In the second volume of his memoir, The Turbulent Years: 1980-96, President Pranab Mukherjee shares an insider’s account of several significant events during the 1980’s and early 1990’s. In this extract, Mukherjee talks about how Rajiv Gandhi wanted to know “how potent” the bullets were after his mother Indira Gandhi was shot by her bodyguards in 1984. He also rejects as “false and spiteful” stories that he aspired to be the Prime Minister after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
The hours between Indira’s assassination and the naming of Rajiv as the next prime minister have often been the subject of intense political speculation. Here is an excerpt from Mukherjee’s memoir on the issue:
With the agenda of revamping the faction-ridden party organization, Rajiv Gandhi went on a tour of West Bengal at the end of October 1984. He arrived at Bagdogra airport near Siliguri in North Bengal on 29 October. A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury and I, both Cabinet ministers in lndira Gandhi’s government, along with a few other Congress leaders, received him there. After the reception at Bagdogra, Rajiv went on to address a number of meetings at Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, North Dinajpur and the Malda districts. We spent the night at Malda, where Ghani Khan Choudhury had arranged for our stay at the newly-constructed Department of Irrigation bungalow, Gour Bhavan.
The next day, we went from Malda to Kharagpur by a special train organized by Ghani Khan Choudhury, travelling through the districts of Murshidabad, Birbhum, Burdwan, Bankura and Midnapore. From Kharagpur of the Midnapore district, we travelled by car to Digha, where we spent the night of 30 October. The next morning, on 31 October 1984, we set off once again.
After addressing the first meeting at Ramnagar, Rajiv Gandhi reached Contai (Kanthi) where he began addressing his second meeting of the day. It was here that I received a message on the police wireless at 9.30 am: ‘lndira Gandhi assaulted. Return to Delhi immediately.’
l immediately passed Rajiv a note, even as he was addressing the meeting, asking him to cut short the speech. He did so, and as soon as he sat down, I told him about the message. I suggested that we cancel all other engagements and return to Delhi immediately, and he agreed. I announced to the public gathered for the meeting that we had to go back to the capital urgently and that the rest of the programmes scheduled for the day were being cancelled.
Ghani Khan Choudhury had used his personal Mercedes car for the tour, ”while Rajiv and l and a few other Congress leaders were in Ambassador cars provided by the party. Ghani Khan Choudhury, who was on the dais with us, suggested that we use his car so as to move quickly-and we did. I instructed the police personnel on duty to send a message to Delhi for a Special aircraft to be arranged for our journey to Delhi--an Indian Air Force aircraft either from the Kalaikunda Air Force station near Kharagpur or from Calcutta (now Kolkata). The roads to Kharagpur and Calcutta diverged at Kolaghat, which is about 100 kilometres from Contai, and we needed to be informed by wireless where to head before we reached Kolaghat.
Four of us-Rajiv Gandhi, Ghani Khan Choudhury, Rajiv’s PSO (personal security officer) and l--left Contai at around 9.40 a.m. Rajiv initially wanted to drive, but we dissuaded him. He agreed, but sat in the front, beside the driver. The three of us squeezed into the back. Throughout the journey, Rajiv remained composed, but kept the transistor radio tuned to BBC news. It is through the news that we got to know that sixteen bullets had been pumped into Mrs Gandhi. ‘How potent are the bullets used by VIP security personnel?’ he turned to ask his PSO. The PSO informed him that they were very powerful. Rajiv then turned to us and, with great emotion, asked, ‘Did she deserve all these bullets?’ We simply sat there, stunned.
After some time, hoping against hope, I said to Rajiv, ‘The information we have received is that she has been assaulted; they have not yet said that she is dead. Moreover, in the same news bulletin, BBC is broadcasting that Pranab Mukherjee and Rajiv Gandhi have returned to Delhi from their tour. We have not yet reached Delhi and are still in West Bengal. If this part of the news is incorrect, then other parts could be too.’
We received a wireless message that a helicopter would be waiting for us at the helipad of the thermal power station at Kolaghat, and that would take us to Calcutta. The poor condition of the state highway prevented from travelling fast and the journey took about two hours. When we arrived at the Kolaghat helipad, we were shocked to find a helicopter flying away. However, on enquiry, we were told that the chopper was searching for us. The pilot was radioed to return at once, which he did, and we rushed on board. By the time the helicopter took off, it was around noon.
