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What kind of PM would Rajiv have made in a second term?

It is one of the great ‘what ifs’ of Indian history and last week, as we marked Rajiv Gandhi’s birth anniversary, I was reminded of it again.

What would India have been like if Rajiv Gandhi had not been assassinated in 1991?

 

Well, first of all, there is the question of whether he would have become Prime Minister again. You can argue, as some do, that the only reason that the Congress came close to a majority when the results were declared was because there was a sympathy vote in the later rounds of polling after Rajiv was killed. There is no way to settle this. The case for a sympathy vote depends on the difference in the Congress vote in the early pre-assassination rounds versus the vote in the later rounds. For every person who makes the case for a sympathy vote, there are Congressmen who argue that the party was always expected to do badly in the early rounds because these were seats where the Congress was weak.

 

  Thirty years later, we are not going to be able to settle that argument but I believe that the balance of probability is on Rajiv’s side. Even if the Congress had won fewer seats, Rajiv had already sewn up the support of the Left and would have had no difficulty in forming a government.

 

   Assuming he had become Prime Minister, would he have liberalised the economy as completely as Narasimha Rao did?

 

   The tendency within the Congress is to say that Rajiv had become a liberaliser and would have implemented the reforms. While it is certainly true that he had grown weary of state control of the economy, he was not, as far as I could tell, a full-fledged free-marketer. For instance, his Finance Minister would have been Pranab Mukherjee, a man who never quite fully embraced the market. (P Chidambaram was closer to Rajiv than Pranab during the Congress’s period in opposition but Pranab was the senior figure and would have got the job.)

 

   On the other hand, ask yourself this: was Narasimha Rao a great liberaliser before the Congress took office in 1991? And what about Manmohan Singh who had spent most of his life serving the license-quota-permit raj?

 

   The truth is that the Indian economy was in such bad shape that any Prime Minister would have had to accept the IMF’s terms and liberalise. There simply was no choice.

 

   You could argue that once the IMF’s conditions had been met, the Rajiv-Pranab duo would not have shown much enthusiasm for further big-ticket reforms. But then, did Narasimha Rao? Once the reforms the IMF had demanded had been implemented, Rao refused to take the liberalisation process much further.

 

   So yes, the reforms would have taken place if Rajiv was PM though we can argue about how far Pranab Mukherjee would have taken the process once the IMF’s pistol had been removed from his temple.

 

 "But of one thing there is no doubt: under Rajiv it would not have become a marginal player struggling to remain relevant."

   What kind of Prime Minister would Rajiv have made in a second term? The general view of his first term is that he was well-intentioned but inexperienced and therefore unable to achieve the things he wanted to do.

 

   My sense is that he had learned from his mistakes and would have made a much better Prime Minister in his second term. By the end of his first term, he had already moved beyond the glib, managerial solutions that were presented to him in his first years in office. He had come to recognise the importance of bringing democracy to India’s villages (the Panchayati Raj programme) and cared very deeply about making sure that the aid meant for the poor actually reached them.

 

   People don’t often see this but the emphasis on direct transfers and welfare schemes that Sonia Gandhi brought to UPA I (and which Narendra Modi has persisted with) comes directly from Rajiv’s impatience with the fiscal and monetary solutions favoured by the government’s economists. Had Rajiv lived, he would have pursued liberalisation with an emphasis on social welfare. (Which is, effectively, what Sonia Gandhi did over a decade later.)

 

   How would the Congress have fared during a second Rajiv term? Well, it is foolish to believe that it would always have stayed in power. It could well have lost the 1996 election. But of one thing there is no doubt: under Rajiv it would not have become a marginal player struggling to remain relevant. He would have maintained its position at the centre of the political system.

 

   For a start, I don’t think the Congress would have lost the Muslim vote. We talk about liberalisation being Narasimha Rao’s major achievement. It certainly was that. But there was also another one. The Babri Masjid was destroyed on his watch. He slept through the demolition which he could have prevented. With that began the long process of alienation of Muslims from the Congress and in some cases, from mainstream Indian politics even. Knowing what we do of Rajiv, I think we can be fairly certain that he would never have let the Babri Masjid be demolished.

 

   Narasimha Rao also gifted away the Congress’s dalit base to the BSP through an ill-advised electoral tie-up. And because he simply could not get across to voters in UP and Bihar and other North Indian states, he failed to win back those who had become disillusioned with the Congress. From his reign on, the Congress became an irrelevance in Bihar and UP. Rajiv may or may not have revived the Congress in those states but he certainly had an appeal to Hindi belt voters that Rao never did. He could well have used a second term to rebuild the Congress base in the Hindi heartland.

 

   And what of the BJP? Would we have the situation of communalised polarity that prevails today? I doubt it. Even if the BJP had risen to become the Congress’s primary opposition, the battle between Rajiv and AB Vajpayee would have been conducted within a secular construct. We would not have reach a situation where “Go to Pakistan” has become a common putdown and Muslims would not have been lynched by gau-rakshaks.

 

   We often forget that the Congress (and the UPA) convincingly defeated the BJP in 2009. The rise of Narendra Modi and his brand of Hinduism only came about because of the failures of UPA II and the leadership vacuum that resulted from Sonia Gandhi’s illness and Manmohan Singh’s inaction. Had the Congress shown strong leadership in that period, it would not have collapsed in the face of the Modi onslaught. That was when the party missed Rajiv the most.

 

   And it would have been a strong and united Congress. As long as Rajiv was alive, very few Congressmen of consequence dared talk about leaving the party. Those that did (say, Pranab Mukherjee) came back with their tails between their legs. But once Rajiv was assassinated, the Congress began to fall apart. The ND Tiwari Congress was created during Narasimha Rao’s time. That was when the entire Tamilnadu unit of the party walked out. Mamata Banerjee left because the party was weak at the centre. So did Sharad Pawar. With Rajiv alive and in charge, those desertions may well have been avoided.

 

   So yes, the Congress would have been a very different party. And India would have been a very different country.

 

   Or so I think. Because ultimately, when we play the ‘what if’ game, all we can do is make educated guesses.

 

   Maybe this is really what would have happened.

 

   Or maybe not.

 

 

Posted On: 24 Aug 2021 06:38 PM
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