Today, May 21, marks the 26th death anniversary of Rajiv Gandhi. The Twitter was flooded with tributes to the late prime minister who was brutally assassinated at a rally during the Lok Sabha election of 1991 in Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu. However, not many Bhakts were seen sparing words for the late leader, unlike what they do even when a ripe mango falls of the tree.
On the other hand, tributes paid by the nostalgic souls – both leaders and common man – who are finding it difficult to cope with the India of today raise a relevant question: Was the Congress story over the day Rajiv Gandhi left it for heaven?
Till 1989, the Congress was in power at the Centre for 39 out of 42 years since Independence and it was the Nehru-Gandhi family which had called the shots. In 1989, a member of that family was in power at the Centre for the last time.
With Rajiv Gandhi, Congress's dream of reviving dominance in national politics was blown into pieces
In 1991, after two years of instability, Rajiv had looked favourite for a strong return, just like his mother Indira had done in 1980 but his untimely death had shredded the Congress's dream of resuming its dominance to pieces.
In the next 26 years since the death of Rajiv, the Congress led governments at the Centre for 15 years but it was never the same force it was under the Nehru-Gandhis. The Congress in these years was led by non-members of the 'first family' like PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh and only led coalition governments.
As things have shaped up today, it will not be an exaggeration if one says that the Congress was virtually paralysed the day Rajiv Gandhi was killed, irrespective of his own shortcomings as a leader.
Rajiv had squandered a chance as PM to deliver but yet he was Congress's biggest hope till his death
Rajiv had led the government with the most brute majority in parliament (415, something PM Narendra Modi would like to break these days) but yet he could not deliver as the expectations and only ended up in the Bofors quagmire in five years time.
As Jawaharlal Nehru's grandson and Indira Gandhi's son, the charismatic leader became the youngest prime minister of India at the age of 40 and was seen a major hope for both the Congress and the country's future. But Rajiv Gandhi was a naive politician and he was dead before he could go for a course correction.
But his death was not just the loss of a political leadership for the Congress. For a party which was sincerely turned into a centralised family business over the years, Rajiv's death meant the party lost three crucial leaders [Sanjay and Indira being the other two] in a decade. With its ground network decimated by its own elites and the elites themselves getting eliminated from the scene, the Congress lost it both ways.
Rajiv's departure meant Indira's family project was under serious threat
The crisis that the Grand-Old Party faced in the wake of Rajiv's sudden demise is a testimony to the fact. Sonia Gandhi was in a state of utter shock in the aftermath of three crude deaths in the family and was not in a mind to carry on with the tradition like her late husband.
The two children – Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi – were too young then to chip in either. The de-Gandhification of the Congress in the following years had made the party just another competitor in the fray, a long distance away from what it was between 1947 and 1989.
It was Sonia herself who entered the show in the late 1990s to hold the party together and did her bit to bring it back into reckoning in 2004 but her refusal to become the prime minister meant that the Gandhi-centric functioning of the Congress had lost its currency.
The perception of the dual power centres during the UPA days dealt a blow to the Gandhis' authoritative image. Had Sonia taken up the mantle and yet failed, she could have gained the image that post-1977 Indira and post-1989 Rajiv had. But she chose to do otherwise.
Had Rajiv been alive today, anti-Modi forces would have felt confident
It is difficult to say how much Rajiv Gandhi would have succeeded had he been alive today (he would have turned 73 now) but he could have certainly given the anti-Modi forces a focal point to rally around.
Unlike Rahul who has failed to fire the imagination of the youngsters, Rajiv would have done the same for he was always looked up as a leader of the youth. It is a massive vacuum that the Congress has failed to fill, allowing Modi to prevail over it.
The media channels of today would not have spared Rajiv Gandhi for Bofors scandal for sure but despite all odds, the federal front would have received a shot in the arm.
In fact, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, who was mentored by Rajiv, might not have left the Congress had he been alive and made that party a strong one. One cannot also overlook the fact that with the departure of the last strong Gandhi, the Congress's core started losing its edge and in the era of Sonia and Rahul, it's falling apart like anything.