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I was with Rajiv Gandhi in the last 45 minutes of his life

Neena Gopal
Neena GopalAug 20, 2016 | 15:20

I was with Rajiv Gandhi in the last 45 minutes of his life

Neena Gopal's The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, recounts the last few minutes of the former prime minister's life and the immediate aftermath. The last journalist to interview him, Gopal's book has just been published by Penguin Random House.

Excerpts:

In my mind’s eye, I can still see Rajiv Gandhi’s gentle smile that showed not the slightest irritation at the less than conducive arrangements at the rally venue. I can still hear his voice as he turned his head and half jokingly asked local member of Parliament Margatham Chandrashekhar who was sitting in the back seat of the car where I was, kneeling, wedged uncomfortably into the tiny space between the driver and Rajiv Gandhi, "Did you hear what Neena just said, Margatham? Why are there no lights? Why is it so dimly lit? There seem to be very few people. Where are your supporters? This doesn’t seem like an election rally at all . . ."

Half-joking or not, he wasn’t far off the mark. The government’s inexplicable scrapping of Rajiv Gandhi’s security even though the Congress leader’s life was under threat had set Lutyens’ Delhi speculating on whether there was more to the move than met the eye, and had laid him wide open and vulnerable to attack. Given the family’s recent history of deaths and assassinations, the removal of the Black Cats cover didn’t make sense.

Rajiv Gandhi’s younger brother, Sanjay, had died under mysterious circumstances in a plane crash in 1980, with speculation rife that the two-seater aircraft had been sabotaged, while his mother, the indomitable Indira Gandhi had been gunned down in 1984 by her own Sikh bodyguards who had been reinstated against the explicit instructions of intelligence agencies.

As the car in which we were travelling hit yet another pothole, a group of slogan-shouting supporters tried to grab him through the open window. He was even lit up like a beacon, with a light fixture above the windscreen focused directly on him.

There was little doubt that at one level, Rajiv Gandhi saw the mass hysteria wherever he went as a sign of his immense popularity, as a vindication that the people still loved him and that he remained his party’s main vote-catcher. But at some level, he was concerned. While nobody could have predicted that his life would be snuffed out just like that only minutes later, he had an almost prescient premonition of his own death.

Unsettled by the complete absence of security — no gunman would have been able to protect him, had someone lunged at him through the open window with a knife or taken a shot at him — I had asked him, pointedly, whether he felt his life was at risk, more so now that there was absolutely no security beyond the one token bodyguard, who was, incidentally, in another car.

Rajiv Gandhi responded with a counter-question: "Have you noticed how every time any South Asian leader of any import rises to a position of power or is about to achieve something for himself or his country, he is cut down, attacked, killed... look at Mrs [Indira] Gandhi, Sheikh Mujib, look at Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, at Zia-ul-Haq, Bandaranaike..."

Within minutes of making that bone-chilling prophetic statement that hinted there were dark forces at work and that he knew he was a target, Rajiv Gandhi himself would be gone. As we turned off the main road, there was a mandatory burst of welcoming firecrackers. We had stopped on a slope on slightly higher ground and had walked down the approach, a few hundred yards or so to the open space in front of the main temple at Sriperumbudur, where a red carpet had been laid out.

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The Assasination of Rajiv Gandhi; Penguin Random House; Rs 325.

Stepping out from the front seat, Rajiv Gandhi had said, "Come, come, follow me," and I had demurred, walking to the back and around and then to the front of the car so I could have a bird’s-eye view of the venue, without having to deal with the throng.

"I have one more question," I had said. "I’ll wait for you here."

A bomb, a suicide bomber, let alone the first female suicide bomber on Indian soil, was the last thing on anyone’s mind as Rajiv Gandhi plunged into the crowd of supporters on his way to the podium at the far side of the ground, shaking hands, smiling warmly, as was his wont, at everyone who reached out to him.

But as the huge explosion went off a few minutes later and I, standing about ten steps away, felt what I later realised was blood and gore from the victims splatter all over my arms and my white sari, a nameless dread took hold — something terrible had happened to the man I had just been talking with.

The last time I had followed Rajiv Gandhi into a crowd had been exactly two years earlier, in 1989, in Kalwakurthy, the constituency of the Andhra Pradesh chief minister, the larger-than-life NT Rama Rao, where Rajiv Gandhi was set to campaign. Back then, we had driven in what had seemed like an endless 100-car cavalcade, complete with Black Cat commandos and top security, all the way from Hyderabad to the venue.

