Had dastardly assassination not terminated his life, Rajiv Gandhi would have been 73 today. The 26 years that have lapsed since his death, have seen Congress, which he led to a triumphant 49% mandate in 1984, winning 414 Lok Sabha seats, plummet to 19.5% vote share and 44 seats. BJP, which was truncated to two seats and 7.4% vote share in the Rajiv wave, has, meanwhile, risen to 282 seats with 31.4% votes. Congress has more members in Rajya Sabha than in the Lok Sabha. Its dwindling fortune has made it seek alliances and support from forces who had assiduously opposed Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister and later as Leader of the Opposition.

The decline of a national political party and its journey to oblivion is not new. CPI was the main Opposition force with nationwide footprint in the first 25 years of freedom. It has one seat each in the two Houses of Parliament now. Socialists, who under different hues provided the most virulent opposition and even caused the split and demise of the Janata regime, are a miniscule force today. Swatantra Party, which was a major component of Janata in 1977, has disappeared altogether.

As things stand, Congress today is a quiescent body. It has a formidable nationwide cadre base. But there is near disconnect between cadre and the top leadership. Amit Shah constantly tours the states and spends two-three days in a state capital, when almost everybody who seeks time is given an appointment. Sonia Gandhi is unable to undertake vigorous tours due to her health condition. Rahul Gandhi makes short trips, and during that even if he is among cadres his attention is mostly pivoted on his cell phone. Aloofness and indifference seem to be the hallmark of Rahul Gandhi. This creates a chasm and lack of grassroots feedback.

There was brouhaha over Ahmed Patel’s re-election. Apparently, the Congress poll machinery is not geared even for an indirect ballot. Last year, Madhya Pradesh had witnessed a drama similar to the one enacted in Gujarat. There too BJP had two clear seats and Congress one. Amit Shah and Kailash Vijayvargiya unleashed an attempt to prevent Vivek Tankha from winning. Apparently, BJP’s aggression is aimed at even half-a-chance situations. Tankha, an eminent lawyer with tremendous goodwill, managed to carry the day. The Bhopal experience perhaps did not impact the Congress planning process.

In the last Opposition conclave convened by Sonia Gandhi a few days ago, Mamata Banerjee set the matrix. She is willing to work with both CPM and Congress (whom Trinamool seeks to marginalise in Bengal) and wants Congress to support regional forces in their respective moorings. The regional forces, in turn, will extend support to Congress in the areas where they don’t exist. In sum, Congress is expected to forego its turf in a large part of the country.

People who virulently opposed Rajiv Gandhi have found favour in the Sonia dispensation. S. Jaipal Reddy, who was the Janata candidate defeated by Indira Gandhi in Medak in 1980, had been one of the major forces in the Opposition benches against Rajiv Gandhi, was an important UPA minister and Sonia Gandhi’s spokesperson. Along with Sharad Yadav he had raised the Bofors issue more strongly than the BJP stalwarts. Lalu Yadav was the author of the slogan “galli galli mein shor hai Rajiv Gandhi chor hai”. Renuka Chaudhry, as Telugu Desam MP, was in the forefront of opposition to Rajiv Gandhi. Most of the allies Sonia Gandhi chooses to sup with have anti-Congress moorings. The cadre is confused. Many leaders have found other pastures, including in BJP due to the intransigence.

The decline in Congress fortunes began in Rajiv Gandhi days, accentuated by his reliance on friends and advisors who had little to do with Congress earlier. However, it must be recalled that Rajiv Gandhi was the first PM who tried to provide clean politics, an attempt which has been vigorously revived by Narendra Modi. In his first Independence Day address in 1985 (it was the first 15 August televised on nation-wide Doordarshan network) he unleashed his attack on satta ke dalal (power brokers). He pointed out that only 15 paise of every rupee released for the welfare of the poor reached the beneficiaries. By enacting the anti-defection law he tried to curb horse-trading (alas it goes on unabated till date).With the Navodaya Vidyalaya scheme he took quality residential schools to the weaker sections in the countryside. Telecommunications and computers were his priority. Assam, Mizo and Punjab accords sought to restore internal peace. SAARC was founded in his tenure. The action plan for a nuclear weapon free and non-violent world order was his thought, which was echoed in the UN in 1988.

Rajiv Gandhi was the first PM of India who had a professional background. Though son of a PM, he had been a successful airline pilot, reporting for work in the wee hours and observing all the rules as an employee. He gave India the five-day week, as he understood the value of leisure for a working person. Modern New Delhi with flyovers and the yellow line on the roads was his contribution as the head of the 1982 Asian Games committee. Unlike the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games did not leave a trail of scams.

There is a move these days to reopen the Bofors investigation. The howitzers have acquitted themselves well. Kargil was won with these howitzers and the Mirage aircraft bought in the days when Rajiv Gandhi called the shots. No guilt has been established in the court cases so far. It will be interesting to see how the power brokers whom Rajiv Gandhi sought to curb had managed to hoodwink and give a bad name to the person, who, till date, had received the largest mandate in India’s democracy.

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