Remembering Rajiv Gandhi
Rajiv Gandhi would have been 65 years old next Thursday had he lived. He was only 46 years old when he was targeted by a human bomber and killed in the most gruesome manner in Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu at a meeting venue, which was not there on his original schedule.
But destiny had other things in store and India’s youngest Prime Minister (he was only 40 when he became the PM) died with an unfinished agenda.
The man who brought India on the global cyber map and for whom the dream was to take his country to the 21-st century left much before he could complete his mission. On top of it he had to suffer the humiliation of being accused in the Bofors bribery case. The High Court finally exonerated him some years ago. His widow Sonia Gandhi and son, Rahul who are determined to complete the pending work, are now carrying on his legacy.
I sometimes wonder why such people leave so early. I had met him a few times and those moments are firmly etched in my memory. My first meeting goes back to March, 1977. Rajiv was not in politics but his younger brother was contesting from Amethi that time. I was a student activist and had toured most of western and central UP along with my friends. Deepak Malhotra (now principal, Dyal Singh College and my senior) was with me when we returned from UP after sensing a major Congress debacle. We went straight to 1, Akbar Road where some of our friends were waiting. Those days, Akbar Road next to the then Prime Minister’s official residence, 1, Safdarjung Road was also used for distribution of election material. On reaching the house, we met Rajiv Gandhi dressed in a checked bluish green full sleeves shirt and blue denim jeans looking at scattered posters and other election material. On being told that we had returned from Amethi, he asked us what was the situation there.
“Grim’’, we both replied and it was extremely bad in other parts of UP. It is perhaps only in Amethi, Rae Bareilly (Indira Gandhi’s constituency) and maybe in Agra and Kanpur, the Congress has some chance. Other places it will be wiped out, I remember us telling him. He did not respond but only smiled silently at us before going inside. We did not know that all the seats in UP as most other places in North India were going to see a complete Congress rout.
Unlike Sanjay who used to drive around in a green coloured Matador, Rajiv those days did not have much visibility. If I remember correctly, he had a dark blue Matador with registration number 100. Rumour had it that it even had a Refrigerator in it indicative of that Rajiv was always ahead of his times. It was done up from inside and was seen once in a while around Safdarjung Road, Teen Murti and Willingdon Crescent.
Everyone would see the Matador pass by and comment that it was Rajiv who was driving it. Sanjay on the other hand would mostly be accompanied by his bodyguard, Jodh Singh, then a sub Inspector with Delhi Police and his man Friday, a guy called Chattar Singh (not to be mixed with Chattar Singh of Delhi Congress who is close to Sheila Dikshit and Arjun Singh). During the Janata regime, Rajiv would occasionally visit the United Coffee House in Connaught Place with a couple of his close friends. He would have Coffee and leave as quietly as he arrived. He would have little to do with political activists who would also be sitting in adjoining tables. Rajiv was also an amateur Radio Operator and and it was said that his call sign was VU2RG.
I also remember a few days after Sanjay’s tragic air crash on June 23, 1980 which I covered as a reporter for the National Herald (I was with the Herald for barely six months and had covered Feroze Varun Gandhi’s birth, Sanjay’s death, an assassination attempt on Indira Gandhi on April 14, 1980 and the killing of Nirankari Baba, Gurbachan Singh on April 25, 1980 for the paper), H.K.L.Bhagat, Delhi strongman took a large number of Congressmen in a delegation to Indira Gandhi and asked her to “give us Rajiv’’. This meant that Rajiv should join whole time politics and fill the vacuum left by his brother. Rajiv Gandhi was reluctant to join politics but ultimately agreed to help his mother. During his early years, he had rushed to a fire incident site at Panchkuin Road and roughed up a police officer, ACP Hari Dev.
The media went after him as Hari Dev (Father of actors Rahul Dev and Mukul Dev) had no role but was there only for law and order duties.
The media’s grouse was that why had Hari Dev been suspended. Prabha Dutt (TV Anchor Barkha Dutt’s mother) who was the chief reporter of Hindustan Times at that time and wrote a weekly column, Follow Me Around’’ took up the cause. The rest of the media supported Hari Dev too. Rajiv realized that he had perhaps made a mistake and Hari Dev was reinstated to his original position.
The incident showed that Rajiv was down to earth and grounded person and realized when he had committed a mistake. He had no problem in admitting it either unlike some lesser mortals. He was subsequently made general secretary in the AICC with Ahmed Patel, Tarun Gogoi and Oscar Fernandes assisting him.
Rajiv also played a major role in the successful organization of Asiad 82. The games would never have been held but Rajiv who was assigned the task of overseeing things by his mother used to regularly monitor the progress. He used the services of three go-getters—HKL Bhagat, Jagmohan and H.K.L.Kapoor for ensuring things would be ready on time.
