Rajiv Ratna Gandhi was the seventh prime minister of India, following in the footsteps of both his grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964) and his mother, Indira Gandhi (1917–84).
After finishing high school in India, Rajiv, like most children of prominent Indian families, went to England for further education. He attended Imperial College London and Cambridge University. At Cambridge Rajiv met Sonia Maino, an Italian student, and despite opposition from her family she moved to India and the two were married in 1968. Rajiv and Sonia had two children, Rahul and Priyanka. Rajiv initially showed no interest in politics. He worked as an airline pilot for Indian Airlines. However, after the death of his brother, Sanjay (1946–80), Rajiv was persuaded to enter politics by his mother. He was criticized for his lack of experience and viewed as merely a successor of a Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. In 1981, Rajiv won the Parliament seat vacated by his brother and became a top adviser to Indira. He became the leader of the Congress Party’s youth movement, the Youth Congress, and won popularity as a young progressive leader.
After Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, President Zail Singh dissolved Parliament, and new elections were held. Rajiv was named president of the Congress Party, which won a landslide, and Rajiv assumed the role of prime minister of India. Immediately after taking office Rajiv began changing foreign policy to strengthen relations with the United States and distance India from the Soviet Union. He also began to reform governmental quotas, tariffs, taxes, and educational spending policies, extending the opportunity to receive an education to lower-class citizens.
Rajiv also promoted human rights and peace within India and abroad. His policies reconciled disaffected Sikhs in Punjab. He also sent an arbitration and peacekeeping corps to Sri Lanka to mediate between the government and rebels called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). After a treaty was signed, conflict broke out between the Indian forces and the rebels over disarmament. Many Indian soldiers were killed, forcing Rajiv to withdraw his forces.
Rajiv’s image was further tarnished by a scandal involving foreign defense contracts that paid high ranking Indian officials. He lost the following election. Rajiv, however, remained the president of the Congress Party and the leader of the opposition.
On May 21, 1991, he was assassinated by a suicide bomber from Sri Lanka opposed to his interventions in her country, while he was campaigning for reelection. His death once again united the Congress Party, which regained a majority in Parliament. Sonia, his widow, was urged to enter politics and assume the seat vacated by her husband. She refused and remained outside of the political arena until shortly before the 1998 elections. She then announced her candidacy for a seat in Parliament, and later she also won the presidency of the Congress Party, now in opposition. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governed India to 2004. In the 2004 elections the Congress Party once again won a majority. She was unanimously elected as the new prime minister of India but declined due to the controversy surrounding her foreign birth. She in turn appointed former economist Manmohan Singh, the former finance minister, as the first Sikh prime minister of India.