A long night with Rajiv Gandhi
I can hardly believe that it is two decades since the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
Just a few days before he was killed he was campaigning in Bombay. I was working for a wire service at the time and my Bureau Chief had given me stern instructions: the then union government had withdrawn his security cover and Rajiv was a sitting duck for assassins. “Even if a hair on his head is touched, I want us to be the first on the wires. You will not lose sight of him for even a second.”
It was the era before mobile phones and then Election Commissioner TN Seshan had not yet formulated his stern measures to discipline election expenditure. There was no 10 pm deadline on campaigning. I knew it would be a long night.
Rajiv landed at the Bombay airport four hours past his scheduled arrival at 5pm. Then he held an impromptu press conference in the airport lounge. Most reporters were satisfied with that and disappeared for the night. I had no choice but to stay on.
Rajiv was holding corner meetings that night. He started from the north end of the city at Mulund at 10pm and ended in the morning at 5am at Nagpada. I dashed to a restaurant that was just closing at 11pm to file my first report on the phone. The second, I told the desk, would come only in the morning because I could not now wake up people in their homes to make phones calls to office.
I recall there was a correspondent from the Hindi media with me at midnight. But even he disappeared soon after. I did not know how I would track Rajiv as even the cabs began to go off the streets. So I inveigled myself into his cavalcade – they put me in the second or third last car, as far as I recall. Which simply meant that Rajiv was already on the dais and into his speech as my car came to a halt at each venue. And by the time I sprinted to the maidan where he was holding his meeting he was already winding down and racing towards the next corner meeting.
It was 2 am, I recall, and I told the driver of my car to break the line and race towards Kurla where Rajiv was supposed to hold his next meeting. “I want to be near the dais before Rajiv arrives and this is the only way we can do it.”
Rajiv should have been there within five minutes but a half hour had passed and still there was no sign of the long entourage. Now I was in real panic, sure that either someone had taken a potshot at him or that the racing cars might have been in an accident. In desperation, I started walking the highway in the direction of his previous meeting when the driver shouted out to me that he had seen a series of car lights coming from the opposite direction. Within seconds they were in sight and Rajiv’s car swished past me (he had decided to break the schedule and go to his next meeting first).
Why the Nehru-Gandhis are exceptional compared to most of our other political leaders came home to me after what followed next. Rajiv had seen me standing at the edge of the road and looked back to mouth a ‘Oh, my God!’ at me. He jumped out of his car and, instead of heading towards the meeting, made straight for me. “What are you doing in the middle of the road at this hour of the night?” he asked.
“Waiting for you,” I replied. “I am an agency reporter and I have to stay with you all through the campaign. I can’t go home.”
He smiled and gave me a piercing look. “Have you had something to eat, though?” he asked. I shook my head.
He then turned to then Bombay Congress president Murli Deora and said, “Make sure she gets something to eat. A sandwich, perhaps. Or she will collapse by the time I am done.” Then he turned and headed towards his meeting.
Deora, now, was in a tizzy. “Where will I get something for you to eat at this hour of the night? Why have you put me in this situation?” he asked in agitation.
“What situation? Its okay. I am not hungry.”
“No, its not ok!” Deora snapped. “Rajiv will check again if you have eaten. What will I tell him?”
He looked at his car and then brightened. “Nariyal paani peeyegi? I have some coconuts in my car. Malai waale. May be that will do.”
Then as I took hold of a coconut that his driver handed out to me, Deora added, “Lekin Rajiv ne poocha to kehna ki maine tujhe sandwich khilaya (If Rajiv asks tell him I gave you a sandwich). Otherwise he will kill me!”
I thought Deora was rather over-reacting but, right on cue, the former PM came across to me to ask, “Did he put some food in your stomach?” As Deora looked on with hugely anxious eyes, I simply nodded – there was no need to lie nor tell him the truth.
I came up against another instance of Rajiv’s chivalry the same night. At his Tardeo meeting, I remember getting caught up in the crowds and afraid that I would not make it to my car on time. So I began to loudly plead with the people to make way. “I am a reporter. I need to get ahead of you. Please let me proceed.”
No one would listen. But then suddenly Rajiv Gandhi, who was a few yards ahead, did an about turn. Automatically a pathway opened up between him and those behind. He spotted me and said, “Come.” As I raced ahead, he said, “Stay close and always walk a step ahead of me. Otherwise you will be crushed by the crowds at the back and get left behind.”
“What happened to you?” I asked. He had a torn kurta sleeve and a scratch on his arm. He just smiled and said nothing. “No, really, how did that happen?” I persisted. “It’s nothing,” he said. “It just tore as people tried to get close.” I thought he sounded rather happy about that.
The rest of that campaign went off in a less eventful fashion for me. But that was my best election campaign reportage ever. Nothing in later years – not even Sonia Gandhi’s road shows — ever came even close to the sheer throbbing life and colour of that night-long campaign by Rajiv Gandhi.
As I had remained the only reporter on his campaign trail till the end, I could not stop boasting to my colleagues about how the former Prime Minister had looked out for a rookie, nameless and rather faceless reporter who could bring him no returns other than a straightforward reporting of his night-long campaign in Bombay.
Thirteen days later, he was assassinated in Sriperumbudur. One colleague then asked me, “What would you have done if this had happened in Bombay? You were keeping so close to him. Wouldn’t you have died, too?”
The thought had never even occurred to me. But then Maharashtra was headed at the time by Sharad Pawar. A day after Rajiv’s assassination Pawar said, “This is what I was afraid of. That is why I had plainclothes men planted all round him when he came to Bombay and I told them I would fry them if even one shot was fired at Rajiv Gandhi. All that I wanted was for him to exit Maharashtra without a scratch on him.”
Well, he did get some scratches. But none of the kind that would take his life. That lack of vigilance was left to Tamil Nadu and its then government. And those guys, today, are partners in the UPA government.