‘He was on the comeback trail’

Journalist Neena Gopal’s book on the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi coincides with the 25th year of his assassination

Published - August 27, 2016 04:15 pm IST

Journalist Neena Gopal.  Photo: Omprakash

Journalist Neena Gopal. Photo: Omprakash

On the night he was killed, Rajiv Gandhi, the former prime minister of India, was travelling in a car to Sriperumbudur to address an election rally. En route, the car hit a pothole giving a group of slogan-shouting supporters a chance to try and grab him through the open window. Gandhi’s ‘Z’ security cover had been withdrawn by Prime Ministers V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar, and his lone bodyguard was travelling in another car. Journalist Neena Gopal, wedged in the back of Gandhi’s car with leaders like Jayanthi Natarajan and G.K. Moopanar, asked him if he feared for his life. In response, Gandhi asked: “Have you noticed how every time a South Asian leader rises to a position of power or is about to achieve something, he is cut down, attacked, killed...”

At 10.21 p.m. on May 21, 1991, Gandhi was assassinated by suicide bomber Dhanu. Gopal had been waiting near the car because of the crowd and thus survived, becoming the last journalist to have interviewed Gandhi. Her eyewitness account forms part of the book The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi . She writes in an email interview that the book is the first seamless retelling of the story. “It takes you from the point of the assassination and goes on to connect the dots.”

Gopal, the first Indian woman journalist to cover the Gulf War and the liberation of Kuwait, gives a comprehensive account. Some incidents are touching. When Sonia Gandhi invited her home days after her husband was killed, Gopal recalls how she held both her hands and said, “Tell me every-thing, 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 forty-five minutes of India’s youngest prime minister’s life; his unexpected death closing the chapter on India’s all too brief Camelot.” Excerpts from an email interview:

How was Rajiv Gandhi’s mood that fateful night?

The Rajiv I met that night was a man driven. He knew he was on the comeback trail, he was filled with confidence that he would win, and that his second coming would be the chance to redeem himself. He wanted to make peace with Pakistan. For instance, he peppered me with questions on what kind of person the new Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was — I had just interviewed him — and asked me whether he was the kind of person that India could do business with. The 1991 election would have been pivotal. If he had lost, India would have been plunged into chaos. He actually won the polls, albeit posthumously. The votes cast after his assassination propelled the Congress to the kind of victory that they would never see again.

What particular incident triggered his ultimate assassination? In short, why do you think he was killed?

The crux of it? Gandhi did not want a Tamil Eelam; he wanted a province for the Lankan Tamils, not a country. Prabhakaran knew that. Every poll predicted a Congress victory, which would have put paid to Prabhakaran’s misplaced dreams of a Tamil homeland. Prabhakaran’s rivals for Indian largesse, the other Tamil parties, propped up by Indian intelligence agencies, had been brought around to the view that devolution of power to a province in the north was the best option. Gandhi could not have propagated a vivisection of Sri Lanka, and yet stood against a division of Jammu and Kashmir. Unfortunately, he made the mistake of going public with these policy formulations to the very LTTE sympathisers who were cleverly sent by Prabhakaran to suss him out.

How do you see the series of events that led to the assassination? For instance, Gandhi’s poll itinerary being changed at the last minute to include Sriperumbudur at the insistence of the local MP Maragatham Chandrasekar.

Maragatham Chandrasekar was the local MP. All MPs push for a vote-catcher to come and campaign for them. But picking a little-known Sriperumbudur over a Chennai, which would have been far easier to guard, was a blunder. Gandhi’s affection for Maragatham, his mother’s close friend, was clearly a factor in why he chose to campaign there. Equally, the negligence in the security arrangements cannot be laid at just A.J. Doss’ (Maragatham’s pointman) door or that of the local police, who were no doubt negligent. The bigger culprits were V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar, two prime ministers who did not accord their rival the security that should have been his by right. To this day, neither man has been held accountable for this.

You write about S. Chandrashekaran, a now-retired R&AW agent, admitting that “we failed Rajiv Gandhi, we failed to save his life...” How should a nation retrospect on that admission?

Chandrashekaran’s admission that they failed to see “it” coming may have been a comment on Gandhi, but the Tamil anger at what and who they believe is behind Prabhakaran’s death cannot be discounted either. The Modi government should know that the LTTE may be gone, and yes, there is very little chance that they will regroup and pose a threat to the Sri Lankan leadership, given that their fund-raising and gun-running is at an end. But there are groups that still glorify Prabhakaran as the only leader who fought for their rights.

How many drafts did you work on for the book? Who were the people you spoke to?

There was just one draft. I finished the first seven chapters in three months, and the last in a day. And then made minor changes over several weeks to satisfy my publishers’ many pertinent queries. But it’s a book that’s been building inside me for a very long time, through the many visits I made to Sri Lanka, after Gandhi’s assassination sparked my interest in Sri Lankan politics, and the many, many Sri Lankan friends I made in Dubai and in Sri Lanka — Sinhalese and Tamil — who went out of their way to help me. And here in India were officers who served in the IPKF, intelligence officials who worked in R&AW, MI and IB, retired diplomats, all were open and forthcoming, willing to share every detail of that time with me.

After covering politics and wars for so long, what is your take on India’s security situation today?

After years of relative quiet, India is once again poised on a knife-edge. The Cold War, when we were seen as a Soviet ally, may be long over, but we run the danger of being seen as tilting towards Washington. Delhi’s goal of becoming a South Asian power is being actively challenged by Beijing. China has used every tool at hand, including malleable governments in Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, to keep India in check. The Modi government, unschooled in the diplomatic skulduggery that marks our neighbourhood, unsure who is friend and who is enemy, is on a learning curve. And a very steep one at that.

What was it like to be a war correspondent?

Covering hot spots is both exciting and challenging. I remember the first time I was in Kabul after the Taliban had exited, I had to type out my reports and then sit in the cold and dark and dictate my copy [by phone] to a long-suffering sub-editor in Dubai. My family, for the most part, was unaware of the ground situation. My children were too young. But everyone knew that as a journalist this is what one did for a living.

Jayanthi Madhukar is a freelance writer who believes that everything has a story waiting to be told.

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