It is often alleged that Rajiv Gandhi squandered his gargantuan electoral mandate of 1984.
Not only did the young prime minister fritter away his brute majority, slipping into a vortex of controversies, his tinkering of India’s socio-religious fabric also left India deeply unstable. The repercussions of issues that took a menacing turn under him (1984-89), the Babri mosque dispute being the foremost, are felt even today.
Indeed he may have catalysed the rise of India’s Hindu nationalists to the position they are in today.
A political outsider, Gandhi reluctantly plunged into politics at the behest of his mother, former prime minister Indira Gandhi, who had just lost her younger son and lieutenant, Sanjay, in a tragic plane crash in 1980.
The then 40-year-old elder Gandhi brother himself had been an Air India pilot for 12 years before getting elected to parliament in 1984. He was “the third member of his family to become prime minister of India, (but) the first to take the job not entirely willingly,” Ramachandra Guha writes in his book, India after Gandhi.
Gandhi’s victory—an unprecedented 414 parliamentary seats for the Congress party—essentially rode the sympathy wave unleashed by his mother’s assassination a few weeks ago.
His first task post-election was to put out sectarian fires across India, most notably in Punjab and the northeast. However, his inexperience, or a lack of political will as some may point out, showed up soon.
In 1985, the supreme court of India ruled in favour of Shah Bano, an elderly divorced Muslim woman seeking monthly maintenance from her remarried husband. She was opposing the provisions of India’s Muslim personal law, evoking the indignation of conservative Muslims.
Pandering to this segment of Muslims, the Gandhi government announced that it would bring in legislation to effectively nullify the supreme court’s Shah Bano judgement.
Shortly after this announcement, a more polarising event took place: The opening of lord Ram’s shrine inside the Babri mosque in Ayodhya.
It was widely believed among some Hindus that the mosque stood at the exact site of the birthplace of Ram. In 1949, a Ram idol had mysteriously appeared inside the mosque, inspiring an outpouring of faith and devotion among some Hindus. To avert any untoward incidents, the then government of Jawaharlal Nehru had locked up the shrine, disallowing worship at the site.
Gandhi’s government is said to have been instrumental in getting the lock opened again following a local court’s ruling in this regard. This was viewed as a balancing act to placate angry Hindu extremists angry at the government’s Shah Bano move.
This decision accelerated the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, led by the orthodox Hindu outfit, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), seeking to restore the rightful birthplace of Ram by demolishing the Babri Masjid.
Lal Krishna Advani, a senior leader of VHP’s political cousin, Bharatiya Janata Party, launched a full-blown grassroots campaign, the Rath Yatra, calling on Hindus to carry bricks to the site to construct a temple.
A rath is a chariot, and Advani’s campaign directly connected to a religious sentiment that prevailed across India during the time thanks to the enormously popular Ramayan serial broadcast every Sunday on the national television channel, Doordarshan. This “mythological soap opera” unwittingly provided what had been a historically diffuse and disparate religion a central figure to rally around.
As Guha puts it in India after Gandhi, the series played a crucial role in creating the image and firmly establishing the idea of Ram, giving the temple movement even more currency:
The Ramayan serial had been commissioned by state television independent of the happenings in Ayodhya. In the event, its appeal and influence contributed enormously to the VHP’s movement to “liberate” the birthplace of Ram. Hitherto one of many gods worshipped by Hindus, Ram was increasingly being seen, courtesy of the serial on television, as the most important and glamorous of them all.
When Gandhi was assassinated in 1991 by a suicide bomber belonging to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a Sri Lankan Tamil militant group, he was campaigning for the 1991 national elections. Many believed he was set to return to power.
Tragic as his death was, Gandhi’s legacy as prime minister is one that provided an inflection point for the rise of the BJP and the decline of the Congress.
India’s yet to recover from those tremors. Today, as the five-judge bench of the supreme court ruled in favour of Hindu groups in the hotly contested land dispute, questions over the secularism of the Indian republic are burning more brightly than ever before. History awaits as the next chapter in this turbulent saga begins.