Why Rajiv Gandhi Failed: An Outsider Who Became An Insider When Delhi’s Elite Co-Opted Him

Rajiv Gandhi
  • It is the Delhi darbaris and the Nehruvian elite, who have failed India, and not just politicians. They continued playing their Machiavellian games that were not good for the nation.

    There is a need to cleanse the DDNE before things will improve in the direction that is needed.

When he came into politics after the death of his brother in a plane accident, Rajiv Gandhi was an outsider to the political nerve centre of the Congress party. He was a pilot and would have had a social circle quite different from that of his mother, Indira Gandhi, and his brother. His way of narrating the issues facing society, and what should be done to deal with them and make India stronger, would have been different from what would be otherwise discussed in the power circles.

That he was refreshing in many ways became clear when he made his speech at the Centenary Celebrations of the Congress party in Mumbai in December 1985. After listing out the problems the country was confronted with, Rajiv Gandhi came out with his analysis. He effectively said that the Congress party had lost touch with the people of India, and its leaders had indulged in activities that were hostile to the needs of the people. The following two sentences sum up the essence of his message:

“Millions of ordinary Congress workers throughout the country are full of enthusiasm for the Congress policies and programmes. But they are handicapped, for on their backs ride the brokers of power and influence, who dispense patronage to convert a mass movement into a feudal oligarchy.”


It is my opinion that the brokers were not just the leaders of the Congress party but what can be called an elite who were able to manipulate the system and profit from it. My comments expand the points made by Rajiv Gandhi. The leaders of the Congress party have been shown the door by the people of India. The elite needs to be exposed and also shown the door.

Before I give my comments, it would be useful to read Rajiv Gandhi’s analysis in his own words. We quote in some detail here.

“How have we come to this pass? We have looked at others. Now let us look at ourselves. What has become of our great organisation? Instead of a party that fired the imagination of the masses throughout the length and breadth of India, we have shrunk, losing touch with the toiling millions. It is not a question of victories and defeats in elections. For a democratic party, victories and defeats are part of its continuing political existence. But what does matter is if we work among the masses, whether or not we are in tune with their struggles, their hopes and aspirations. We are a party of social transformation, but in our preoccupation with governance we are drifting away from the people. Thereby, we have weakened ourselves and fallen prey to the ills that the loss of invigorating mass contact brings.


“Millions of ordinary Congress workers throughout the country are full of enthusiasm for the Congress policies and programmes. But they are handicapped, for on their backs ride the brokers of power and influence, who dispense patronage to convert a mass movement into a feudal oligarchy. They are self-perpetuating cliques who thrive by invoking the slogans of caste and religion and by enmeshing the living body of the Congress in their net of avarice.

“For such persons, the masses do not count. Their life style, their thinking - of lack of it - their self-aggrandisement, their corrupt ways, their linkages with the vested interests in society, and their sanctimonious posturing are wholly incompatible with work among the people. They are reducing the Congress organisation to shell from which the spirit of service and sacrifice has been emptied.

“As we have distanced ourselves from the masses, basic issues of national unity and integrity, social change and economic development recede into the background. Instead, phoney issues, shrouded in medieval obscurantism, occupy the centre of the stage. Our Congress workers, who faced the bullets of British imperialism, run for shelter at the slightest manifestation of caste and communal tension. Is this the path that Gandhiji, Panditji and Indiraji showed to a secular, democratic India?


“We talk of the high principles and lofty ideals needed to build a strong and prosperous India. But we obey no discipline, no rule, follow no principle of public weal. Corruption is not only tolerated but even regarded as the hallmark of leadership. Flagrant contradiction between what we say and what we do has become our way of life. At every step, our aims and actions conflict. At every stage, our private self crushes our social commitment.

