Release of Rajiv Gandhi's killers may have political repercussions beyond Tamil Nadu

Nalini Sriharan

New Delhi: The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi churned politics in India like never before. The repercussions of the 1991 assassination and the subsequent probe were felt by the regimes of Narasimha Rao, Deve Gowda, I K Gujral, A B Vajpayee, and Manmohan Singh - the period from 1991 to 2014. The ripples of the latest Supreme Court ordering releasing the convicts could be felt in the national politics in the coming days.

Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in a suicide blast at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu while he was on a poll campaign during the 1991 general election. The criminal act was in revenge against the deployment of the Indian Army in Sri Lanka to fight the LTTE.

Rajiv Gandhi
In this photograph taken on May 20, 1991 National Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi casts his ballot at a polling station in New Delhi for the first round of the general election. File photo: STEFAN ELLIS/AFP

Rajiv’s assassination led to dissensions and splits in the Congress party in the following years.

Sonia Gandhi declined the appeal by the Congress Working Committee to take over the party leadership soon after Rajiv’s assassination. The Congress that emerged as the single biggest party in the subsequent election, assumed power as a minority party government under the leadership of P V Narasimha Rao. Subsequently, there arose a feeling in the party that Rao was ignoring Sonia. It was also alleged that the Rao regime was not cooperating with the Justice Jain Commission constituted to inquire into any possible conspiracy behind the assassination. Though Sonia did not react to any of these, the appearance of her daughter Priyanka Gandhi in the gallery at some of the hearings by the Commission was noticed by Congress insiders.

Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi
Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi. File photo: PTI

The next significant development was Sonia’s 7-minute-long public speech in 1995 at Amethi, Rajiv’s Lok Sabha constituency. When Sonia, with her daughter standing beside, declared that the Congress was deviating from the principles of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru, it came as a challenge to Narasimha Rao’s leadership.

However, when Arjun Singh and N D Tiwari split the party by raising the same charges, Sonia remained impartial.

During the 1996 elections, leaders such as G Moopanar and P Chidambaram formed Tamil Maanila Congress and joined hands with the DMK in protest against the Congress entering into an electoral alliance with Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK.

PV Narasimha Rao.
PV Narasimha Rao. File photo: Manorama

The Congress, which was defeated in the 1996 Lok Sabha poll, extended external support to a coalition government led by Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal, which had as its allies the DMK and Tamil Maanila Congress.

Later, Sitaram Kesri rose to the helm of the Congress. Kesri toppled the government of Deve Gowda, who continued to be close to Narasimha Rao, and propped up the same coalition government, this time headed by I K Gujral.

The I K Gujral Government (1997-98) collapsed as a result of political intrigue over the probe into the case.

There were charges during the hearing by the Jain Commission that the DMK had links with the LTTE, which was behind Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. Arjun Singh and the other leaders, who had by now returned to the Congress, demanded that the DMK Ministers be sacked. When the steering committee of the United Front rejected the demand, the Congress withdrew support to the Gujral Government, leading to its collapse.

Though Sonia campaigned for the Congress in the 1996 elections, the BJP emerged as the single biggest party and formed a collation government under the leadership of Atal Behari Vajpayee in alliance with the AIADMK and other parties.

Atal Behari Vajpayee. File photo: Manorama

In a few months, Sonia sacked Kesri and took over the leadership of the party in 1998. Meanwhile, Jayalalithaa demanded that the DMK Government in Tamil Nadu be dismissed. When Vajpayee rejected the demand, Jayalalithaa withdrew support to the government. Vajpayee, who was defeated on the floor of the House by just one vote in 1998, formed a coalition government after the 1999 election by taking the DMK on board.

Sonia wrote a letter to the then President K R Narayanan appealing not to hang the killers of Rajiv Gandhi.


After Vajpayee declined to accept the DMK’s demand for repeal of the anti-terror law, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the party withdrew support to the NDA coalition.

In a masterstroke, Sonia formed a new alliance with the DMK, putting behind the allegations the Congress had raised in 1998 over Rajiv’s assassination.

At the centre Congress-led coalition regime — United Progressive Alliance — that came to power at centre in 2004 included the DMK.


The Congress-DMK alliance in Tamil Nadu lasted till 2013 when it broke up over the issue of Sri Lankan Tamils. The DMK was provoked by the refusal of the Manmohan Singh Government not to support the resolution brought in the United Nations condemning the atrocities committed during the war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.

In between in an unexpected move, Priyanka reached the Vellore jail and met Nalini, who was undergoing life sentence after being convicted in the Rajiv assassination case. Though this attracted wide attention, the incident did not lead to any political controversy. Priyanka stated that she was trying to reconcile to the assassination that affected her life. She declared later that she had forgiven those who had carried out the murder.

Now, when the Congress-DMK ties are on the upswing comes the release of the convicts in the assassination case.

More developments in Tamil Nadu politics and to some extent, national politics will depend on how the Congress and the DMK react to the issue.

There is another question. There was someone who played a silent role thrice in all these developments - Priyanka Gandhi; in 1995 when Sonia spoke publicly for the first time at Amethi, in 1996-97 when she came to listen to the hearings of the Jain commission and in 2008 when she visited the Vellore jail.

The question is: will she enter the stage a fourth time?

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