Hindi Film 101: Gandhi-Nehru Family Part 5, Rajiv, Sonia, and Rahul

Happy Thursday!  Time to come back to the Gandhi-Nehru family!  Doesn’t get any easier to talk about stuff after 1984 really, does it?  Partly because 1984 cast such a long shadow. (Nehru Gandhi part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, part 4 here)

Non-Usual Disclaimer: I am not an Indian, nor am I an expert on Indian History.  This is just very basic background on the biggest events in this family’s life because, if you are interested in the films of India, it is important to know about the First Family of India.




I ended the last section with a brief description of the riots/pogrom/massacre/genocide following Indira’s assassination.  But that isn’t really giving enough weight to it, especially since this is still the biggest sin that chases this family to the present day.

There have been many many many many many riots/pogroms/massacres/genocides of the type of the 1984 violence in India.  The majority were done by Hindus to religious minorities within the country.  Arjun Appadurai wrote a brilliant book called “Fear of Small Numbers” (you can read it here, but be warned that it is very depressing) which talks about why a majority can become violent towards a minority, even more violent as the minority shrinks.  There is a mental trick that comes into effect, you start to think “it would be so easy if we were all the same!  And we are so close to that now, if only this .1% could be gotten rid of.”  That’s what happened with the Jews in Germany, the Tutsis in Rwanda, and the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 (and of course the Muslims in Gujurat in 1989, in Bombay in 1992, in Gujurat in 2002 again, and so on and so on).  The majority population attacked a small minority.

(DilDeewana in the comments asked if there was any art at all that dealt with 1984, and I just realized that it is connected to the boom of Punjabi rappers.  Or, more accurately, why the rap style created by an oppressed minority in America looking for a war cry spoke to the Punjabi artists.  Notice Yo Yo’s lion shoes for his Sikh heritage, the tractor for the Punjab)

Essentially, what I am talking about is bullying.  The myth is that “the bully is jealous of you!”; the reality is that bullying comes when people have power.  The charming wealthy well-loved kid with lots of friends will get off on using their power to torment the poor kid.  In the same way, when a group is riding high in society, that is when they are most likely to turn and use their power to attack others.  It’s why white men in America seem to hate everybody.

Bringing it back to 1984!  For years, the Congress Party and the Gandhi-Nehru family in particular had almost limitless power in India.  And so, this first moment of attack shocked them, and caused a massive overreaction/lack of reaction.

(another song!  Love this one)

The violence and deaths in Delhi were horrible, it’s true.  But what makes it bitter, makes it rankle, is that the mob was supported by the State.  Datablue reminded me in the comments that there was an army regiment nearby that could have easily been called in when the violence started and at least helped to stop the bleeding a little.  But they weren’t called, because it was a Sikh regiment and it was feared they would “overreact”.  72 individual police officers were identified by multiple commissions as being culpable in the violence, and were never prosecuted.  The investigatory commissions themselves tended to be abruptly canceled, or allowed to continue and then their findings ignored.

But I don’t think that’s what really burns.  What really burns is all the educated respected responsible Congress Party types who came out to the steps of the hospital where Indira’s body was kept and lead the calls for “Khoon Ka Badla Khoon”.  And who kept leading those calls for the next 30 days as the violence escalated, driving it higher and higher.

Rajiv, Indira’s son and then new Prime Minister of India, was thrown into the middle of all this.  His mother had just died, his older brother had died just a few years earlier, he was suddenly in charge of a massive nation, and all the “wise old men” who were supposed to be advising him were out on the steps literally calling for blood.  And so, 19 days into the killings, Rajiv’s comment on them was;

“Some riots took place in the country following the murder of Indiraji. We know the people were very angry and for a few days it seemed that India had been shaken. But, when a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little.”

It sounds passive and poetic.  Until you start to think, THREE THOUSAND PEOPLE MURDERED.  While his government looks the other way.  And Rajiv is saying “it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little”?

(Speaking of shaking….)

Okay, I’m gonna try to leave that behind (although it’s never really been left behind), and move on to Rajiv as national leader.  Like when his mother came to power, there was some uncertainty at the start.  Everyone thought he was a good guy.  Not like they liked him (although they did that too), but that he was sincerely concerned about the future of India and doing what was best for the country, not just for himself.  The question was, would all those good intentions be enough?  Would he be able to find a vision, pull together a coalition, do everything that needed to be done?

