Rajiv Gandhi, the man, the leader with a heart
I felt Rajiv Gandhi and I had established as friendly a relationship as was possible between a journalist and a politician
My bureau chief had had a premonition about Rajiv Gandhi as early as May 10 or 11 that year. Rajiv was flying in to Mumbai the next evening and he would be campaigning all night—long before TN Seshan as chief election commissioner had begun to tighten the screws on politicians. I was working for a news agency and my bureau chief told me, "I do not want you to take your eyes off Rajiv even for a second all the time he is here."
"Through the night?" I asked, startled.
"Yes," said the chief. "VP Singh has downgraded his security cover. If even a hair on his head is touched by a bystander, I want us to be the first to flash it around the world. So you do not leave the assignment until Rajiv has flown out."
Sharad Pawar was then chief minister of Maharashtra and I called his office to check if I could be bunged into his cavalcade, which would give me easy access to Rajiv's own entourage.
Pawar was outraged when I told him why: "You think I will allow anything to happen to him on my turf? I have pulled out every security detail towards his protection and I have warned them they will be in trouble if Rajiv suffers so much as a scratch while in Mumbai or anywhere in Maharashtra."
Under the circumstances, Rajiv suffered many scratches and even a torn sleeve as people gathered at his corner meetings across town—he started from the far end in Mulund, near Thane at 5 pm and ended at Nagpada in South Mumbai at 6 am the next morning—mobbed him, hugged him, gave him petitions, held up their children to him, even as the Maharashtra police were driven crazy, given Rajiv would not allow them to stop the people from jumping the barriers and coming close.
I stayed very close too, and those 13 hours have never left me in all these years. Most reporters had gone home by midnight. Just one more agency reporter and I were the only ones who remained. At 11 pm, I rushed to a nearby restaurant to call in my first report to my agency and was frantic that I was taking my eyes off Rajiv. So while fellow reporters broke to eat something, I rushed back to catch up with the cavalcade.
At 2 am Rajiv, flanked by Pawar and Murli Deora, then president of the Mumbai Congress, spotted me standing alone by the roadside as he got off the stage after a meeting in Kurla, halfway through his schedule.
I could see him mouth, "Oh, my god!" as he strode towards me and he asked, "What are you still doing here?"
I said I was with an agency and couldn't abandon his meetings halfway. He just smiled and asked, "But have you had something to eat?"
When I shook my head, Rajiv turned round to Deora and said, "Give her some of those sandwiches you brought for me."
Then, looking at Deora's horrified face, he added, "I will ask her at the next stop if you did." And promptly disappeared into his car.
Deora was hopping mad. "Raat ke doh baje main tere liye sandwiches kahaan se laoonga! Gaadi mein jo thay woh sab khatam ho gaye hain! (Where will I get sandwiches for you at 2 in the night? The ones that were in the car are all finished!)"
"It's all right," I told him. "I don't really need anything!"
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Suddenly Deora brightened. "Nariyal paani peeyegi? (Will you have some coconut water?)"
He had some tender coconuts in the car and he offered me a flat wooden something to scrape off the malai (tender coconut flesh) and eat that to assuage my hunger.
"Rajiv se bolna nahin ki main tujhe sandwiches nahin de saka! Poochenge woh zaroor! (Don't tell Rajiv I could not give you sandwiches! He will surely ask.)"
Indeed, Rajiv did. But when he asked, "Did Murli give you something to eat?" I could in all honesty nod and keep my faith with both Rajiv and Murli-bhai.
But that incident brought home to me again the kindness of the Nehru-Gandhis to rookie reporters.
His mother, when prime minister, had recognised my newness to the profession when I was so blown out of my wits standing within a feet of the prime minister that I simply could not find the click button on my camera in Assam, after the Nellie massacres, when she arrived at the refugee camp there. A woman had thrown herself at Mrs Gandhi and she held that scene for me longer than a PM ought to have, recognising my rawness—until one of her security guards stepped in and took that picture for me.
Some years later, as the Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, lay dying at the Bombay Hospital in Mumbai, Rajiv flew in with Sonia Gandhi to see him one last time.
He was prime minister then and after Mrs Gandhi's assassination the PM's security was almost impenetrable. But my bureau chief at that agency always expected the impossible from his reporters. So I was tasked again with getting close and filing a first-person account.
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I arrived at the hospital more than three hours ahead of the PM's schedule, dashed into a patients' lift with a stretcher and escaped the notice of the police officers guarding the floor by hanging out in the stairwell two floors above. When I saw Rajiv’'s cavalcade arrive, I climbed down unhurriedly and placed myself opposite the lift—of course, the cops were too preoccupied guarding the lift doors to pay any heed to me a few steps behind them.
But the moment the lift doors opened, Murli Deora, who was accompanying him, spotted me and asked the cops, "Why are reporters found here? I thought you had instructions to hold them all downstairs!"
But before the cops could bundle me away, Rajiv turned around and said, "Let her stay."
He looked at his press secretary (HY Sharada Prasad held the post then) and said, "Take care of her until I return."
Even as Prasad engaged me in small talk, I managed to sneak a glimpse from the corridor into the room and saw Ghaffar Khan, with tears in his eyes, seize Rajiv's hand and lift it to his cheek, with Rajiv was smiling down at him gently.
That would have been enough for me, but as the PM had asked me to wait, I did—with pen and notebook in hand. He came out of the room and made straight for me. This time my hands did not shake standing before another prime minister, for by now I thought I was a veteran.
Rajiv began to brief me in detail about his talk with Ghaffar Khan. What I have not forgotten is that he kept looking into my notebook and kept pace with my writing. He started another sentence only after I had completed writing the first. But what will always stay with me is that he did not walk away after he had finished. He waited until I had put the last full stop and looked up. Then he smiled and said, "That's it. I know you got everything down. Please share it with the others."
He did not talk to the reporters waiting downstairs and that made me quite unpopular with my colleagues for quite a few months after. If smartphones had existed then, I might have captured that tender moment between Rajiv and Ghaffar Khan on camera. But as it was, I had a great story ahead of everybody else because I did not share until my story was up on the wires—and that was an additional mark against me from my colleagues.
So, with many other interactions by the time that 12 May 1991 came around, I felt Rajiv and I had established as friendly a relationship as was possible between a journalist and a politician.
Ten days later, Rajiv was no more and as reports began to filter in, I shuddered to think how he had broken all the barriers in Mumbai too, drawn the people close as he did those suicide bombers.
I was never a Lutyens (Delhi) reporter, but Rajiv frequented Bombay in those days, and it was my permanent assignment to tag behind him everywhere—whether at art shows, naval bases, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, the August Kranti Maidan (where he commemorated an anniversary of the Quit India Movement in pouring rain), crossing the road (before he was PM) at the Jehangir Art Gallery while holding Sonia Gandhi’s hand and helping her over the divider, or when a photographer chasing him down fell off the footboard of his car and Rajiv, driving his own car, spotted that in the rear-view mirror and immediately stopped his carcade to have his people check up on the man.
Driving his own car, flying his own plane, that was Rajiv. The morning he left Mumbai for the last time, he flew his own aircraft to Trivandrum (to clock the flying miles in order to keep his licence). By the time I reached my office to sleepily file my story in the morning, reports of his Kerala meetings were already coming in—and he had not slept a wink the previous night, taking off soon after breakfast at Sharad Pawar's.
The day he was assassinated, I knew there would not be another prime minister like Rajiv Gandhi, that India would not be the same without him. That was my premonition on the day he died. I never wanted it to come true.
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