Wowed by an elephant and two trains

I was working for a wire service whole of the time that Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister and also when he died. It was the era before television journalism came into its own in India and so I, along with a correspondent from the rival agency, one from All India Radio and sometimes one from Doordarshan (do not remember too many cameras, though), were almost always the only four allowed into various of Rajiv’s functions around town, when he was in power and again when he was out of it.

I, therefore, got to know the former Prime Minister pretty well and he began to recognise my face in the crowd whenever he came visiting Bombay. But more than any of his administrative skills or political acumen, what I admired most about Rajiv Gandhi were his qualities as a human being and his refreshing honesty even when it could have adverse results.

The first time I remember him visiting Bombay was in the aftermath of the Bhiwandi riots. The State’s chief secretary R D Pradhan was taking him on the rounds. He disarmed Pradhan by admitting that “Mummy” had stuck him with a job he knew nothing about!

Bhai, sambhal lena,” he said. Pradhan did – and how! I believe it was that interaction – and management of Rajiv Gandhi’s then naivete — that got Pradhan into the PMO and other High Places. But that is another story.

When he came visiting Bhiwandi, Rajiv had been completely clueless about the problems of the region. Mrs Indira Gandhi had visited the place previously and promised to depute one of her trusted lieutenants to study the situation and decide how best the problems of Bhiwandi could be solved and communal harmony restored for all times.

Down came Rajiv Gandhi a few days later. And , as they say, the rest is all history.

But if Rajiv Gandhi was someone who did not understand his job when he first started out, his son’s detractors were quick to dismiss Rahul Gandhi as a non-starter for all times to come.

I remember Sharad Pawar telling some of us some years ago that Rahul had proved to be a ’sparkless’ individual and that the Congress’s future was doomed. But slow starter though he may have been (much like his father, I presume), I am wowed by what Rahul Gandhi is really proving to be – a chip of the old block. And by ‘old block’ now I mean his grandmother, Indira Gandhi.

No one would have believed that Rahul would pull off a miracle for the Congress in Uttar Pradesh at the Lok Sabha polls last year. But what I am now most impressed by is what he has just done in Bombay. Just a day before his arrival, when Congress managers would not come out with a schedule for his visit on February 5 and would not give us passes to cover the same, we were cribbing about Rahul Gandhi having bitten off more than he could chew and comforting ourselves with the thought that we were being kept out of an interaction with him to control the damage caused by the Shiv Sena and Uddhav Thackeray’s challenge to the Gandhi scion.

As far as we knew, he was being flown by helicopter all across Bombay to avoid the protesting Shiv Sainiks and was scheduled to spend barely a couple of hours in town. I was sure he would end up with a whole load of criticism about his lack of courage and face ridicule from the Shiv Sena which he would find rather difficult to live down.

But when we heard he had insisted on traveling by local train (in fact, two — for he had to change routes) to his second engagement in town, rather than by helicopter, against police advice, I was simply blown out of my mind. Of course, so was the Bombay Police. But that, again, is another story.

There was nothing anyone else could have done better to steal all the limelight from the Shiv Sena, edge the Thackerays out of the headlines and at the same time go down in the hearts of the startled commuters with such a bang. The only other instance of such magnitude that I can recall is from my high school days – when my father was crowing over Mrs Gandhi’s elephant ride to Belchchi in Bihar, newspaper in hand, one morning.

He was not even a Congress supporter but I still recall the look of admiration on his face and in his voice as he read out the report to us when we came running over to see what he had got so ecstatic about. I do not think my father ever voted for the Congress in his life but he said, “She will be back, let me tell you!” with all the conviction and wishful thinking of a Congressman.

“Back where?” I asked.

“As Prime Minister,” he replied, asking me “Do you know what they mean by `a defining moment in history’?”

I did not then but now I know what he meant. He told me then that the then government had been trying to put roadblocks in Mrs Gandhi’s way, stopping her from getting to visit the survivors of the Dalit killings in Belchchi at the time. “But she has not just ridden into Belchchi; I think she has ridden all over them (her detractors), too.”

I believe her grandson just did something like that again: he did not just ride a suburban train in Bombay; he, too, rode all over his opponents (mainly the Shiv Sena), quite derailing their politics of threats and hatred. Even Bal Thackeray never rode a suburban train in his beloved hometown to go visiting anyone, let alone Dalit victims of a police firing during his own regime.

And if his son or nephew ever did — well, I know nothing about that, either!

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