Image result for rajiv gandhi

(Looks kind of like a sweet guy, doesn’t he?)

And the answer was……yes and no.  Turns out, he had a great vision!  A lot of the stuff that you think of as “modern India” came from Rajiv.  Telecommunications infrastructure, modernizing the economy, encouraging educational growth-essentially, all those call centers and computer jobs and data processing moving to India are thanks to the plans Rajiv put in place back in the 80s.  But the way he did it wasn’t quite as practiced as it could have been.  Who knows, perhaps if he had had a chance, he could have come back for a second term with all the kinks worked out.

There were two big, I don’t want to say “black marks”, but kind of grey marks on the Rajiv regime.  The first is the Indo-Sri Lanka accord.  Sri Lanka is a majority Sinhalese state.  But there is a large, and long term, Tamil minority.  This Tamil minority, naturally, has strong ties to its ethnic and linguistic parent, the Tamil states in India.

Slowly, over time, that same “fear of small numbers” idea started working in Sri Lanka.  Sinhalese was made the official language, barriers were put in place of ethnic Tamilians becoming full citizens, and so on.  As more and more Tamilians were deported, or just plain left to live in India instead (now that India was a free country too, with a Tamil speaking state, the creation of which is a whole other story that belongs back in the Nehru section), the percentage of Tamilians in Sri Lanka got smaller and smaller.  And the state became more and more aggressive in trying to “weed out” that small percent.

Aggression breeds aggression.  The Tamilians took to the hills and forests and formed into guerrilla fighters.  This is kind of an unknown/forgotten war in the West, but it was brutal.  And the fighting tactics the LTTE used set a standard for guerrilla warfare worldwide.  Suicide bombers, female suicide bombers, child soldiers, they had it all.  And the state forces set a standard as well, 12,000 “disappeared” people, second only to Iraq.  Out of a population of only 20 million, versus Iraq’s 36 million.

Image result for tamil disappeared

(Family members and photos of the disappeared)

India was torn over what to do about this issue.  On the one hand, there was a need for general stability in the region and a desire to form strategic alliances with their neighbors.  But on the other hand, there were the language and ethnic ties to the Tamil population of Sri Lanka, the refugees now living in India, and the powerful Tamil political wing within India pushing for the Tamil side.

Skipping all of the backing and forthing and food drops to rebels and secret arms support and so on, at the end of it, Rajiv brokered a “peace” treaty, in which the Sri Lankan government agreed to lightening up, essentially.  Rajiv was so eager for peace that he signed this not-quite-perfect treaty, and agreed that India would support it.  And then had to prove himself, and send in troops to Sri Lanka, “Indian Peace Keeping Force” (IPKF), to help weed out the LTTE fighters.  This did NOT go over well with the Tamil population of India.  Starting with one of the soldiers in Rajiv’s honor guard who suddenly lashed out and tried to strike him while he was reviewing troops.  The soldier was contained and arrested and put in jail for two years.  This was all in 1987.

That same year, a much bigger scandal broke, the “Bofors Scandal”.  This one is really really complicated.  Without going into all the ins and outs of it, basically there may have been a payoff to the Gandhi family in return for a massive Indian arms deal using American money to pay a Swedish arms manufacturer.  This scandal quickly expanded to tarnish pretty much everyone in the Congress party.

Small footnote, also tarnished Amitabh Bachchan!  When his best friend since childhood suddenly became the most powerful man in the country, he was convinced to try his hand at politics as well.  He was elected and had a somewhat unremarkable political career, before being suddenly tarnished in the same scandal as Rajiv.


Image result for amitabh bofors

(Amitabh and his brother went to court and, after years and years and years, finally got exonerated.  This is them, at court in London anticipating a good verdict)

In the years since, both Amitabh and Rajiv have been more or less exonerated.  But at the time, it was a big enough scandal to almost end both their careers.  Both of them lost their power, Amitabh struggled to regain his film popularity, and Rajiv struggled to re-form his party after losing the general elections.

Rajiv was doing well a couple years later.  Still in opposition, he had strengthened his following and was traveling the country supporting Congress candidates and maneuvering for a win in the next elections.  Who knows, this could have been the time he got it right, kept his vision but managed to handle everything else too.

