by Simon Freeman and Ronald Payne                  
India faces collapse with the violent death of Rajiv Gandhi--or    
does it? Simon Freeman and Ronald Payne analyse the importance of  
individuals in the march of events                                 
     They have paid their tributes, expressed their horror and     
pledged, as they always do when one of their number is murdered,   
that democracy will triumph in the face of terrorism. Now, in      
their weekend retreats, with their foreign affairs advisers and    
their top secret intelligence reports, world leaders will have to  
judge the true impact on India of the assassination of Rajiv       
     They will conclude, perhaps a little unhappily for them but   
fortunately for the rest of us, that Gandhi's death is unlikely    
to be more than a footnote, if a substantial one, in the history   
of his country. India will not disintegrate. There will be no      
civil war. The Indian military will not stage a coup. Pakistan     
will not launch the oft-predicted strike which would set the       
region ablaze.                                                     
     Some Indians, perhaps many, may die over the next month in    
the kind of primitive ethnic and religious feuding which has       
always threatened to destroy the country. But, unless history is   
truly mischievous, India will muddle through and get on with the   
business of trying to survive.                                     
     It is rarely the personal stature of a statesman which        
decides how pivotal his contribution to history will be. History   
usually depends less on the drama of an assassination or the       
status of the victim than on more profound political, economic or  
demographic forces. In retrospect, it often appears that assassin  
and victim were inexorably drawn together to become the catalyst   
for inevitable change.                                             
     The most spectacular assassination in modern European         
history--the shooting of Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife   
at Sarajevo in 1914 by a Serbian student, Gavrilo Princip--was     
undoubtedly the immediate cause of the First World War. But few    
serious historians today subscribe to the theory that, had         
Princip not pressed the trigger that late June day in the cause    
of Serbian nationalism, the 19th-century order would have          
     Dr Christopher Andrew, of Cambridge University, believes      
that the assassination merely set the timetable for war. He said:  
"Even if the Archduke had not been killed then there might have    
been a great war anyway." Other experts now talk not of Princip    
but of an explosive cocktail of nationalism straining within       
decrepit empires and of fatally dangerous alliances built by       
leaders from an earlier world.                                     
     It is possible to see Sarajevo as the climax to a period in   
which political murders became almost routine. The reference       
books on late 19th-century Europe are peppered with the names of   
hapless, long-forgotten politicians who were shot, bombed or       
stabbed because, so it was thought by the many bands of            
extremists, that was the only way to force change.                 
     While there are no precise ways to assess the real            
importance of an assassination, historians like Andrew reckon      
that there are some general guidelines. In the stable, advanced    
democracies of today the murder of a top politician is unlikely    
to cause more than outrage and pain.                               
     When the Irish Republican Army blew up the Grand Hotel in     
Brighton in 1984 in an attempt to kill Prime Minister Margaret     
Thatcher and most of her Cabinet, they hoped that there would be   
such disgust at the murders that the British public would force    
their leaders to pull out of Northern Ireland. But, even if        
Thatcher had died this would not have happened. Her death would    
probably have strengthened her successor's resolve not to bow to   
     The IRA should have known this from the reaction to the       
killing five years earlier of Lord Louis Mountbatten,              
distinguished soldier, public servant and pillar of the British    
Establishment. The murder changed nothing in the province and      
only demonstrated, as if it was necessary, that determined         
terrorists often find ways to murder their chosen targets.         
Similarly, The Red Brigade anarchists who cold-bloodedly killed    
Aldo Moro, the Italian prime minister, in May, 1978, achieved      
nothing except to ensure that the Italian authorities would hunt   
them with even more determination. Nor did the killers of Swedish  
Prime Minister Olof Palme accomplish anything. The murder--still   
unsolved--drew the usual, but clearly genuine, shocked response    
from world leaders. But even at the time they were hardpressed to  
pretend that Palme's murder would fundamentally matter to Sweden.  
     The Third World, on the other hand, is more volatile.         
Sometimes, as in India, countries are an uneasy blend of           
feudalism and capitalism, dynastic authoritarianism and            
democracy. The demise of dictators often leaves a bloody vacuum.   