As I got out to follow Rajiv Gandhi, a wave of people converged around the Congress leader who was surrounded by bodyguards, even as I was knocked into a narrow little ditch. Unable to move for several minutes, and out for the count, I sensed rather than saw dozens of people jumping over me.

This time, I was deeply reluctant to follow Rajiv Gandhi into the crowd. At Sriperumbudur, he had no such compunctions. Minutes after he walked unhesitatingly into the crowd, there was a deafening sound as the bomb spluttered to life and exploded in a blinding flash. Everything changed. A moment that, in my head, will always be frozen in time. It was exactly 10:21pm.

As the terrified crowd fled from the spot where the dead and injured lay, and bewildered, anxious survivors ran through the gathering throng in the semi-darkness, I spotted Congress leaders GK Moopanar and Jayanti Natarajan, and Margatham who had been in the car with me, and at whose behest the former prime minister had made a special effort to address this oddly timed, latenight election rally. They looked shaken, aghast, devastated at the sight of Rajiv Gandhi’s prone, seemingly lifeless body. Margatham looked shattered, as if her world had ended.

Rajiv Gandhi had only come to Sriperumbudur at "Aunty’s" request. The next day both Natarajan and Moopanar would separately tell me how they had tried to lift Rajiv Gandhi from the ground but couldn’t as his body "simply disintegrated in their hands". Worse, how at that crucial moment, they couldn’t find a single policeman, barring Rajiv Gandhi’s personal bodyguard, Pradip Kumar Gupta (the man who had come looking for me), who was lying right next to Rajiv Gandhi and had died in the blast.

There was no ambulance — now an accepted fixture at election rallies. They couldn’t find any medical personnel, or a stretcher or gurney or even a vehicle to get him to the nearest hospital. In fact, within minutes of the blast, two cars, one a white Ambassador flashing a red beacon, and another that came from somewhere in the back, had backed on to the main road and sped away. The mood on the ground was getting decidedly ugly. At the spot where Rajiv Gandhi’s body lay, it was getting more and more difficult to hold one’s ground as his supporters closed in, muttering unintelligibly under their breath.

The undercurrent of anger and hostility was palpable, as the party workers at the ill-chosen venue began to shout "Vazhige Rajiv Gandhi! Vazhige! (Long live Rajiv Gandhi! Long live!)," not knowing, perhaps, how inappropriate a slogan it was. It was apparent they were still looking for some way to vent their fury, and were only holding back from heading out and smashing everything around them because it was unclear what exactly had happened to Rajiv Gandhi—whether he was dead or grievously injured, and who exactly was behind the blast.

It was the DMK, said one man with great certainty. "Kalaingar" (the moniker for Muthuvel Karunanidhi) hated Rajiv Gandhi and had openly said that he must be stopped. His words elicited loud murmurs of support from the throng of Congress workers, until another man said it wasn’t the DMK at all and was promptly slapped and pushed around. Nobody was thinking straight.

As Rajiv Gandhi lay there, and Moopanar tried to keep the throng at bay, the crowd was vocalising what was going through all our minds. One man kept insisting that Rajiv Gandhi had survived the blast; that he was only injured and all that was required was for someone, anyone, to take him to the nearby hospital. Many concurred. None of them could even countenance the prospect that he had breathed his last, as the tearful crowds kept saying "Paapa, rosa poo maadhiriyirikidai (Poor man, he looks like a rose)," a reference to Rajiv Gandhi’s fair skin. No one could say the unsayable.

***

Days later, I received a call from the Indian embassy in Abu Dhabi. Rajiv Gandhi’s widow had sent a message asking me to meet her at their New Delhi home at 10, Janpath. I flew to Delhi on May 31 and, as I walked from the Congress party office to the pathway that led to the house that Rajiv Gandhi had called home, alongside the Gandhi man-Friday V George, I was accosted by several senior Congressmen, saying I must find out at any cost, whether Sonia Gandhi would lead the Congress party!

Inside, in a room lined with books and a long table where Rajiv Gandhi had often been photographed confabulating with his cabinet, was Sonia Gandhi, her face devoid of make-up, a far cry from the beautifully coiffed creature whom I had met on her visit to Dubai a few months ago.

She reached across, held both my hands in hers and said, "Tell me everything, tell me what he said, what mood was he in, what were his last moments like. I want to hear it from you, every tiny detail. Was he happy, was he tense, what were his last words..." Tears streaming down her cheeks — and, I realised, mine too — and still holding on to my hands, she listened as I recounted the last 45 minutes of India’s youngest prime minister’s life; his unexpected death closing the chapter on India’s all too brief Camelot.

(Reprinted after the publisher's permission.)

Last updated: May 20, 2018 | 18:43
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