And then at a rally in Madras on May 21, 1991, a woman approached him, asked to touch his feet, bent down, and detonated a bomb strapped to her.  She died, Rajiv died, and so did 14 other people.  She was a young Tamilian from Sri Lanka, sent by the LTTE, possibly in direct response to a recent interview in which Rajiv had declared that when he came back to power, he would be willing to send in the IPKF to disarm the LTTE again.

(Pretty memorial mosaic version of the event that stands on the place where he died)

Rajiv died when his children were only 21 and 19.  Which was sad, that they lost their father so young.  But also sad, because there was no clear heir ready to take over the party.  For 6 years, Congress was virtually Gandhi-less for the first time ever.  Because the only even close to eligible Gandhi around was Sonia, Rajiv’s widow, and she wasn’t interested.

Sonia had already had a very complicated life.  She went from teenage waitress/college student to married into the most powerful family in India.  And then from the out-of-sight foreign daughter-in-law, to the front and center first lady of India.  Not only that, she was sent out to fight against her counterpart, Sanjay’s wife/widow, when she was contesting an election against Rajiv (these family reunions must be so messed up).

Image result for sonia gandhi maneka gandhi

(the standing woman and the sitting woman would later become political enemies.  After all 3 other adults died violently.  This family is strange!)

It helped that over the years Sonia appeared more and more “Indian”.  Not only did she give up her Italian citizenship (not until 1983, but at least she did it eventually), she effortlessly wore saris, long hair, all the signs of Indian womanhood.  But no matter how “Indian” she became, the fact is that she was born and raised in Italy and that was still there, a threat hanging over her.  That was part of the Bofors scandal, the money was supposedly passed along by an Italian friend of Sonia.  And it came up within the past few years, some Italian sailors were accused of a crime on Indian soil and there was the unspoken reminder that the woman meeting with the Italian ambassador used to be Italian herself.

But she was still a Gandhi!  So in 1997, she won a seat and was promptly made President of the Congress party.  She fought hard for years as leader of the opposition, and in 2004 she spearheaded a nationwide campaign to oust the BJP from office, with the slogan of “Aam Aadmi” (common man).  And won.

Image result for sonia gandhi aam aadmi

At which point there was a crisis, since the idea of a formerly Italian woman as the Prime Minister of India was just a little too much.  In the end, Sonia stepped aside in favor of Manmohan Singh.  Which was also seemingly an attempt to resolve 1984, with a Sikh Prime Minister, only it didn’t quite work because it never works to make up for a mistake without acknowledging the mistake.  Sonia continued to lead the Congress party for a total of 15 years.

But what of the next generation?  Rajiv and Sonia’s kids?  Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the older by a year and the daughter, has never been formally elected to anything.  But has campaigned hard for her other family members.  She married at 25 to a businessman not a politician, 6 years after her father’s death, and has two children.

Image result for priyanka gandhi

(You know how you sometimes see a headline out of the corner of your eye and think it is about the movie star but then it isn’t?  Yeah, they mean THIS Priyanka)

And then there’s Rahul.  The current Gandhi.  He had an odd childhood.  In a recent speech, he talked about learning badminton from the bodyguards who would later kill his grandmother.  After his grandmother’s death and his father’s ascension, he and his sister had to be homeschooled because of the security threats.  He started college at Harvard, only to be pulled out halfway following his father’s assassination and sent to Rollins University in Florida to hide under an assumed name and finish his education.

After finishing school, he worked in some interesting kind of start up companies, and supposedly had a serious Spanish girlfriend for a while.  But then in 2004, it was time to grow up and join the family business.  He contested and won his first election, and was promptly maneuvered into a party leadership role.

Image result for rahul gandhi

(I don’t know how I feel about the bearded look)

Here’s the thing about the current Gandhi’s.  Yes, they are shockingly rich in a way that really feels like it must involve some kind of corruption (92.8 million rupees in the family coffers).  Yes, 1984 was a terrible sin for which they have never fully apologized.  Yes, the Bofors scandal, trading on the family name, all kinds of things.  But if you are a progressive, especially on social issues, they are your best bet right now.  Both Rahul and Sonia declared their support for the repeal of Section 377.  They are against religious conservatives, for empowering women, all kinds of things.

I don’t know where the family will go from here, generally Rahul’s sister Priyanka is considered more charismatic and Rahul so far hasn’t really shown much success in his leadership.  And there is no 4th generation lined up, Rahul has indicated he may never marry.  But, who knows!  In 1978, who would have ever thought that Indira would be elected again?


