By Neena Gopal:
A commercial pilot before he entered politics, Rajiv Gandhi had flown his own plane from Visakhapatnam where he had addressed a rally earlier that evening for Congress candidate Uma Gajapathi Raju.
Sriperumbudur would have been called off in all likelihood had Rajiv Gandhi’s plane, which had developed technical problems in Visakhapatnam, not been fixed at the very last minute.
Hundreds of supporters lined the streets all the way to Sriperumbudur on the bumpy, narrow road from Madras. Every time the car slowed and the crowd pushed forward, people would reach through the open window and pinch his cheek!
En route to Sriperumbudur and then again as we turned into the rally grounds, something struck me—security for the former prime minister, virtually non-existent after prime ministers V.P. Singh and Chandrashekhar had withdrawn his Z security, could open the door to an attack of some kind.
There was a sea of flags fluttering from the poles that ringed the rally venue and a podium at the far end. But unlike other poll rallies where there was a clear demarcation between the VIP area and the seating area for the audience, there was just open ground with a few hundred people milling about within the bamboo barricades, shouting slogans. The lighting was extremely poor. Most of the place was in darkness as the former prime minister’s car approached. Someone had clearly skimped on the arrangements when the venue of the rally was shifted from the local college to the temple grounds. And I said so.
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.
Note: Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India from “The Assassination Of Rajiv Gandhi” by Neena Gopal.