“As action has diverged from precept, the ideology of the Congress has acquired the status of an heirloom, to be polished and brought out on special occasions. It must be a living force to animate the Congress workers in their day-to-day activity. Our ideology of nationalism, secularism, democracy and socialism is the only relevant ideology for our great country. But we are forgetting that we must take it to the masses, interpret its content in changing circumstances, and defend it against the attacks of our opponents.

“Mahatma Gandhi visualised the Congress as a fighting machine. Time and again we have demonstrated our fighting qualities - in the great non-cooperation movements of the twenties and thirties, in the Quit India movement of 1942, in the fifties and sixties when we carried the message of socialism to every door, in 1969-71 when the vested interests had to be fought in Parliament, in the courts and in the streets and in 1977-79 when persecution and calumny were answered by thousands of brave satyagrahis throughout the country. This is our tradition. We have to revive this tradition to fight for the poor and the oppressed. Only by doing so shall we gain the strength to create the India of our dreams.


“The revitalisation of our organisation is a historical necessity. At this critical juncture, there is no other political party capable of defending the unity and integrity of the country. There is no other party capable of taking the country forward to progress and prosperity. All other parties are shot through with internal contradictions. The sorry, un-edifying spectacle of their total incapacity, corruption, nepotism, hypocrisy has disfigured our political landscape. They have shown a cynical disregard for sensitive issues of national security. Some have not hesitated even to collude with anti-national elements. Their ideological roots are shallow, their political outlook circumscribed by region, caste and religion. Whenever they have come to power, they have retarded social and economic progress. They have no sense of history. Those who campaign for a weak Centre, campaign against the unity and integrity of India, their slogans of welfare are spurious because true welfare comes from growth, which they have been busy destroying. It is the responsibility of the Congress to ensure that India is not left to the mercy of such forces.

“We must once more generate a mass movement based on Congress ideology to fulfil this momentous task. Only with such a movement can we cleanse the party and the nation. The inner strength of our people, their unbounded patriotism, their unshakable commitment to social justice, and their aspiration for a strong and prosperous India will destroy the ugliness and enrich the creative ground of India's greatness.

“How will this mass movement of epic proportions arise? What are the essentials of the Build India Movements?


“The country needs a politics of service to the poor. The country needs a politics based on ideology and programmes. To bring this about, we must break the nexus between political parties and vested interests. We will change the electoral laws to ensure cleaner elections. We will make political parties accountable for the funds they receive. We will wage an ideological war against those who exploit the poor in the name of caste and religion.

“The Congress, the custodian of the national will and the sentinel of India's freedom and unity, will be reorganised and revitalised. It will gather in its fold patriots of all sections and all communities. It will be the shield of the oppressed and the sword of the poor.

“The war on corruption will go on without let or hindrance. The country needs a clean social and political environment the Congress is determined to give it.


“Any denial of justice to the poor and the weak is in itself a crime. Our judicial institutions and legal systems have to be streamlined and strengthened. Sooner, rather than later. We shall put our best brains to work on this problem.

“Our administrative machinery is cumbersome, archaic and alien to the needs and aspirations of the people. It has successfully resisted the imperative of change. It must learn to serve the people. It must become accountable for results. We need structural changes at all levels. We shall have them.

“The India of the future is growing in her schools and universities. But our schools and universities do not relate to the vision of the future. They continue to function in the old grooves. A new blueprint for education is being designed. It will not come out of musty corridors of the educational establishments. It will only come from a movement involving teachers, students, parents, thinkers and philosophers. Not a movement to capture more privileges, but a movement that sees the future in relation to the present and the past, a movement that uses that vast untapped energy of millions to create a design suited to our needs.


“As we look back on what we have achieved, one thought keeps coming back to mind. How must faster we would have developed had we succeeded in restricting the growth of our population? Progress would have been greater not in material terms alone, but in the quality of human life. That makes the family planning programme so crucial to our future development. We need a better strategy to achieve the national goal of a stable population, healthier and better educated.