9 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: Gandhi-Nehru Family Part 5, Rajiv, Sonia, and Rahul

  1. I was thinking about Madras Cafe, but then I ran out of image slots. I really want to watch that movie sometime just because it is the only film to ever deal with it!

    Although, I have also written a paper arguing that Dil Se can be read as about the Rajiv assassination (young female suicide bomber from a war torn country).

    On Thu, Jul 13, 2017 at 9:30 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  2. Common misconception is that Priyanka is the older one, probably because she’s married with kids. Basically her family life being settled and all. But it’s Rahul who’s older by 2 years.
    I hate to disagree with you. Before getting into it, I want to put up a disclaimer that I was born and raised a Hindu. I’m no longer an active participant and I absolutely do not condone any violence in the name of religion.
    While you’ve presented attacks perpetrated by Hindu majority (which I am not denying), I can’t help but find this essay a bit too one sided. What it misses is that Indira herself had encouraged Bhindranwale (who later lead the Khalistan movement of took shelter in the Golden temple, and you know the story) in an attempt to destabilise the Punjab state government where Congress was in opposition. He was the Frankenstein’s monster that she had raised. And when Rajiv was PM, he had negated Supreme Court’s verdict that Shah Bano’s husband (who had divorced following the infamous triple talaq – which sadly lawmakers are still debating on) should pay her an alimony of Rs.200. So, to give a background, uniform civil code does not exist in India and each religion is allowed to follow their own family law regarding matters like marriage, inheritance, divorce etc. So a Muslim man can divorce his wife saying the word “Talaq” thrice and thanks to Rajiv succumbing to religious pressure, the husband doesn’t owe her a penny. (To counter that, for a very long time female children did not have the same inheritance laws as male children according to Hindu law.) And it is common knowledge that under the mask of what is supposed to be secularism, the Congress administration gave too much leeway to the minority side of religious extremism. You can compare stats on terror attacks in India before and after 2014. (I’m not saying that the over all religion based violence decreased. You can look at patterns during both terms to understand where each party’s support lies.)
    That said, I do agree with you about the conservatism of the current government. But, as seen right from 1947 onwards, it is hard to pick which side is worse in terms inflicting religion based violence.

    “They are your best bet right now”, except that Rahul is a bumbling idiot. I apologise for the name calling. But even in 2014 when he was face of Congress party, he was widely considered a joke. Under his so called leadership, Congress party’s presence in national politics and individual state elections since 2014 is virtually non existent.
    What I want to say is I consider myself a progressive liberal and unfortunately Indian politics is not as clear cut as Democrats v/s Republicans in US. I find it difficult to discuss current politics in India. Because each side assumes I’m supporting the other, while what I’m actually saying is that no side is good enough.The current ruling party is certainly conservative and often times it seems like we’re going backwards, but during 2004-14 Congress party governance was just terrible. Rahul Gandhi’s ineptitude will make it just worse. It’s no easy choice, at least for me. It’s like stuck between a rock and a hard place.
    Going anon for obvious reasons.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, it seems like Congress is ready for leadership outside of this particular family. If nothing else so the sins of the past would be a little less visible. A political party can always move forward and change into something different (In America, until FDR, the Democrats were the conservative party and the Republicans were the liberals), but it’s hard to do that when you have someone with the same last name leading it all the time. When any criticism of past policies is also a criticism of their own mother/father/grandmother/great-grandfather.

      I get what you are saying about no good choice. What’s frustrating in America is that since Nixon at least there has been a clear choice, it’s not even close in terms of ethics, morality, compassion, intelligence, anything. And yet somehow that has been normalized so that we all blindly recite “all politicians are corrupt, everyone is the same, there’s no point in trying”. Instead of seeing that one side is always wrong and the other is right. But that’s another story 🙂


