of courage. He showed us that we need humility and resilience. He showed us that we must believe. And that if we act on our beliefs, with dedication and dynamism, we too can build that 21st century India of Rajiv Gandhi’s dreams.
– From a talk broadcast on All India Radio, May 20, 2009, on the occasion of Rajiv Gandhi’s death anniversary.