Rajiv Gandhi’s Diplomacy Historic Significance and Contemporary Relevance


August 20, 2014 marks the 70th birth anniversary of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. On this solemn occasion, Rejaul Laskar looks back at the leader’s diplomacy during the five-year period when he was at the helm of affairs, i.e. from 1984 to 1989. The pertinence of this exercise, he believes, stems from not only the historic significance, but also the contemporary relevance of his diplomacy, especially in view of the fact that his endeavours to foster peace and cooperation in the neighbourhood and beyond can be, and indeed should be, a template for the Modi government

As is clear from the above quote, Rajiv Gandhi’s vision of a new world order was premised on India’s place in its front rank. In fact, the whole gamut of Rajiv Gandhi’s foreign policy was geared towards making India ‘strong, independent, self-reliant and in the front rank of the nations of the world’. To achieve this end, he actively pursued a dynamic diplomacy based on sound and enlightened foreign policy suited to the purpose. His diplomacy was properly calibrated so as to be conciliatory and accommodating when required and assertive when the occasion demanded. Throughout his tenure as prime Minister of India from October 1984 to November 1989, Rajiv Gandhi’s diplomacy – including that towards the neighbourhood, major powers as well as concerning nuclear disarmament and racism – were meant to serve this single purpose.

Neighbourhood Diplomacy

Rajiv Gandhi’s vision for a peaceful South Asia was based on his understanding that our pursuit of development and nation building can be successful only in a peaceful neighbourhood. However, he also believed that the pre-eminent position of India in the South Asian region gives her unique and special responsibilities with regard to the maintenance of peace and stability in the region. Any failure to fulfil these responsibilities would lead to the intervention of external powers, enabling them to acquire a strategic presence in the region, which could be detrimental to India’s national interest. Rajiv Gandhi’s active and assertive foreign policy vis-à-vis the neighbourhood, including his decision to send the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka and providing help to the Government of Maldives to end the coup there, must be seen from this perspective. Such strong and farsighted diplomacy led the world to recognise India’s pre-eminent position in South Asia.

To establish peace in the neighbourhood, Rajiv Gandhi also endeavoured to normalise relations with China and Pakistan, which met with significant success. I will discuss here briefly his policies vis-à-vis four countries of the region which demanded India’s attention during his tenure, viz, Maldives, Sri Lanka, China and Pakistan.


In 1988, Maldivian President Abdul Gayoom sought India’s help to defeat the coup in his country. With external powers interested in increasing their presence in the Indian Ocean, this coup would have provided them an opportunity to establish a base in Maldives. This would certainly not have been in India’s interest. Rajiv Gandhi, therefore, responded to the president’s request and provided the latter necessary military assistance to end the coup.

Sri Lanka

Rajiv Gandhi’s Sri Lanka policy is often misunderstood by a section of commentators. However, this misunderstanding stems from the failure to appreciate the contribution of this policy in protecting India’s unity, national interest and territorial integrity, which were threatened by the explosive situation that arose in Sri Lanka. On the one hand, external powers could take advantage of the situation to establish their base in the island nation; on the other, LTTE’s separatist activities had the potential to spill over to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu as some elements in the LTTE had started to dream of a greater Tamil Eelam comprising Tamil inhabited areas of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu.

It was to respond to such grave threats to India’s national interest and territorial integrity that Rajiv Gandhi took the initiative to conclude an agreement with the then Sri Lankan President, JR Jayewardene on July 29, 1987. The agreement provided for autonomy to Tamil inhabited areas of Sri Lanka within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. The agreement also stipulated that an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) will be sent to Sri Lanka to oversee the implementation of this agreement and to disarm Tamil militant groups, especially the LTTE. Subsequently, the IPKF went to Sri Lanka and did a commendable job of restoring order in the northern and eastern parts of the country. However, the inability of the then Sri Lankan government to fully disarm the LTTE led to Rajiv Gandhi’s ultimate end.


Among the many bold initiatives taken by Rajiv Gandhi to promote peace in India’s immediate neighbourhood, was his visit to China in December 1988. This was the first visit of an Indian prime minister in more than three decades and proved to be a watershed in India-China relations. It led to a new beginning of reconciliation and normalisation of relations between the two countries. But in his efforts to normalise relations with China, Rajiv Gandhi never compromised on our national interests. Barely two weeks before his China visit, was Arunachal Pradesh given full statehood, despite vociferous Chinese protests.


In an effort to normalise relations with Pakistan, Rajiv Gandhi visited the country in 1988, thus becoming the first Indian prime minister after Pt Jawaharlal Nehru to visit our neighbour. During this visit, Rajiv Gandhi persuaded Pakistan to stop promoting terrorism in India, particularly in Punjab. The success of Rajiv Gandhi’s visit can be gauged from the fact that Pakistan’s support to terrorism in Punjab lessened, leading to the return of peace and normalcy in the state.

Another lasting contribution of Rajiv Gandhi towards peace and cooperation with South Asian neighbours was the establishment of SAARC in December 1985, and the hosting of the second SAARC Summit in Bangalore in 1986.

Relations with Major Powers

Rajiv Gandhi believed that cooperation from all major powers of that time, in particular the US and the USSR, was a prerequisite to secure our national interest. He forged cooperation with technologically advanced countries like the US to fuel the country’s economic and technological modernisation, and visited the US in June 1985, barely six months after becoming prime minister. During this visit, Rajiv Gandhi established cordial relations with the US President Ronald Reagan. Similarly, the warm relationship with the USSR, which Rajiv Gandhi inherited from his mother, was further strengthened during his tenure. He also developed a personal rapport with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Nuclear Disarmament

Rajiv Gandhi’s vision for a world free of nuclear weapons led to the hosting of the first summit meeting of the Six Nation Five Continent Initiative for nuclear disarmament in January 1985, within three months of becoming prime minister. However, his most valuable contribution in the direction of global nuclear disarmament is the Action Plan which he presented in his address to the third special session on disarmament of the United Nations General Assembly on June 9, 1988. Rajiv Gandhi’s Action Plan is perhaps the most equitable, realistic and practical proposal for a nuclear weapons free world ever presented by a head of government.

True to his dream of seeing India in the front ranks of the international community, Rajiv Gandhi pursued an effective and dynamic diplomacy designed for that purpose, especially through enhanced cooperation with major powers and fostering peace and cooperation in the neighbourhood. Even after more than two decades, his diplomacy remains the best guide for any government to pursue an enlightened foreign policy aimed at achieving a conducive external environment, including a peaceful and friendly neighbourhood, to promote India’s national security and developmental aspirations. His diplomacy remains as relevant today as ever.

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Rejaul Laskar

Rejaul Laskar is a Secretary of the Vichar Vibhag of All India Congress Committee, and a Research Scholar working on Diplomacy in the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views expressed here are personal.

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