“The time has come to infuse new life into the struggle against poverty. Our anti-poverty programmes, notably the 20 Point Programme, have to come out of the grip of bureaucratic sloth and inefficiency. They have to become people's programmes. All the elements - education, health and nutrition, family planning, land reforms and cooperatives, communications, agriculture, animal husbandry, industrial and rural crafts – all have to come together in an integrated programme to wipe out the age-old curse of poverty. The power to shape their own lives must lie with the people, not with bureaucrats and experts. Experts must help the people. Vibrant village panchayats must discuss, deliberate and decide the choices to be made. This is a challenge to the Congress cadres. It is up to us, the workers of this great organisation, spread in every village and every hamlet of India, to mobilise the people, to guide them, to stand by their side when they are denied their due, to fight for them and to see that resources are properly utilised, not frittered away on unproductive projects. This will keep our organisation in touch with the masses and will help us to become the true vehicle of change in rural India.

“We are building an independent, self-reliant economy. We have already achieved much. But more hard work is required from everyone – from scientists and technologists, from the public sector, from the private sector, from industrial workers, from farmers, public servants, from traders, housewives and each one of us. We have to work hard to accelerate our agricultural and industrial development on the basis of our own resources. We have to produce more than we are doing today to invest more in future progress, and to support anti-poverty programmes. We must remember that self-reliance and eradication of poverty demands, indeed compel, the present generation to bear hardship and make sacrifices. Those who are employed have a duty to the future of India. They have to be more productive and consume less so that resources can be made available for investment and for programmes to help poor. This is a national duty - a patriotic duty.


“Our lifestyles must change. Vulgar, conspicuous consumption must go. Simplicity, efficiency and commitment to national goals hold the key to self-reliance. The Congress ministers, Members of Parliament, members of State Assemblies, party functionaries and leaders at all levels must set the example. Millions of people will follow them. Austerity and swadeshi will galvanise the masses to grow more, to produce more and to serve more.

“Above all, we need to create a mass movement for strengthening India's unity and integrity, for deepening our Indian-ness. The Congress, which won freedom for India, the Congress, which has brought India to the threshold of greatness, is pre-eminently the party of India's resurgent nationalism. Our nationalism is based on our rich diversity of cultures, languages and religions. The Congress represents the multi-faceted splendour of India.

“Today, communal, casteist and regional forces, sustained by external elements, are undermining our unity.


“We have to be on our guard. We have to carry the message of nationalism and unity to all. We have to overcome divisive forces. Let the saga of our freedom struggle be our inspiration. Let thousands and thousands of Congress workers fan out into every village, every urban centre to revive the traditions of our glorious struggle for freedom in which, all differences were transcended. We shall persuade. We shall educate. We shall bind people together. But let the divisive forces understand quite clearly that the Congress, with the strength of the masses behind it, will crush with all its might the designs of anti-national elements.”

So that is what Rajiv Gandhi had to say in 1985.

Before I comment on this, consider what Sanjay Baru, media advisor to Manmohan Singh in UPA-1, wrote an article in The Week with the title “India’s Cultural Revolution” in 2015. In it, he writes about what he calls Delhi Darbaris and the Nehruvian Elite (DDNE), whom he identifies as “the power elite of bureaucrats, diplomats, academics, artists, writers, journalists and business leaders who had benefited from their proximity to political power through the Nehru family era”. He wrote that Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee were right in dismissing the suggestion that the DDNE be sidelined. He applauds them for trying to co-opt them within their system or work with them.


At the time, I wrote to Baru to ask him exactly what the DDNE had done that could be said to have benefitted the nation. He did not respond to this specific query, and it reinforced the contention that I have been making for a long time, that the DDNE think they are important only because they are the DDNE (or, should it be said that they wormed themselves into that position). They have enriched themselves from what the Samaj has provided to them – and are living a lifestyle which they did everything possible to deny those who provided for them.