The same kind of urgency is lacking in the organization of Commonwealth Games to be held next year. I have serious doubts whether these Games will be held in 2010, as there is no body like Rajiv who is monitoring the progress and nobody like the Bhagat, Kapoor and Jagmohan trio. Rajiv would put so much pressure on these three that they would be all the time busy with the progress. I remember Bhagat telling me that this man is very result oriented.
Soon after he became the Prime Minister, in July, 1985 a student and youth delegation was to go to Moscow for an international gathering. I was in Times of India as a reporter and was amongst the few journalists who were invited to join the delegation led by Anand Sharma (now Union Commerce and Industries minister) who was the president of the Indian Youth Congress at that time.
I remember, Rajiv hosted a reception for all of us at the Hyderabad House and went around exchanging pleasantries with the participants. I too happened to exchange a few words and he told me that I should come and see him sometimes. Unfortunately, such a one on one meeting never happened at that time since I was covering city affairs and had my hands full. I, however, met him much later when he was out of power subsequently.
When he was PM, one meeting I distinctly remember was on July 31, 1988.
Cholera and Gastro enteritis had broken out in Delhi and the administration had been behaving in its usual casual manner. I was with The Hindu as a reporter at that time and media reports about the epidemic were sought to played down by the authorities. Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi were in Russia and on their return decided to pay a surprise visit to the worst affected areas of Nand Nagri, Sunder Nagri and Gokulpuri. It was Bhagat’s constituency and he had persuaded the Prime Minister to see things for himself. He had alleged that the then Lt.Governor H.K.L.Kapoor and the administration were not taking matters seriously. On that particular day, I and Arati Bhargav who was with HT at that time (Both were tipped off by Bhagat about Rajiv’s visit) were the only two reporters present at the spot. The Prime Minister along with Sonia Gandhi arrived and was most distressed at seeing heaps of garbage all around. He was seen talking very agitatedly to the Lt. Governor as Bhagat had advised Mayor, Mahinder Singh Saathi to let Kapoor face the heat. An old woman went to Rajiv for assistance. He had nothing to write on so he beckoned me and requested if I could write her particulars and give them to him. I did as I was told. He moved from one place to the other and it was clear before the visit ended that many heads may roll. Yes, The Lt. Governor was sacked, the Chief Secretary, the MCD commissioner and DDA vice chairman transferred and many engineers suspended. He had taken action on the spot.
I had another meeting with him in November, 1989 at Amethi where he was contesting against Rajmohan Gandhi fielded by the Janata Party in a fight billed as Jawaharlal Nehru’s grandson versus Mahatama Gandhi’s grandson. I accompanied him on the campaign at Amethi, Gauri Ganj and Tiloi. He appeared cheerful all through and confident that he would win comfortably.
Yet another brief meeting was after he first sent Ghulam Nabi Azad to the Press Club of India to inquire about the arrangements being made for the last rites of Sanjeev Premi, a photo journalist who died of electrocution on top of a train while covering one of his visits to Agra sometimes in late 1990 or early 1991.
I was the Secretary General of the Press Club and Rajiv was very disturbed that a young journalist had lost his life in such a tragic manner. He instructed Azad to do whatever was possible for the family at that time. It showed him as a very caring person.
The last time I saw him was on May 17th, 1991 at the Kidwai Nagar ground. He had come to address a public meeting as part of his Delhi campaign. I had managed to climb the dais as I was covering the election meeting for the Hindu and I saw him getting down in a buoyant mood. He gave a thumbs up sign to everyone and disappeared. He was on way to Baraf Khana chowk for the next meeting. My friends superstar Rajesh Khanna (candidate from new Delhi against L.K.Advani) and Subhash Chopra were next to him as he got off the dais with late Jag Parvesh Chandra, former CEC trying to catch his attention.
On May 21, 1991, his photograph with Sonia Gandhi and Rajesh Khanna appeared in all the newspapers. The photo showed the couple casting their vote near the Sangli mess. Late in the evening, a friend called and gave the terrible news. Rajiv was no more. Harikesh Bahadur, former MP who was stationed in Amethi that night called up to confirm the news. He told me that a big storm had hit Amethi and all the tents had been blown away. The nature too perhaps acknowledged him as a great leader.
But this blog will never be complete if I do not mention that a lot of things, known and unknown about Rajiv Gandhi have been put up on a website rememberingrajivgandhi.com by my friend and free lance journalist Harish Chander. It is amazing that this journalist with no resources at his command has been able access exclusive material on the late Prime Minister.
There are interviews about him with diverse people like Pranab Mukherjee, Arjun Singh, Wajahat Habibullah, Oscar Fernandes, Moti Lal Vora, Captain Trehan, Suresh Kaushik, his PSO, GVG Krishnamurthy, former Election Commissioner, Baldev Kapoor, journalist and many others. I know that Harish Chander has done all what he has done after being convinced that India had truly lost a great leader.
His website is the most befitting tribute to the late leader. I believe that Rahul Gandhi has shown interest in the website and has deputed some of his aides to see its contents. Harish Chander wants to dedicate this website to the Nation. It is perhaps his way of saying Thank You Rajiv..