Yet even here, the assassination of a tyrant does not necessarily  
signal major upheaval. General Zia ul-Haque, who had ruled         
Pakistan since 1977, was blown up in his plane in the summer of    
1988. But, though he had long seemed crucial to the continuing     
stability of the country, his death seemed to be the fated climax  
to the era of military rule.                                       
     The murder of Egypt's President Sadat in October 1981 seemed  
then to herald some new dark age of internal repression and        
aggression towards Israel. But his successor, Hosni Mubarak,       
merely edged closer to the Arab world without returning to the     
pre-Sadat hostility towards Israel.                                
     The killers of kings and dictators in other Arab countries    
have also discovered that they have murdered in vain. Iraq has     
endured a succession of brutal military dictators who have died    
as violently as they lived. The fact that Iraq has never           
experienced democracy is the result of economic and historical     
realities, not assassins' bullets. Saudi Arabia has also seen its  
share of high level killings yet, today, the House of Saud         
remains immovably in power.                                        
     But in the United States, where the idea of righteous         
violence is deeply embedded in the national consciousness, the     
grand assassination has been part of the political process for     
more than a century. Beginning with the murder of President        
Abraham Lincoln in 1865, the list of victims is a long and         
distinguished one. It includes most recently, President John F.    
Kennedy in 1963; his brother, Robert, heir apparent, shot in       
1968; Martin Luther King, civil rights campaigner and Nobel Peace  
Prize winner, gunned down the same year. Ronald Reagan could       
easily have followed in 1981 when he was shot and badly wounded.   
     John Kennedy's death now appears important for different      
reasons from those one might have expected at the time. It did     
not derail any of his vaunted civil rights or welfare programmes;  
rather his death guaranteed that his successor, Lyndon Johnson,    
would be able to push the Kennedy blueprint for a New America      
through Congress. Nor did it end the creeping US involvement in    
     But Kennedy has been immortalised by his assassin and the     
mythology of his unfulfilled promise will endure long after his    
real accomplishments are forgotten.                                
     In a curious, perverse, sense he and his fellow-martyrs       
might live on as far more potent symbols of change than if they    
had survived into gentle retirement with their fudges revealed     
and their frailties exposed.                                       
     Why good leaders die and bad ones survive                     
     Few names of hated tyrants appear on the roll-call of world   
leaders who fall to the assassin's bomb, knife or bullet, writes   
Ronald Payne. One of the curiosities of the trade in political     
murder is that those the world generally recognises as bad guys    
often live to a ripe old age or die quietly in their beds. Few     
who mourn the passing of Rajiv Gandhi would have shed so many      
tears had President Saddam Hussein been blown to pieces in Iraq.   
     There was a time only a few years ago when Americans and      
Europeans would have celebrated the violent demise of President    
Muammar Gaddafi. Both the Libyan leader and Hussein live on, as    
do Idi Amin of Uganda, or Fidel Castro, whom the American Central  
Intelligence Agency plotted so imaginatively and ineffectually to  
     When academics play the game of what might have been, the     
consequences of assassinating such monstres sacres as Stalin and   
Hitler arise.                                                      
     When the Russian dictator died suddenly of natural causes,    
the whole Soviet Union was paralysed because no leader dared       
claim the right to succeed him. That in itself suggests what       
might have happened had Stalin been shot unexpectedly at a more    
critical moment.                                                   
     The timing of a political murder is crucial. Had Adolf        
Hitler been assassinated before he achieved full power or before   
his invasion of the Soviet Union, the history of Germany, and      
indeed of Europe, would have been very different.                  
     Fascinating though such intellectual exercises are, it seems  
that as a rule it is the decent, the innocent and the relatively   
harmless who perish as assassins' victims.                         
     The reason may not be far to seek. Tyrants watch their backs  
pretty carefully. The secret police are ever active. It is easier  
to kill statesmen in democracies where the rule of law prevails    
and the sad truth is that leaders in those countries which         
exercise authority through voting rather than shooting are more    
at risk than Middle East tyrants.                                  
     A further reason for the survival of the hated monster        
figure might be that Western intelligence services have been       
forbidden to go in for execution. The CIA and the British secret   
intelligence service are now out of the killing business. Even     
the KGB's assassination specialists seem to have been stood down.  
     In any case the Kremlin was hardly keen on the murder of      
ruling statesmen even in the bad old days. Soviet leaders          
understood the realities of power well enough to know that such    
acts were unlikely to further their cause.