As we celebrate Rajiv Gandhi’s 63rd birth anniversary today, thoughts go back in time to recollect the contributions of India’s youngest Prime Minister who laid the foundation of the country’s march into the 21st century. He inspired an entire generation and took us all into the cyber age. He had vision and laid special emphasis on opening of the economy. His dream was to make India a global power and its citizens, global ones. His commitment to secularism and to the weaker sections is echoed by Sonia Gandhi who has successfully steered the Congress out of many problems in the past nine-and-a-half years since she joined active politics to complete her husband’s unfinished tasks.
Rajiv Gandhi was also the first Prime Minister to connect with the youth in a direct manner. He was instrumental in lowering the voting age of citizens from 21 to 18 years. He was conscious that unless the young between 18 and 35 years of age — an overwhelming percentage of the electorate — participate in nation-building, nothing could be achieved. His short stint in politics (11 years) ended when he was assassinated on May 21, 1991, in Sriperumbudur on his way to address an election meeting.
Although the investigations of the assassination ended leading to many convictions, several aspects of his death and the conspiracy surrounding it remain a mystery. A section of the media and some political elements continue their campaign of vilification with repeated attempts to link his name with the Bofors payoffs. This, despite the fact that the Delhi High Court had given him a clean chit. Significantly, this happened while the NDA was in power. Its functionaries must have tried their level best to prove the linkage which never existed.
Former spymaster B Raman in his latest book has made a brief reference to inputs received from a Western intelligence outfit cautioning the Indian agency — R&AW of a possible attempt on Rajiv’s life. It is a matter for the intelligence to ascertain why this lead was not followed up. Reports had appeared even during the Jain Commission proceedings that former PLO chief Yasser Arafat had himself tipped Rajiv about an attempt on his life possibly in southern India. He had warned that this attempt could be inspired by some Western outfits as well as the LTTE.
There are other riddles which shall always remain unsolved, as happens in every major political assassination. The mystery surrounding the assassinations of John F Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy has not been unravelled. Several loopholes exist in the Abraham Lincoln murder case, which defy plausible explanations. Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and also Sanjay Gandhi’s plane crash, continue to baffle.
In Rajiv’s case, one of the points that remains a mystery is why Sivarasan, the one-eyed Jack and his companion, Subba, continued to stay in India for nearly three months after the assassination, if indeed they were active LTTE members at that point in time. Why did they not go to Jaffna? Why did they surface in Bangalore? Why was Sivarasan’s body cremated and not preserved? Why was he not captured alive, which could have been done had the police wanted? Who did he name when he sought refuge in a local leader’s house? It appears that many would have wanted to see him dead rather than sing to the police. At the end of May, 1991, Sam Rajappa writing for Statesman hinted at the involvement of certain organisations, something that was never followed up.
Investigations were based on photographs left behind in Hari Babu’s camera, who had apparently been hired by the assassins to record the event. But Babu died in the blast. One wonders whether the photographs were a red herring to mislead investigators. The role of several key figures including some investigating officers continues to invite suspicion.
In the last interview that Rajiv gave to Barbara Crossette of New York Times and Nina Gopal (then of Gulf News), he also shed light on the motive behind Pakistan President Zia ul-Haq’s assassination. He had revealed that an agreement over Siachen was almost through and maps had been agreed upon. “And then they killed Zia.” Clearly, someone wanted to scuttle the agreement and the only way out was to kill one of the two signatories — Zia in this case. Hopefully, the mystery behind the killing of India’s most charismatic leaders will be unravelled in the not-too-distant future.
There was a human side to the former PM not many people are aware of. Nearly 60 anecdotes shedding light on aspects of Rajiv Gandhi’s generosity will be featured on the website rememberingrajivgandhi.com. Compiled through painstaking research by Harish Chander, a journalist, the anecdotes are based on information provided by late President KR Narayanan, Gandhian Nirmala Deshpande, Wajahat Habibullah, several Congress leaders and members of his personal staff as well.
One anecdote pertains to a visit to Patna after he lost power and when then PM, VP Singh, withdrew his SPG cover. Rajiv had one security person — PSO Pradeep Gupta. As thousands wanted to touch Rajiv, they kept trampling on Gupta’s foot. Seeing him limp, Rajiv asked for his bag and took out a pain-killing spray to provide him instant relief. The PSO told Rajiv Shukla, “I can give my life for this great man.” Later on May 21, 1991, Gupta died with his boss Rajiv Gandhi. His last words to Jayanti Natarajan were “Is Boss safe?”, not realising that Rajiv’s body was lying atop him.
Rajiv Gandhi’s memory will continue to guide the nation and his party. His untimely death deprived the country of a great leader. The only way of paying tribute to him is to uphold his values and realise his vision. Between us.