  3. Nature has this weird way of presenting unequal opportunities equal abilities, and equal opportunities to unequal abilities. It breeds both inefficiency and brilliance in the same shade. They are like an object and it’s shadow. This is exactly what has happened with gandhi family and I whole heatedly hate that family for how many opportunities they were given yet how inefficient they were. If congress has any positive time in its tenure it was only when a non gandhi member sat on the throne.
    Sonia crowned manmohan singh not for sympathy or something but because 1. He doesn’t speak much is always loyal 2. The consitution allows a naturalized citizen to be treated in the same way our citizens are treated in their country. In italian constitution the prime qualification for any higher post was to be italian citizen for atleast three generations. So sonia was ineligible even for a simple portfolio and so she had to opt for others and she made a choice. By that she literally put to death congress and let something like Delhi gang rape to happen that left youth of india in dismay and humanity in disgust.
    People realized they would rather be ina society that is conservative, strict, communal and progressive than in a liberal , lawless and scandalized. There are no signs of people showing any kind of resistance to such attitude anytime soon. So, there is a looming threat of turning this right wing populism into a totalitarian regime any time soon. Right now I support this govt but I am on constant vigil.
    Majority always have their ego, like a cat. They will always have their ego buried deep inside and let it sleep. When minorities have done enough to wake up those sleeping demons they pounce back and cause significant damage. Reality is that we always miss the little conflicts/things minorities do that they think cause no effect until they finally add up to do some significant impact to awake majorities.

    The best examples are muslims all over the world. They are a lot less in numbers in their own places of religion and more in number as a minority elsewhere. They take their status to be granted and always push people to break point. It happened in india, it continues to happen elsewhere.


    • Mostly I think I understand your comment, but I must be misunderstanding your closing. It almost sounds like you are blaming Muslims for being oppressed/killed, and to be claiming that all “Muslims” are identical, whether they are Americans, Indians, British, Canadian, Serbian, or anything else. But that is so clearly flawed reasoning that I am assuming I misunderstood you.

      On Wed, Jul 19, 2017 at 2:19 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  4. Let me explain it more simply. All muslims are like fruits of the same kind. Let’s us say mangoes. All mangoes aren’t same in their look or shape but they are same. If there is something wrong you find with a certain fruit that happened to be a mango, there are three reasons for its oddity : particular fruit, particular tree, its variety, or the very idea of mango.
    Accusing a mango of something on the lines of last is foolishness, it’s variety – a little foolish, but it’s not at all wrong to blame a tree or a particular apple for its oddity.
    Muslims extremists are exactly like those odd mangoes, their oddity goes from to the bottom. Oddity to some level good (as long we appreciate the flavour) but beyond it is bad (even if flavour is ‘supposed ‘ to be something).

    This feels and looks ambiguous and out of context from my previous comment but it is restricted to muslim example and can be expanded to earlier comment if properly contextualized.


    • Just to check and make sure your logic makes sense, would you also say that all Hindus are like mangos, some come from diseased trees or have been infected by rot and have gone bad? In a particular way that Hindus can go bad? And would you say the same about Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Athiests, every other belief system?

      In any case, I am still not sure I agree with you. But more in a philosophical sense, I do not see religion as the essential element of a person’s character. I don’t see anything as an essential element of a person’s character beyond what they are themselves, good or bad. Religion, nationality, ethnicity, I don’t like these sweeping statements of “so-and-so is like this because they are a _____”. But that is a philosophical difference that I am open to being debated.

      On Wed, Jul 19, 2017 at 9:31 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  5. I intended to make muslims mangoes because I took an analogy of a fruit for each religion. All fruits are nice, unique, good for health and most importantly are for ‘taste’ of an individual. I don’t see how any religion is an exception to what I said.
    I was never meaning to protect or defend my religion. I know how blind and narrow my religion in it’s subjection.

    With all due respect I would say you failed to understand the purpose of religion. : The very basic and fundamental question ” What is the meaning or purpose of my life” , or atleast the idea of such a conception in human mind puts them under an obligation, if not a necessity, to investigate it. We can’t skip a question because we don’t know the answer. It’s like saying that you won’t drink water because the water isn’t transparent though you are likely to die of thirst if you won’t. ( This is in reference to why religion and upbringing are a part of a man’s character and are as equally important as that his nature of good or bad, because humans have three appetites : food, sex and curiosity).

    I love debates too, as long as they are rational and non personal.

    It is okay to have preconceptions and misnomers about people, things, religions etc. It’s not recommended to model your interactions based on them, it’s highly dangerous to pass judgements based on them, but it’s a crime to be dogmatic about those conceptions.

    We are elements of nature; a polar bear won’t trust it’s children with another male polar bear though they are of same species. It is natural, but that doesn’t mean all male bears are bad. It is what keeps polar bears alive.
    P.s. An empty pot breaks more easily and naturally than a partially filled pot.


  6. Pingback: Hindi Film 101 Index | dontcallitbollywood

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