REMINICENSES OF A COMMUNICATOR: Rajiv Gandhi's Dreams Partly Realised

New Delhi, Aug. 20 (ANI): Rajiv Gandhi would have been sixty-nine years of age today. At the age of 40 he became the Prime Minister of India, the youngest person to assume that office in the country. He was a young man with a dream, a dream to usher India into the 2lst century, as a modern, technologically advanced nation.

It is a well-known fact that Rajiv Gandhi was reluctant to enter politics. He had little choice when his younger brother Sanjay Gandhi died in an air crash in 1980. A professional pilot, when he joined the Congress Party, he fully involved himself in the task of helping his mother. He became the President of the Youth Congress

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was then engaged in the task of holding the Asiad 1982, and soon after the Non-Aligned Summit Elected to the Parliament from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh in 1981, Rajiv Gandhi was made the General Secretary of the Congress. Barely three years later, he became Prime Minister of India following Indira Gandhi's assassination.

I first came into contact with Rajiv Gandhi during an Air Force demonstration in Hindon, an air base near Delhi, in 1981. Rajiv was sporting a camera and was taking pictures of the air manoeuvres. I was the Director of Public Relations in the Ministry of Defence, and had a brief chat with him about the photo coverage of the event.

I also had opportunities to interact with Rajiv Gandhi during the Asiad 1982 and the NAM Summit. But my first formal meeting with him was in 1984, when I was the Head of the News Services Division of the All India Radio. The Information Minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, asked me to prepare a blueprint for the introduction of hourly bulletins in the All India Radio to be presented to Rajiv Gandhi.

The Director General of the AIR and myself accompanied Ghulam Nabi Azad for the meeting. After explaining the proposals that we had prepared, I took the liberty of asking Rajiv Gandhi the objective of introducing the hourly bulletins, and whether the forthcoming Parliamentary elections had anything to do with it. Rajiv Gandhi had a hearty laugh, and said the need for hourly bulletins was to enable those who had missed hearing the main bulletins to catch up with the national and international events. He said that many a time he missed listening to the news bulletins when he had to attend to telephone calls.

1984 and 1985 were eventful years. The Blue Star operations in Amritsar to clear the Golden Temple of Sant Bhindranwale and the armed followers who had converted the Akal Takht into a fortress, the assassination of Indira Gandhi on October 31, and the violence that engulfed parts of India following Indira Gandhi's assassination presented challenges to the News Services Division of All India Radio.

The way in which Rajiv Gandhi conducted himself during the first few days after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, earned him the love and sympathy of the whole nation. Soon after taking over as Prime Minister on October 31, he called for elections to the Parliament.

In the Parliamentary elections that followed the Congress Party received an unprecedented majority - 404 out of the 485 seats contested - surpassing what was achieved even during the days of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Rajiv Gandhi endeared himself to the nation. A handsome person; he was frank and forthright and responsive and courteous to everyone who met him. He did not carry any political baggage. He was keen that politics should be clean and earned for himself the nickname of Mr. Clean.

During the last week of May 1985, I was asked to see Rajiv Gandhi in Parliament House. During that brief meeting, he told me that it had been decided to appoint me as the next Principal Information Officer of the Government of India to succeed U.C.Tewari, who was superannuating during the end of the month.

At the end of the meeting I asked Rajiv Gandhi, whether he expected me to do anything particular. He thought for a moment, and replied that we should encourage newspapers and news agencies to be independent and function in a healthy manner.

One of the first tasks I attended to was to encourage the reorganization of the Hindi News Agencies.

The Press Trust of India was headed by Ramnath Goenka, as its Chairman. . I ran into him at Palam -when we were waiting for an aircraft-in 1985. He told me that Rajiv Gandhi becoming the Prime Minister was the best thing that could happen to India.

Ramnathiji told me that if he could help in any way he would be glad to do so. When I told him that if PTI and UNI could absorb the journalists of Hindustan Samachar by starting their Hindi agencies, it would help.

With his support the Press Information Bureau hosted a meeting of the trustees of the news agencies - who were editors of newspapers. It was agreed to absorb the Hindustan Samachar journalists in Bhasha and Univarta

It took a few weeks to implement the changes. I was told by Vithal Gadgil, the Information Minister, that the Prime Minister was appreciative of the initiative taken by the Press Information Bureau.

In the Press Information Bureau we never had a dull moment. Rajiv Gandhi was a man in a hurry. He was keen that the bitterness that marked the national scene should be changed. The Punjab Accord was concluded in July 1985. It was followed by the Assam Accord-the final negotiations were conducted at 7 Race Course Road and the announcement made on August 15 at the Red Fort. . The Mizoram Accord was signed in June 1986.

Rajiv Gandhi wanted to liberalise the economy, end the licence-permit Raj. To transform the society, he established six technology missions - to make available drinking water in all villages in the country, to promote literacy, usher in a White Revolution, and promote health care.

Most important of all was the technology mission, which sought to spread telecommunications across with country. He used to say often that he was keen that India, which had missed the Industrial Revolution, should not miss the technological revolution. He was keen to make the administration responsive to the people's needs and encouraged the introduction of Panchayati Raj institutions.

Along with Sam Pitroda, who was the prime mover of the technology mission, the Press Information Bureau had the important task to explain the various steps to the people through the newspapers and the mass media.

If the Punjab and Assam Accords had the objective of promoting peace and goodwill within the country, he was keen to promote close understanding with India's neighbours. He paid a visit to cyclone-hit Bangladesh along with President Jayawardene of Sri Lanka and supported the holding of SAARC conference in Bangalore in 1986.

Behind the scenes at SAARC in Bangalore, he prepared the groundwork for the Indo- Sri Lanka Agreement, which sought to find a solution to the problems faced by Tamils in the island territory.

Internationally Rajiv Gandhi impressed world leaders as a young forward looking Prime Minister. He established a close rapport with President Ronald Reagan and President Gorbachev, besides other world leaders.

Personally, I received a great deal of support in getting access to information as spokesperson for the Government of India. He supported the efforts of the Information Ministry to promote transparency .and strengthen professionalism in the Doordarshan.

The mood in the country changed in the third year of his Prime Ministership. The Swedish Radio report that the purchase of Bofors guns involved a kickback of 64 crore rupees became a major controversy, which gave Rajiv Gandhi Government a bad name. The corruption charges, never proved, ultimately cost Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress the elections in 1989.

Rajiv Gandhi was learning the ropes of running the Government and managing politicians. When the Congress lost elections in 1989, one felt that Rajiv would come back soon as a more mature leader. But unfortunately, fate decided otherwise.

In many ways India has progressed on the lines visualized by Rajiv, even though he is not there.

I. Ramamohan Rao, former Principal Information Officer, Government of India. e-mail: By I. Ramamohan Rao (ANI)


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