We travelled in silence.
It took us about forty-five minutes to reach Calcutta. As soon as we landed, we were told that an Indian Airlines special plane was waiting for us. We rushed from the helicopter to the plane, which took off around 1 pm. On board, we found Uma Shankar Dikshit, then Governor of West Bengal, his daughter- in-law Sheila Dikshit, Lok Sabha Speaker Balrani Jakhar, Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman Shyainlal Yadav, the Secretary Generals of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha as well as a number of officials of both Houses of Parliament. Balrani jakhar told us that they were returning to Delhi after cancelling the All-India Speakers’ Conference which was being held in Calcutta and which they were to attend. Rajiv, Uma Shankar Dikshit and I sat on one side of the first row while Balram jakhar, Shyamlal Yadav and Ghani Khan Choudhury sat on the other side of the aisle. Behind me sat Sheila Dikshit.
Immediately after take-off, Rajiv went into the cockpit. After some time, he came back and announced, ‘She is dead.’ There was absolute silence. Tears started rolling down my face, and I wept inconsolably, managing to compose myself only after some time and with great effort.
Rajiv was exceptionally calm and displayed total control and fortitude, possibly a trait he had inherited from his mother.
Once we were able to regain some semblance of composure, we began discussions on what was to be done next. Balram Jakhar, Ghani Khan Choudhury, Shyamlal Yadav, Uma Shankar Dikshit and Sheila Dikshit started discussing the future course of action amongst themselves, and I joined in a bit later. I cited precedents from, the time when Prime Minister Nehru and, later, Shastri passed away while in office (27 May 1964 and 11 January 1966, respectively). In both instances, an interim government was formed with Gulzari Lal Nanda, the senior-most minister, as the interim Prime Minister. However, that took place when the incumbents died a natural death. This was an extraordinary situation when an incumbent Prime Minister had been assassinated. Apart from a political void, a lot of uncertainties, too, had been created.
At the conclusion of the discussion, it was decided that we should request Rajiv Gandhi to take over as the full-fledged Prime Minister to meet the challenge posed by this extraordinary situation. Somebody suggested that I formally make this request to Rajiv and work out the modalities to be followed. I took Rajiv to the rear of the aircraft and requested him to take over as Prime Minister. His immediate question to me was, ‘Do you think I can manage?’
‘Yes,’ I told him, ‘we are all there to help you. You will have everyone’s support.”
I told Rajiv that he should go back into the cockpit and relay a message to Delhi that Mrs Gandhi’s passing away should not be officially announced till a new government was sworn in. To avoid any confusion or uncertainty we had decided that both Rajiv’s appointment as Prime Minister and Indiraji’s assassination should be announced simultaneously. Later, l learnt that Vice President R. Venkataraman had also given similar instructions in Delhi earlier.
Our plane landed in Delhi at around 3 pm. and we were received by Cabinet Secretary Krishnaswamy Rao Sahib, along with the Home Secretary and other officials. Arun Nehru, an MP as well as Rajiv’s cousin and close confidant, was also present. Rajiv and he immediately rushed to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) where Mrs Gandhi had been taken after the attack.
Krishnaswamy Rao Sahib apprised me of the prevailing situation. He counselled me that I would have to take over as Gulzari Lal Nanda had done in the past. I told him that Rajiv Gandhi would be sworn in, and then I, too, headed to AIIMS.
I was numb and consumed by a sense of gloom as I travelled from the airport to AIIMS. On the way, I saw crowds gathering on the roads. They grew larger as my car approached the hospital.
I reached AIIMS at around 3.25 p.m., about ten minutes after Rajiv. I found ministers P.V. Narasimha Rao, P. Shiv Shankar and B. Shankaranand, among others; Chief Ministers from Congress-- ruled states like ND. Tiwari (UP), J.B. Patnaik (Orissa), Bhajan Lal (Haryana) and Shiv Charan Mathur (Rajasthan); Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, P.C. Alexander; Mrs Gandhi’s close confidant, G Parthasarathi; and Pupul Jayakar standing together on the verandah of the eighth floor outside the operation theatre.