Baru also says that Narendra Modi is wrong in sidelining them, because he has made enemies of them, and they have decided to actively work against him. How is this being done? Surjit Bhalla (who uses the term ‘old elite’ for the DDNEs) narrates their modus operandi when he writes:

“But the old elite – politicians, corporates, left-intellectuals, academics – cannot be expected to give up their privileges so easily. They will try to derail the transformation and object at every turn: If that means fake analysis, they will do so. If that means intellectual gymnastics, they will do so. The key point is that they must do so….Will the old elite use all its instruments, and cash in all the old I-owe-you(s) in order to influence the debate, even with fake news and even flakier analysis, if need be? You bet.”


Given what he spoke in December 1985, I would like to contend that the first ‘outsider’ was not Modi, but Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv Gandhi was a pilot, and thus not involved in the hurly-burly of politics as his brother, Sanjay Gandhi, was. Perhaps he had a different take on politics, and a way at looking at issues relating to the nation. And in this outlook, he was able to sift the wheat from the chaff, in the way that Baru, and other ‘analysts’, have not been able to do. And so he developed the instinct of an outsider.

But we know what happened to Rajiv Gandhi after this speech – he got himself co-opted into the DDNE. Or should it be said that the DDNE wormed its way to him, and made sure that he did their bidding, rather than follow his instincts. A friend of mine from Delhi told me that, when he returned back to Delhi after the speech, Indira Gandhi’s kitchen cabinet gave him sufficient hints that if he followed through on his speech, his position would be in serious trouble. Rajiv Gandhi realised that discretion was a better part of valour, and decided not to follow his instincts. And so what happened, happened.

It is a tragedy that this speech was ignored immediately after it was given, and the ‘analysts’ did not hold Rajiv Gandhi responsible for what he said. They did not analyse his actions based on the framework he had himself set out in his speech in December 1985. I strongly believe that had it been done, there would have been sufficient pressure on the DDNEs to realise that their days were going to end, and that they would have to do some real hard work if they want to be relevant to the needs of the society. And ‘achche din’ would have dawned a long time ago.


Perhaps Rajiv Gandhi did not have a support mechanism to help him stand firm in the face of what the DDNEs would have done to fight back. Perhaps Rajiv Gandhi did not have a support mechanism to translate his thoughts into actions. Perhaps his convictions were not strong enough. Whatever may be the case, we all know what happened when Rajiv Gandhi co-opted himself into the DDNE group. The flowering of the full potential of India and its civilisation had to wait until another outsider, Modi, could come.

For a long time, I have been maintaining that enduring solutions to the various problems faced by the country are not found because of the failure of intellectual class. It is the DDNEs who have failed India, and not just politicians. They did not propose the right solutions, and continued playing their Machiavellian games that were not good for the nation. Even if a politician had the right ideas (not a sustainable assumption, I recognise), he would be dissuaded by the cacophony that the DDNE create. Read the Bhalla quote again. Just as today, they would have fought back in the same dirty manner as they are doing today.

What Rajiv Gandhi said then has even more relevance today, because much water has flown down the Ganga, and the problems have become more complex. I have faith that Modi has the instincts, and the strength of conviction, to deal with them. I have some faith that he has a support mechanism that Rajiv Gandhi did not have. This latter faith is dampened because there are some in the BJP that are part of the DDNE, even if they are kept at the periphery. I have a feeling that the core of the DDNE are trying to work themselves to bring them to the centre, at least temporarily, just as they did with Rajiv Gandhi in a permanent manner. I feel that it is because of this that the instincts of Modi are not getting fully converted into action. I am not rationalising but providing an idea of the problems that exist. There is a need to cleanse (though not in a physical sense) the DDNE before things will improve in the direction that is needed.


Rajiv Gandhi’s analysis was not new even in 1985, but they were not part of the consciousness of the DDNEs and hence did not flower into a process of manthan (intellectual churning). There is a need for it all to come out into the open, and debated in society in a robust manner.

(Ashok Chowgule works for his family business based in Goa. Views are personal)

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