Neena Gopal gives a blow-by-blow account of the former Prime Minister's assassination in her book

Rajiv Gandhi had a premonition of his own death writes last journalist to interview him
Features Books Thursday, August 11, 2016 - 15:28

By Neena Gopal

In a matter of seconds, a fairly standard report about a charismatic politician on the comeback trail, albeit a Gandhi scion, a former prime minister and barely forty-six at the time, was transformed—tragically—into one of the biggest stories I had ever covered.

It catapulted me from an unknown reporter to someone who would always be known as the last journalist to have interviewed Rajiv Gandhi, minutes before he died. A macabre twist. And not the kind of exclusive I had bargained for.

In the last twenty-five years, every time that night has come up in casual conversation, it has unfailingly recalled the image of Rajiv Gandhi lying on the ground, one outstretched arm sporting the only ostentatious thing about him, the Gucci watch he had been wearing during our hour-long interaction. And yes, his Lotto shoes. As trite as it may sound, it seemed almost as if he had been walking on air that night, exuding confidence that he was on his way back to the prime minister’s office.

But there he now lay, cut down in his prime, less than a few feet away from where I stood rooted to the spot, in shock. I can still recall, in that split second before the explosion, the strange whooshing sound; a series of sputters, followed by a massive, resounding blast accompanied by a great, blinding flash of light. The heat, searing, singeing, knocked me back with its strength, raining death on everyone in front of me. I didn’t know what exactly had happened. I looked around peering through the smoke. There seemed to be no one else in front. Could I really be the last man standing?

*****

Sriperumbudur stage before Rajiv Gandhi's rally (Image Courtesy: Kuppusamy Ragothaman YouTube) 

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.

*****

Last picture of Rajiv Gandhi taken by LTTE's Haribabu (Image Courtesy: Kuppusamy Ragothaman Youtube) 

Stepping out from the front seat, Rajiv Gandhi had said, ‘Come, come, follow me,’ and I had demurred, walking to the back and around and then to the front of the car so I could have a bird’s-eye view of the venue, without having to deal with the throng.

‘I have one more question,’ I had said. ‘I’ll wait for you here.’

A bomb, a suicide bomber, let alone the first female suicide bomber on Indian soil, was the last thing on anyone’s mind as Rajiv Gandhi plunged into the crowd of supporters on his way to the podium at the far side of the ground, shaking hands, smiling warmly, as was his wont, at everyone who reached out to him.

But as the huge explosion went off a few minutes later and I, standing about ten steps away, felt what I later realized was blood and gore from the victims splatter all over my arms and my white sari, a nameless dread took hold—something terrible had happened to the man I had just been talking with.

The last time I had followed Rajiv Gandhi into a crowd had been exactly two years earlier, in 1989, in Kalwakurthy, the constituency of the Andhra Pradesh chief minister, the larger-than-life N.T. Rama Rao, where Rajiv Gandhi was set to campaign.

Back then, we had driven in what had seemed like an endless 100-car cavalcade, complete with Black Cat commandos and top security, all the way from Hyderabad to the venue. As I got out to follow Rajiv Gandhi, a wave of people converged around the Congress leader who was surrounded by bodyguards, even as I was knocked into a narrow little ditch. Unable to move for several minutes, and out for the count, I sensed rather than saw dozens of people jumping over me.

This time, I was deeply reluctant to follow Rajiv Gandhi into the crowd.

At Sriperumbudur, he had no such compunctions. Minutes after he walked unhesitatingly into the crowd, there was a deafening sound as the bomb spluttered to life and exploded in a blinding flash. Everything changed.

A moment that, in my head, will always be frozen in time. It was exactly 10.21 p.m.

*****

Image courtesy: One India

As the terrified crowd fled from the spot where the dead and injured lay, and bewildered, anxious survivors ran through the gathering throng in the semi-darkness, I spotted Congress leaders G.K. Moopanar and Jayanti Natarajan, and Margatham who had been in the car with me, and at whose behest the former prime minister had made a special effort to address this oddly timed, late night election rally.

They looked shaken, aghast, devastated at the sight of Rajiv Gandhi’s prone, seemingly lifeless body. Margatham looked shattered, as if her world had ended. Rajiv Gandhi had only come to Sriperumbudur at ‘Aunty’s’ request.

The next day both Natarajan and Moopanar would separately tell me how they had tried to lift Rajiv Gandhi from the ground but couldn’t as his body ‘simply disintegrated in their hands’. Worse, how at that crucial moment, they couldn’t find a single policeman, barring Rajiv Gandhi’s personal bodyguard, Pradip Kumar Gupta (the man who had come looking for me), who was lying right next to Rajiv Gandhi and had died in the blast.

There was no ambulance—now an accepted fixture at election rallies. They couldn’t find any medical personnel, or a stretcher or gurney or even a vehicle to get him to the nearest hospital. In fact, within minutes of the blast, two cars, one a white Ambassador flashing a red beacon, and another that came from somewhere in the back, had backed on to the main road and sped away.

The mood on the ground was getting decidedly ugly. At the spot where Rajiv Gandhi’s body lay, it was getting more and more difficult to hold one’s ground as his supporters closed in, muttering unintelligibly under their breath. The undercurrent of anger and hostility was palpable, as the party workers at the ill-chosen venue began to shout Vazhige Rajiv Gandhi! Vazhige! (Long live Rajiv Gandhi! Long live!),’ not knowing, perhaps, how inappropriate a slogan it was.

Excerpted with permission from ‘The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi’ by Neena Gopal and published by Penguin Books 

 

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.