As soon as I reached, P.C. Alexander sought me out and informed me that everyone there were of the view that Rajiv should immediately be administered the oath of office as Prime Minister, so there would be no need for an interim arrangement. I concurred and told him that everyone on board the flight was of a similar opinion. P.C. Alexander consulted me regarding the next steps and how Rajiv Gandhi should be elected the leader of the CPP. I told him that there was no time to convene a meeting of the CPP, and that the Congress Parliamentary Board (CPB), which was the highest policy-making of the party could meet and take the decision which could later be ratified by the CPP. All those present agreed with this proposal. Rajiv’s consent was also obtained.
At around 4.10 p.m., I decided to head to 1 Akbar Road, the office of the Prime Minister, to organize the meeting of the CPB. As I couldn’t locate my car in the chaos outside, Arun Nehru offered me a lift in his car. Kamal Nath also got in with us. By the time we reached 1 Akbar Road, P.V. Narasimha Rao and G.K. Moopanar were already there.
The CPB normally consisted of eight members. At that time, only two members-P.V. Narasimha Rao and l-were in Delhi. Indira Gandhi, as Congress President, had last reconstituted the CPB towards end-September 1984. The party Constitution mandated that the Congress President and the leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha were the ex-officio members of the CPB, while the other six members were nominated by the Congress President. As Indira Gandhi was both the Congress President andleader of the party in the Lok Sabha, she was the sole ex-offcio member. The nominated members were P.V. Narasimha Rao, Maragatham Chandrasekar, Kamalapati Tripathi and I. She did not fill the remaining one seat. Two members, Kamalapati Tripathi and Maragatham Chandrasekar, were not in Delhi at that time. However, G.K. Moopanar, General Secretary in charge of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) and the CPB, was present.
I prepared the first draft of the letter to the President. P.V. Narasimha Rao revised it. It was then typed by R.K. Dhawan. The letter not only informed the President of the resolution of the CPB-electing Rajiv Gandhi as leader of the Congress party in Parliament-but also requested the President to invite Rajiv Gandhi to form a government. The letter was signed by G.K. Moopanar as General Secretary, and enclosed with it was a copy of the resolution signed by P.V.Narasimha Rao and me.
Moopanar’s letter was crisp and clear:
31 October 1984
The Central Parliamentary Board of All India Congress Committee (I) has nominated Shri Rajiv Gandhi as Leader of the Congress Party in Parliament. You are therefore requested to invite Shri Rajiv Gandhi to form the Government.
We then asked Arun Nehru to reach the airport where President Giani Zail Singh was to arrive shortly from Oman. We told him to board the plane and brief the President before he alighted. In the meantime, P.C. Alexander had reached 1 Akbar Road. P.V. Narasimha Rao, P.C. Alexander and I then proceeded to Rashtrapati Bhavan in one car. It must have been around 4.30 p.m. by then.
Because of the high alert announced following the assassination, the policemen on duty in the city were nervous and jittery. When our car reached Rashtrapati Bhavan, the guards at the gate refused to allow us entry because we had no prior appointment with the President and they had no instructions to let us in. Finally, P.C. Alexander got out of the car and shouted at them, ‘Do you not recognize the Home Minister and the Finance Minister sitting in the back of the car?’ Only after that were we permitted to enter.
After arriving in Delhi, Zail Singh went straight to AllMS, and from there both Rajiv and he travelled to Rashtrapati Bhavan together.
G.K. Moopanar, P.V. Narasimha Rao and l were immediately called in by President Zail Singh. We gave the letter to him in the study---the same room that I now occupy as my office.
President Zail Singh told us that he had already decided to invite Rajiv to form the government. He records in his memoirs:
As I reached my study, I found the Vice-President, R. Venkataraman, waiting there. l informed him of my intention to swear in Rajiv Gandhi as PM [Prime Minister], to which he replied: ‘As you like.’ Pranab Mukherjee and P.V. Narasimha Rao, Union Ministers, and a Secretary of the Congress Party came in. When Rajiv Gandhi arrived, I sent him up to the Ashoka Hall to wait for a while. I told the two Union Ministers about my decision to place the mantle of Prime Ministership on Rajiv Gandhi. Both of them gladly agreed that my decision was correct.
