The 1984 Indian General Elections were unforeseen and unfortunate. Indira Gandhi’s term was to be officially ending in the first week of 1985. However, in an incredulous turn of events, she was assassinated by her bodyguards, who fired 28 bullets at her.
With her politically active and younger son Sanjay Gandhi dead in a plane crash in 1980, the eyes of the Congress leadership turned towards the elder, apolitical son, Rajiv; a commercial pilot for Air India at the time. In the controversial book ‘Ballot: Ten Elections that Changed in India’, it is said that Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv’s wife, pleaded Rajiv not to consent to the party’s demands, but he believed it was his duty to do so.
Rajiv was sworn in as interim Prime Minister the same night. The politically naive scion of the Gandhi family called for an election at the earliest possible dates. His strategy relied on the public belief that the sympathy wave for a son whose mother was brutally killed for keeping the nation united could be short-lived. Thus, India was set for elections on 24th, 27th and 28th December 1984. The sympathy-vote strategy hit the jackpot for Rajiv Gandhi, with Congress winning 414 seats out of the 542 seats in the Lok Sabha, a record which still stands today.
1984 was a tumultuous time for the nation. The assassination resulted in the anti-Sikh sentiments taking a violent turn. The equation with the Sikh community was already fragile with the Khalistan issue. Indira’s murder by her Sikh bodyguards was the final nail in the coffin. Within days, law and order had tumbled down as Sikhs were flogged, burnt, and mercilessly killed.
Such a chaotic situation worked well for Congress, as there were stints of deinstitutionalisation, reminiscent of that during the Indian Emergency of 1975. The Election Commission of India, albeit a fiercely autonomous body with a dedicated workforce, failed to exercise control over Congress’s campaigning for the election as the establishment struggled to maintain peace in the country.
There were three occasions where Congress crossed the line of laws and ethics to turn the tables in their favour. First, Rajiv Gandhi, in his 50,000 kilometres of campaigning and travel, used his official PM’s helicopter for travelling. Second, Congress went ahead with an illegal campaigning advertisement which projected anti-Sikh sentiments to the public. Lastly, the Commission was also persuaded to call for elections in state prematurely in March or April 1985, leaving the opposition in disarray, to allocate the necessary amount of funds for the respective polls.
The Congress heavily exercised control over broadcast media for the elections, foreseeing the effectiveness of the medium. State-run television and radio channels heavily broadcasted programmes about the life of the deceased Prime Minister. But while these may still be seen as petty quibbles to the unbiased eye, a rumour which shocked most is the fact that centre-left Congress used the support of the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to win the elections.
In the book above, it was claimed that Rajiv, who was riding on the sympathy wave, aspired to push the Hindutva ideology to safeguard his political interests. “There were talks of a secret meeting between Rajiv Gandhi and Balasaheb Deoras, resulting in RSS cadre supporting the Congress during the 1984 Lok Sabha election, despite the presence of BJP in the political scene,” wrote author Rasheed Kidwai. While the Congress has not disputed the claim, in 2007, former Congress leader Banwarilal Purohit had corroborated this claim.
Purohit, an MP from Nagpur at the time, had claimed to act as a mediator between Gandhi and Deoras. “Since I belonged to Nagpur, Rajivji wondered if I knew then RSS chief Balasaheb Deoras. Upon hearing my ‘of course, very well’, he wanted to know my opinion on whether the RSS would support the Congress if Shilanyas (foundation) at Ram Janmabhoomi is permitted,” he reportedly said.
Calling the 1984 General Elections undemocratic can be a bit harsh, as apart from this lapse of the Election Commission on those three occasions and this largely unproved conspiracy of back-channel support, the elections are mostly regarded as a free and fair one. But it is indeed compelling to conclude that Rajiv and the others went off the edge to prevent the loss of power at the centre, in contrast to Indira Gandhi’s defeat in 1977 to pave the way for a first non-Congress government. Rajiv did everything for history to not repeat itself.
Rajiv’s young and ‘Mr Clean’ image (similar to the P&G mascot) worked wonders for the Congress, who were considered to be crippled after the death of its two towering leaders, Indira and Sanjay Gandhi. His famous, “I am young and I too have a dream..,” at the US Congress in 1985 is forever remembered as a highlight of his political career.
His name has now irrevocably been entrenched into charges like corruption post the Bofors arms deal and the Fairfax scandal. Author S.S. Gill later deduced that Rajiv’s inexperience subsequently led him to align with the same forces that he pledged to fight against. This probably accounts for the fact that his policies towards the advancement of technology, education and infrastructure remain a tad less illustrious.
Disclaimer: Through this article, MTTN solely aspires to highlight the hitherto unknown dimension of a particular election in Indian history. Even though best attempts were made to keep the article objective, MTTN, by any means, does not align itself to any political party/ideology or an organisation by the means of this article.
All the claims that are made by this piece are only done after confirming it from verified sources. A major source of facts of this piece is from Rasheed Kidwai’s book “Ballot: Ten Elections that Changed India” along with similar articles found on India Today and Zee News.
Written by Rishi Kant for MTTN