Rajiv Gandhi: A Legacy Marred by a Controversial Foreign Policy

Rajiv Gandhi, despite his initial reluctance to enter politics, inherited and perpetuated this legacy. The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, signed under his premiership, is often cited as a diplomatic milestone.

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File photograph of Former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi


Today, May 21, marks the solemn anniversary of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, India’s youngest Prime Minister, who led the nation from 1984 until his tragic death in 1991. While his tenure is often remembered for the promise of modernity and economic progress, it is also imperative to scrutinize the controversial foreign policies initiated under his leadership and that of his mother, Indira Gandhi, which have had long-lasting implications for India’s neighbours, particularly Sri Lanka.

Indira Gandhi’s tenure was marked by a strategic yet perilous engagement with separatist movements in neighbouring countries. Her administration provided support and sanctuary to Tamil militants, including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in an effort to destabilize Sri Lanka. This policy was ostensibly aimed at countering regional adversaries and projecting India’s influence, but it ultimately sowed seeds of chaos and violence, leaving a legacy of mistrust and instability.

Rajiv Gandhi, despite his initial reluctance to enter politics, inherited and perpetuated this legacy. The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, signed under his premiership, is often cited as a diplomatic milestone. However, this agreement was less about fostering genuine peace and more about solidifying economic dominance. The accord coerced Sri Lanka into economic concessions, reinforcing India’s hegemony rather than addressing the root causes of ethnic strife. This manoeuvring significantly bolstered India’s influence in Sri Lanka’s energy sector, epitomised by the contentious control over the Trincomalee oil farm. This dominance extended through the controversial Adani renewable energy projects, which have faced criticism for undermining Sri Lanka’s rights to energy independence. A few corrupt politicians in Sri Lanka allegedly facilitated these destructive deals, further easing India’s path to dominance.

The irony of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination by LTTE cadres is stark. The very militants once harboured and armed by his mother’s administration turned against him, highlighting the dangerous unpredictability of fostering militant groups for strategic gains. This tragic end underscores the double-edged nature of such foreign policies.

While India’s continued ban on the LTTE as a terrorist organization is a welcome stance, it serves as a stark reminder of the consequences of past policies. Rajiv Gandhi’s pivotal yet controversial role in Sri Lankan history reflects the complex interplay of power, politics, and unintended consequences.

Rajiv Gandhi’s personal journey from a private individual with a passion for flying to a reluctant politician thrust into the limelight is remarkable. Born on August 20, 1944, his life was steeped in political heritage, being the grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru and son of Indira Gandhi. His tenure as Prime Minister began under tragic circumstances, following the assassination of his mother, and he quickly garnered the largest electoral mandate in India’s history.

Despite his modernist vision and efforts to propel India into the 21st century through technological and economic reforms, his foreign policy towards Sri Lanka remains a contentious chapter. The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, while intended to resolve ethnic tensions, primarily served to entrench India’s economic interests, often at the expense of Sri Lanka’s political and economic independence. This has led to a legacy of controversy and resentment, particularly as India’s interventions often involved collaboration with corrupt local politicians, further destabilizing the region.

As we remember Rajiv Gandhi, it is crucial to reflect on both the advancements and the missteps of his administration. His leadership brought significant technological and economic strides for India, but it also exemplifies the perils of overreaching foreign policy. A balanced view of his legacy must acknowledge the complexities and consequences of the strategies employed during his time, ensuring that future engagements with neighbouring countries are rooted in genuine partnership and mutual respect.

Sri Lanka Guardian

The Sri Lanka Guardian is an online web portal founded in August 2007 by a group of concerned Sri Lankan citizens including journalists, activists, academics and retired civil servants. We are independent and non-profit. Email: editor@slguardian.org

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