On June 5, 1968, the direction of American, and by extension world, politics appeared to take decisive turn due to an event that has since been mostly forgotten. On that day, Robert Francis Kennedy, younger brother of the late president John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was shot at moments after he had won the Democrat party’s primary in California; Robert (or Bobby as he was called) died of his injuries early on June 6.
A lone gunman, Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian Christian refugee, was convicted for Robert’s assassination and sentenced to life imprisonment even though conspiracy theories still abound that the act was not the handiwork of a single perpetrator. With the California victory, Robert had positioned himself as the frontrunner for the Democrat nomination to run for president.
The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy effectively dealt a body blow to the dreams of their father Joseph Kennedy Senior, a ruthlessly ambitious Irish-origin businessman and politician, to build an American political dynasty to perpetuate his name. While another brother of John and Robert, Ted Kennedy, became an influential senator, his bid at the Democrat nomination for president in 1980 was effectively a footnote in history, and the family’s role in modern-day US politics has little more than symbolic value now.
The tragedies of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy held a lot of similarities to the assassinations of two figures whose legacies still resonate in Indian politics: prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 and her son Rajiv Gandhi, who also had been prime minister, in 1991. The 50th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s killing provides an opportunity to evaluate not just the assassinations in the Kennedy and Nehru-Gandhi dynasties, but also the personalities and politics of these four leaders:
Both John F. Kennedy and Indira Gandhi ignored security concerns, which led to their deaths while in office: Before his assassination in Dallas in November 1963, John F. Kennedy ignored advice to avoid travelling in an open convertible car, claiming he had to stay visible to the public. This was despite warnings of possible assassination attempts. The decision led to John F. Kennedy being hopelessly exposed to the bullets of Harvey Lee Oswald when his car was being driven through Dealey Plaza in Dallas.
Indira also ignored advisories to remove Sikhs from her personal security detail shortly after ordering the storming of the Golden Temple in June 1984. The rest, as they say, is history.
Both JFK and Indira cultivated domestic enemies who have been accused of involvement in their deaths: If Indira alienated many Sikhs with Operation Blue Star, John F. Kennedy was accused of targeting the American mafia in a much-publicised crackdown. The mafia, popularly known as the mob, resented the crackdown given the fact that Joseph Kennedy Senior himself had made a fortune as a bootlegger.
Another constituency that resented John F. Kennedy were Cuban exiles, who never forgave him for the ill-fated Bay of Pigs Invasion to depose Fidel Castro, shortly after Kennedy became president in 1961. The invasion, which involved Cuban exiles landing in Cuba with the CIA’s help, ended in disaster as president Kennedy declined to provide air support.
Both Indira and JFK promoted their relatives, eventually exposing them to risk: The stories of how Indira Gandhi brought her younger son, Sanjay, into politics and seemingly even ceded authority to him, are numerous and well known. After Sanjay’s death in a plane crash, she had to turn to Rajiv.
John F. Kennedy brought in his brother Robert to the crucial position of attorney general, despite his relative youth. While Robert was celebrated as being a crusader against organised crime, his inexperience was criticised. In 1967, John F. Kennedy’s successor as president, Lyndon Johnson, signed an anti-nepotism law that prohibits presidents from appointing relatives to major government posts; the move was interpreted as being a jab at Robert Kennedy, whom Johnson disliked. The anti-nepotism law came into focus shortly after President Donald Trump took office in 2017, given curiosity over the role his children and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, would play in his administration.
Both RFK and Rajiv Gandhi were killed in election campaigns: While the political careers of Robert F. Kennedy and Rajiv followed vastly different trajectories, both were assassinated during election campaigns that occurred when their countries were in turmoil.
While not as violence prone as India in the late 1980s, the US of the late 1960s was bitterly divided over the Vietnam War, the black civil rights movement and working class disenchantment. Robert F. Kennedy was seen as building a coalition of working class Americans, blacks and even Latinos that would have given him a realistic chance of claiming power. Rajiv, on the other hand, had to confront the newly unleashed forces of Mandir and Mandal, in addition to terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab.
Both RFK and Rajiv were assassinated over their foreign policy priorities: If Indira and John F Kennedy were killed by domestic forces, their ‘successors’ were killed by ‘foreign’ forces. Rajiv’s order to deploy the Indian Peacekeeping Force to Sri Lanka and his determination to crush the LTTE despite the IPKF’s failure made him a marked man for the Tamil extremist group.
Sirhan Sirhan claimed he had been a supporter of Robert F. Kennedy, till the latter announced his support for Israel’s annexation of Arab-held areas in the 1967 Six-Day War. Robert F. Kennedy had also announced he would sign off on a deal to sell Israel 50 F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers if elected president. Sirhan had specifically written about his anger at the plan to sell Israel the F-4s, which he alleged would be used against the Palestinians.
Rajiv, RFK and even JFK were plunged into politics as a result of air crashes: The story of how Rajiv Gandhi went from being an airline pilot to a politician after his brother Sanjay Gandhi died in an aeroplane crash in 1980 is well known. However, the Kennedy story, which most people assume began with John F. Kennedy, also features an air crash.
Joseph Kennedy Senior’s political ambition of a Roman Catholic president initially revolved around his oldest son, Joseph Kennedy Junior. Joseph Kennedy Junior had started to dabble in politics when he joined the US Navy in World War 2. He was killed in a then-classified aircraft mission in Europe in 1944. How would life have been for Rajiv, Robert and John, and the two countries, if those two air crashes hadn’t occurred?