Rajiv had, in the meantime, decided that he would take the oath along with three others--P.V. Narasimha Rao, Shiv Shankar and I. I suggested to him at Rashtrapati Bhavan that Buta Singh should also be included, keeping in mind the sentiments of the Sikh community-a recommendation that he accepted.
Rajiv Gandhi was then formally invited by the President to form the government. Accepting the invitation, he forwarded the names of the Council of Ministers to be sworn in with him on the same day.
31 October 1984
I thank you for having invited me to take the oath of office of Prime Minister and form a Council of Ministers. I recommend that after I am sworn in as Prime Minister, the following persons may be sworn in as Council of Ministers:
1. Shri Pranab Kumar Mukherjee
2. Shri P.V. Narasimha Rao
3. Shri P. Shiv Shankar
4. Shri Buta Singh
Subject to your convenience, the swearing-in ceremony may be arranged today at 6.45 p.m.
Accordingly, the swearing-in ceremony was organized in the Ashoka Hall of Rashtrapati Bhavan at 6.45 p.m. on the same day (31 October 1984). Before the Prime Minister was called to be sworn in, Giani Zail Singh expressed sorrow at the sudden death of Indira Gandhi; silence was observed for two minutes.
After the swearing-in ceremony, the Cabinet held its first meeting in Rashtrapati Bhavan itself. Rajiv Gandhi presided over the four-member cabinet. P.C. Alexander was asked to read out the condolence resolution, which he did in a trembling voice:
The meeting of the Council of Ministers places on record their profound sense of grief at the tragic death of the nation’s great leader. Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi. The entire nation feels orphaned at the loss of this indefatigable fighter for the country’s integrity and unity. In her death the Non-Aligned Movement has lost a great steward and the world a great statesman. She led the nation during the most difficult years of crisis and external aggression, and built up a united and economically strong nation which has become a model of self-reliance. While offering our respectful tributes to the memory of our great departed leader, we pledge ourselves to continue the great work of nation-building which she carried on till her last moment. Smt. Indira Gandhi lived and died for the integrity and unity of India and we call upon the entire nation to maintain peace, communal harmony and unity.
After observing two minutes of silence, the Cabinet finalized the details of Indira Gandhi’s funeral. Her body would be laid in state at Teen Murti Bhavan for three days and the funeral would take place on 3 November 1984.
A Rashtrapati Bhavan press release was then issued, officially announcing Mrs Gandhi’s death. Vice President R.Venkataraman, who was standing by, made a simultaneous announcement to the nation on Doordarshan that Indira Gandhi had passed away and that a new government under Rajiv Gandhi had been sworn in. We had decided that this announcement should be made by the Vice President himself in order to quell all rumours regarding Sikh regiments moving towards Delhi and of rioting in the capital, and to inform the nation that a new government was in place.
Rajiv then left Rashtrapati Bhavan for AllMS to take Mrs Gandhi’s body to 1 Safdarjung Road. I proceeded to 1 Akbar Road from Rashtrapati Bhavan. The crowds at 1 Akbar Road had been growing steadily. I spent the whole night on the lawns grieving, meeting people, sharing memories and pondering about the future. I even gave an interview to a foreign correspondent at around 3 a.m., tendering an assurance that there would be no change in the economic policies of the government. I went home only around 8 a.m. the next day.
To sum up, I proposed to Rajiv Gandhi on board the flight from Calcutta to Delhi that he should assume the office of Prime Minister immediatey and without taking recourse to an interim arrangement. My co-passengers on the flight and I felt it was important to dispel any uncertainty at such a critical juncture. The President, Vice President and senior Cabinet Ministers such as P.V. Narasimha Rao and P. Shiv Shankar were of a similar view. As such, there was unanimity, particularly given that it was an extraordinary situation of the government collapsing due to the assassination of the incumbent Prime Minister.
Some people had proposed that Rajiv Gandhi should be sworn in by the Vice President without waiting for the President to return. I had ruled out this course of action, citing the constitutional provision that this power lay with the President unless, in his absence, he had delegated it to the Vice President. There had been no such delegation by Giani Zail Singh. Therefore, if the Prime Minister was sworn in by the Vice President, it would have been unconstitutional. Moreover, politically, it would have conveyed the wrong message.
