Delivering inaugural Rajiv Gandhi Lecture in Washington, DC,
Aiyer offers a blistering critique of Modi’s policies.
Delivering the inaugural Rajiv Gandhi Lecture, Congress
party leader Mani Shankar Aiyer offered a blistering critique of policies of
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and the overall direction India is
currently moving toward.
In his speech, which lasted more than 70 minutes, the former
cabinet minister spoke about the lasting impact of various policies and
initiatives introduced by Gandhi, who served as prime minister of India from
October 1984 to December 1989.
The Rajiv Gandhi Lecture was organized by the Washington,
DC, chapter of the Indian Overseas Congress USA on September 17. The lecture
series was instituted by the DC Chapter to commemorate the 75th birth
anniversary of India’s sixth prime minister.
Aiyer, a former Indian Foreign Service officer and
contemporary of Gandhi at Dehra Doon’s Doon School, offered an insider’s view —
he served under the former prime minister in various roles — on a number of
challenges Gandhi tackled during his tenure.
The former member of Rajya Sabha, the upper chamber of
India’s parliament, compared Gandhi’s leadership with that of Modi.
He was especially critical of the current government’s
Kashmir policy and its treatment of the minorities. India downgraded the status
of Jammu and Kashmir from a state to a union territory, under the control of
New Delhi, on August 5. Since then there has been a massive security clampdown
and a communication blockade in the region.
“Can we have the territory of Kashmir, without the people of
Kashmir?” Aiyer asked. “If the people of Kashmir are with us, as the government
is claiming, then why don’t you leave them free to carry [National Security
Advisor to the Prime Minister of India] Ajit Doval on their shoulders and say
what a great man he is. Why don’t you let them out to put up posters saying
‘Modi zindabad! [Home Minister] Amit Shah Zindabad!’”
Contrasting Modi’s policies in Kashmir and Assam, where the
government is implementing a controversial citizenship rule that critics say
will rob millions of Muslims of Indian citizenship, Aiyer highlighted a number
of accomplishments of Gandhi, both domestically and on foreign policy front,
including his rapprochement with Pakistan and China, and signing of peace
treaties with rebels in Punjab, Assam, Mizoram and Sri Lanka,
In a span of 18 months, Rajiv Gandhi was able to settle the
perennial challenges to the country’s integrity whether in Punjab, Assam or
Mizoram, Aiyar said.
He said Gandhi’s reconciliatory measures was instrumental in
ending an insurgency in Punjab, He pointed out that the prime minister visited
Punjab within four months after the anti-Sikh riots — which he called a pogrom
— in Delhi following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, at the
height of hostilities, and appointed Arjun Singh as governor to hold talks and
enter into a peace accord.
This should serve as a lesson to negotiate peace with
Kashmiris, 25 percent of whom were “with us” before revocation of Article 370
but 100 percent “against us” now, Aiyer said.
Referring to the Assam situation, he said Assam was tackled
by Rajiv Gandhi similarly by negotiating a successful peace accord with the
agitating Assam students and even sacrificing the incumbent Congress government
in the state. In ensuing elections, “Congress was hopelessly defeated but India
won,” he recalled.
In Mizoram, a 20-year-old insurgency was ended by handing
over power to rebel leader Laldenga, who became chief minister replacing a
Congress party government. Contrast this with how the insurgency in Nagaland is
being handled now, Aiyer said. Five years ago, there was a Naga agreement but
still no details are made public, he said.
On the foreign policy front, Gandhi became the first prime
minister after Nehru to visit Pakistan, and it paved the way for better
relations and opening bilateral talks, Aiyer said.
Referring to India’s effort to end a civil war in Sri Lanka
and station an Indian Peace Keeping Force, he said: “Rajiv Gandhi has often
been denigrated as a man with failure but how do you get acceptance of a
neighbor without acceding to their request? When Maldives was beset with a
coup, Rajiv sitting in Harare had sent Indian forces to restore democracy
Even with Pakistan, Gandhi repeatedly met with then-Pakistan
President Zia-ul-Huq, Aiyer said. After his return from a vacation in Andamans,
Gandhi found that the border situation has escalated to the brink of a war as
Operation Brasstracks and he managed to invite Huq to Delhi to resolve the
tension peacefully. A prime minister should be able to defuse the tension and
strive to arriving at a political settlement, Aiyar said.
Gandhi loved quoting Buddha’s words often: “The only victory
is the one where there are no victors,” and he cited these words even at a UN
address, the Congress leader said.
Another major accomplishment of Rajiv Gandhi was his visit
to China in 1988, which defeated India in 1962. At the Great Hall of the People
in Beijing, Chinese leader Deng Xia Ping held Gandhi’s hand throughout the
parade sending a strong signal to the world. “We talk to China often, though we
were defeated by them, but never hold talks with Pakistan, whom we had
defeated,” said Aiyar who had served in Islamabad as a diplomat in the early
“If you don’t trust Pakistan, you are putting yourself on
the path of a nuclear bomb,” Aiyer said. “If you don’t trust Pakistanis the way
I do, they are not so stupid to use a bomb… If you don’t talk, rifle is the
answer. You will have the satisfaction of destroying Pakistan and they will
have the satisfaction of destroying you. Nearly 1.5 billion people will be
vanished. Is that the answer?”
Among Gandhi’s domestic accomplishments was the passage of
an anti-defection law and keeping it under the Tenth Schedule of the
Constitution, Aiyer said. It helped stem the “Aayaram, Gayaram” trend in Indian
politics, the former parliamentarian said, terming it as a “disease of Indian
democracy (that) was removed by Rajiv Gandhi within a week or so of his
becoming the prime minister with an electoral majority, the largest majority
that any Prime Minister in India ever received,” he said.
The introduction of reservation for women and socially
backward segments of the Indian society helped achieve balance in people’s
representation at local levels, Aiyer said. Thanks to Gandhi, who made
democracy at the grassroots level a reality, there are 86,000 women who are
running Panchayats in India now, he pointed out.
Another legacy of Gandhi, according to Aiyer, was the
lowering of the voting age to 18 years, which made India’s youth part of the
Aiyer’s speech was tinged with anecdotes. He recalled his
first meeting with Gandhi at Doon school, where the former prime minister was
three years junior and again at Cambridge University. Aiyar said Gandhi canvassed
for him when he contested student Cambridge Union election.
“Rajiv began his political career by canvassing for me, so I
think it is appropriate that I ended up in PMO and supported him,” he noted in
his address at the lecture, organized by the Indian Overseas Congress on
September 17, 2019.
At the event, Aiyer also inaugurated the re-organized DC
Chapter of Indian Overseas Congress USA.
IOC USA President Mohinder Singh Gilzian and Vice Chairman
George Abraham spoke on the occasion. The organization’s Chairman Sam Pitroda
addressed the gathering from Chicago via Skype.
Other speakers included the newly appointed president of the
DC Chapter Johnson Myalil and chapter committee members Ashok Batra and Rohit
Video link: https://youtu.be/z2pmRJmRIUA
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