Rajiv Gandhi was two things that were and are so unusual to find among politicians, leave alone Prime Ministers.
First, he was completely unambitious and completely disinterested in politics.
Secondly, he was a 100% family man, devoted to his small family and in love with his wife, right till the end.
Though Rajiv Gandhi lived at home with his Prime Minister mother Indira, it was left to younger brother Sanjay to join Congress and become a full time politician. Rajiv was very happy with his job as Pilot with Indian Airlines, with a monthly salary of Rs. 5000/ with which he brought up his family of two children and wife.
If anything, he regretted that his children could not lead normal lives as growing up school children due to security constrains.
“What is very difficult is what the children have to go through,” said Rajiv while speaking to Simi Garewal when she made a documentary on him. “They cannot have normal lives. Even their education has been messed up because of security problems. If anyone has had to sacrifice, it is the children.”
His disdain for politics stemmed not only from his own inclinations, but also Sonia’s insistence that he keep away from public life. In fact when she married him, she had made him promise that he would never, ever consider going into politics.
It is said that when Sanjay Gandhi died suddenly in the tragic plane crash, Rajiv was torn between his mother who tearfully pleaded with him to take his brother Sanjay’s place in politics – “I cannot trust anyone else” she said – and Sonia who was not ready to compromise and release him from the promise he had made her.
When he made his decision known, siding with his mother, Sonia cried for four days and would not come out of her room. She became haggard, lost weight and for some days became lackadaisical about how she dressed even.
She was constantly afraid that she would ‘lose him’ as he would have no time left for her and the children; little did she know that her fears would come true in a much worse way – the worst way possible,actually.
After joining politics, Rajiv’s sporadic enjoyment of politics was punctuated with pangs of guilt at having broken his promise to Sonia. “One gets too involved with work and neglects family and home,” Rajiv admitted. “We forget wives are persons and human beings and need to be dealt with as such.”
Indira Gandhi’s assassination shook Sonia completely. As is known, Rajiv was out of Delhi, campaigning, and a shot and bleeding Indira was taken to the hospital in her Ambassador car with her head cradled in Sonia’s lap.
Indira did not survive and Sonia was devastated. She was in a state of shock for almost two years. Apart from the shock of being witness to the gory shooting, she and Indira had become very close over the years. Indira considered Sonia as the daughter she had always wished to have and Sonia looked upto her mother in law and idolized her. Whenever the topic of Rajiv joining politics had come up in happier days, Indira has quipped “Sonia will divorce him if he does so!”
As a family, the Gandhis lived a spartan life. They mostly ate Indian meals served in thalis. Whenever there was a drought or Indians anywhere were facing hardships, they stopped having meat or any non veg for months together as a token of solidarity. This gesture was never publicized.
There was no well stocked fridge and lavishly laid out food as people would imagine. In fact there is an anecdote that when Rajiv returned from a flight once and was very hungry he could not find anything to eat in either the fridge or the kitchen.
“What, there isn’t even a banana to eat in this house?” he had complained.
Even as PM, Rajiv continued being a reluctant politician. Probably that was why he relied on his friends and gave the ‘deserving’ ones important positions rather than relying on professional politicians. It is another matter that he was let down by most of them, like the Bachans, who enjoyed maximum benefits during his time and aren’t even associated with Sonia or the Congress party now!
But the country benefited immensely from his unusual persona non the less.
It will definitely be remembered in posterity that it was Rajiv Gandhi who first deviated from his grandfather’s Nehruvian Socialism and took India to liberalization and modernization. He brought in Sam Pitroda to bring a revolution in our Telecom Sector and the advent of computerization also began then. He conferred with captains of industry and well known scientists before forming industrial policies and allotted generous funds for Research in technology. Where Defense equipment and even light aircrafts were concerned he was the true proponent of ‘Make in India’.
Not many know that he had inherited a talent for being a wizard at technology from his late father Firoze Gandhi. He always had a well stocked tools box with not a screw driver or pinches out of place.
Sonia, true to her inclinations and beliefs, never interfered in Rajiv’s political life. She maintained a strict barrier between their public and private life. His political aides, how ever close, were never invited to share meals at their table. If they were working late, at the most a hospitable Rajiv would whip up soup and crackers himself for them in the kitchen.
She tried to influence him in only two fields of immense interest to her. Women’s issues and culture. She took lessons on and became an expert on Indian cultural matters- with Italians known inherent talent for arts, this was not difficult to believe. She was so steeped in Indian ethos over the years, that her close friends were sure of two things about her after Rajiv was assassinated too: she would never leave India, and she would never become an active politician. In many ways, they were right.