Undoubtedly we took the extraordinary step of electing Rajiv as leader in a meeting of the CPB (the smallest body in the party’s decision-making machinery). However, the uncertain and desperate situation demanded urgent action. P.C. Alexander was an eyewitness to all that had happened and I am not aware of any better record of the events of that fateful day than the one in his memoirs.
“The vice-president, R. Venkataraman, arrived at 2.45 p.m. to pay his condolences. A message had been flashed to us by then that Narasimha Rao’s plane (from Hyderabad) would be landing in Delhi shortly and he would be coming straight to the Institute (AIIMS).
It was my firm conviction as soon as I received the news of the tragedy that the most feasible arrangement would be to have Rajiv sworn in immediately as Prime Minister without going in for an interim Prime Minister. l held hurried consultations with Shiv Shankar and B. Shankaranand, senior ministers in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet who had rushed to AIIMS. They both expressed their strongly held view that Pranab Mukherjee should not be sworn in as interim Prime Minister, although he was high up in the hierarchy. Indira Gandhi had not formally nominated anyone as second in command in the Cabinet though, informally, Mukherjee occupied such a position. By then chief ministers from the Congress-ruled states had arrived at the Institute and were standing together on the eighth floor in one section of the verandah. I knew that a final decision on the succession issue could be taken only by Rajiv who was already on his way to Delhi from Calcutta.
However, l thought it would be prudent to quickly ascertain the views of the Chief Ministers, the ministers and other senior members of the party present there on the question of succession. I sought the opinions of N.D.Tiwari (Chief Minister of UP), Janaki Ballabh Patnaik (Chief Minister of Orissa), Bhajan Lal (Chief Minister of Haryana) and Shiv Charan Mathur (Chief Minister of Rajasthan), and discussed with them the idea of having Rajiv sworn in as Prime Minister, thereby discarding the option of having an interim Prime Minister. All of them enthusiastically agreed with this idea. I then went to another section of the verandah and highlighted the salient points, to those present there, of my brief talk with the Chief Ministers. I found that everyone was in agreement with the suggestion that Rajiv should be administered the oath forthwith. (l was convinced that an interim arrangement with Pranab Mukherjee as Prime Minister, even for a very brief period. would not be acceptable to any senior Congress leader present at the Institute.) Within a few minutes, Narasimha Rao reached the eighth floor. We embraced each other, without being able to control our tears. I told him quickly that there was unanimity among all the chief ministers and the ministers present at the institute that Rajiv should be sworn in directly as PM and he fully endorsed the proposal.”
Similarly, P.C. Alexander’s remarks about the role played by Arun Nehru are worth noting:
“While Rajiv was inside the room with Sonia, a serious controversy was brewing among the persons standing on the Verandah of the eighth floor. Arun Nehru took me aside and told me in a very serious tone that Rajiv should be sworn in immediately by the vice-president without waiting for the president’s arrival, scheduled for 5 p.m. Arun Nehru confirmed that he had obtained the approval of all the ministers present there as also that of the Lok Sabha speaker, Balram Jakhar. Parthasarathi and many others also strongly supported the proposal.”
I was quite surprised to find that Arun Nehru and almost all the dignitaries present on the eighth floor believed that a swearing in by the vice-president was necessary to ensure Rajiv’s assumption of office without any complication. They were of the view that President Zail Singh could not be trusted to accept Rajiv’s nomination without a formal election by the Congress Parliamentary Party. They were genuinely apprehensive that because of the recent deterioration in the relations between Zail Singh and Indira Gandhi, he might use his position to prevent Rajiv from becoming Prime Minister and may administer the oath to Pranab Mukherjee as interim Prime Minister. Such a development could lead to serious difficulties as far as Rajiv’s election later was concerned. I was more aware than anyone else present on the eighth floor of AllMS at that time about the gravity of the strained relations between Indira Gandhi and Zail Singh. However, I was quite convinced that it would be ethically very wrong and politically very unwise if the president were made to feel that he had been deliberately denied the exercise of his most important responsibility, namely, choosing the Prime Minister and administering the oath of office to him. I was seriously worried that if Rajiv were administered the oath by the vice-president, Zail Singh would view this step as a challenge to his authority and may even take the extreme step of not recognizing the oath administered by the vice- president. Anyway the president was on his way back to Delhi as quickly as possible. Zail Singh had not authorized the vice-president to exercise his functions in his absence.
While such thoughts were whirling around in my mind, I was also quite conscious of the fact that I had no official standing or authority to enforce my own views on the late Prime Minister’s senior colleagues in her party. Whenever I had done so in the past, I did so with the confidence that I had the backing of the Prime Minister, but, theoretically, I had ceased to be principal secretary the minute Indira Gandhi was no more. I decided to take a determined stand on the issue of the administration of the oath of office, as I wanted to ensure that the correct procedures were followed in such a crucial matter: No one at that time questioned my authority to press on with this line of action because the individuals present there always had great regard for me and trusted my sincerity. I turned to Shivshankar, the union law minister, and asked whether or not he agreed with my views. He replied that he agreed that my stand was legally valid, but he was not prepared, at that point of time, to support it. Everyone knew very well that there was no time for holding a meeting of the Congress Parliamentary Party to formally elect Rajiv as leader. Recognizing this practical difficulty, I suggested that the Congress Party’s Parliamentary Board could formally recommend Rajiv’s name to the president, which could be ratified by the CPP later. However, Arun Nehru, supported by a few like-minded individuals, was quite firm in his stand that no risk could be taken in this matter. He asked me, in a very defiant tone, as to who would accept the responsibility for the consequences if Zail Singh refused to administer the oath to Rajiv. My immediate response was that the person who was most concerned about, and who would be the most affected by, this decision was Rajiv and, first of all, his own wishes in the matter ought to be ascertained. Arun Nehru declared that he would go into the room where Rajiv was standing with Sonia and talk to him, but pre-empting him, I quickly went inside the room... Time was ticking away and I was very keen to talk to him. I went near the couple and gently touched Rajiv on the back of his shoulder to indicate that I had some very urgent work with him. He released himself from Sonia’s arms and turned around to talk to me. Knowing that I would not have disturbed him unless the matter was very urgent and confidential, he quickly led me to the bathroom attached to the room so that we could talk without being noticed by anyone else who may enter the room.
I briefly informed him that the proposal of Arun Nehru and most of his senior partymen present there was to have him sworn in as Prime Minister by the vice-president without waiting for the arrival of the president, as they were concerned that Zail Singh might not agree to administer the oath to him without (his) being first elected as leader by the CPP. Moreover, he may insist on appointing Pranab Mukherjee as interim Prime Minister, which could cause complications later. I then explained all the reasons why I personally felt that the correct and even prudent course would be to wait till the president arrived and asked him [Rajiv] for his own wishes on this matter. Rajiv listened to me patiently and, much to my relief, told me that he fully agreed with my views and that the risk, if any, was worth taking. He said he would talk to Arun Nehru later, but that l, for my part, should go ahead with making the necessary arrangements for the swearing in by the president, presuming that he would agree with the proposal. I came out of the bathroom and conveyed Rajiv’s decision to everyone present on the eighth floor. Nobody raised any objection after that.”
Finally, many stories have been circulated that I aspired to be the interim Prime Minister. That I had staked claim and had to be persuaded otherwise. And that this created misgivings in Rajiv Gandhi’s mind. These stories are completely false and spiteful.
President Zail Singh has pointed out clearly in his memoirs that P.V. Narasimha Rao and I both gladly agreed that his decision to place the mantle of Prime Ministership on Rajiv Gandhi was correct.
Moreover, P.C. Alexander has also stated unambiguously:
“A group of individuals, with malicious intent, later spread a canard that Pranab Mukherjee had staked his claim to be sworn in as interim PM and had to be persuaded with great difficulty to withdraw his claim. The obvious objective was to create discord between Rajiv Gandhi and Pranab Mukherjee. But I should record here the true fact that Pranab Mukherjee had readily endorsed the suggestion (that Rajiv Gandhi be straightaway sworn in Prime Minister) I made to him.”
It is surprising that a civil servant who had assumed authority on his own and a person who had no official position in the party ended up playing a major role in determining the course of events on that tragic day. This is now a matter for historians and scholars to debate.