Twenty-nine years ago, on May 21, 1991, India lost its youngest Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in a dastardly attack. Described as ‘Prince Charming’, he contributed to the country’s development, including introducing it to the world of the internet.
But, as a tribute to him, I propose to dwell only on his personality and qualities, which I observed during my eight-day stay with him in March 1990.
He had taken me exclusively on a trip when we stayed together in Zambia and Namibia, touching London on way back home. Rajiv was going to Windhoek to attend Namibia’s Independence Day celebrations as president of the Indian National Congress. The government was represented by the then Prime Minister, VP Singh, who stayed separately.
Flying from Delhi to Mumbai thence to Zambia’s Capital Lusaka in economy class, we reached the Presidential Palace. Setting aside protocol, the then Zambian President Dr Kenneth Kaunda placed his arm around Rajiv’s shoulders as he came down his palace.
That reminded me of how in the Indian context, such affection is given by an elderly uncle to his young nephew.
A young man in his 30s approached Rajiv. “Good morning, Sir,” he said, “nice to see you in person. What a handsome personality.” Mr Gandhi blushed and smiled without any comment
Yes, to Dr Kaunda, Rajiv was his ‘bhanja’ (nephew), son of ‘sister’ Indira Gandhi, with whom he had worked closely in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
The trip provided me with an opportunity to watch from proximity how people abroad viewed him and showered affection on a person who was equally loved at home, notwithstanding the rejection of his party in the preceding elections.
The Zambian government had put up at road crossings flags of several African and other nations whose leaders had made a stopover in Lusaka, before flying out to Namibia.
Rajiv Gandhi was no more head of the Government of India but I was pleasantly surprised to find the Indian tricolor also fluttering. That was Zambia’s and Dr Kaunda’s personal gesture to him and his country.
In Windhoek, when Independence celebration tableaux were being taken out, Rajiv’s car escorted by pilots got stuck in the crowd. “Hey, it’s Rajiv Gandhi,” shouted a white cameraman triumphantly to his colleague.
They discovered a good ‘subject’ despite the half-closed and tinted windows of the car. The overzealous cameraman almost touched Rajiv’s sharp nose with his camera’s telelens for a close-up.
In Zambia, Namibia and even in London, Rajiv was an instant star attraction. He never had to stick out his face to be seen. He was spotted by people everywhere.
During one of the flights, I was recording an interview with him sitting by his side in economy class, on an old tape recorder, which was behaving erratically. He took it from my hand, examined it and said, “What a rotten recorder you have brought”. Then he said, “I will help you buy a new one either in Windhoek or London.”
All markets in Windhoek were closed due to the celebrations so, at London’s Heathrow Airport, he caught hold of me to take me to the duty-free shops. But just as we were going out from the lounge, Commonwealth Secretary-General Shridath Ramphal barged in, exclaiming, “Hello, Rajiv?” I knew my tape recorder project was gone.
Later, at Lusaka airport, I was buying some mementos at a souvenir shop. When I was making the payment Rajiv held back my hand saying, “Don’t worry. These are on me.” I am preserving them as precious gifts to cherish his memory.
He was a man of taste who knew all about perfumes and food. “Did you taste that ...” he had asked me on one of the flights. I confessed that I might have tasted it but did not know what it was. He bought for his family some European perfumes and advised me also to buy for my wife.
I purchased one set from the reluctant steward in the plane but Rajiv laughed at me pointing out that these were meant for men. “Now your wife will take you to task,” he teased me.
While I was preparing a dispatch in Kalahari Sands Hotel, the biggest one in Windhoek, where all the world leaders were accommodated, an Indian diplomat came to inform me that Mr Gandhi wanted to see me.
I was simply surprised when Rajiv inquired if I had my meals and then offered some chocolates of which he himself was quite crazy about.
I took a few but when one spoilt my shirt, he was apologetic. “I am extremely sorry.” He then escorted me to a washbasin in his bathroom and helped clean the stain. What a man he was!
Rajiv, a former pilot, was in a jovial mood in the company of crew members during our London-Delhi Air India flight. When they were taking pictures with him, he always made it a point to include me in them. But I could not tell him that my problem was his height.
I quietly took position on the third step of the spiral that leads to the Captain’s cabin. Rajiv was surprised to find me matching his height. On discovering how I managed it, he let out a big laugh telling others, “Look how did he get taller”.
While on the Zambian President’s special plane, which flew Heads of States and Governments, and diplomats of several African countries from Lusaka to Windhoek, Rajiv’s was at his wit’s end.
Those leaders greeted him with “Hello, Mr Gandhi”, and he merely returned the greetings with his familiar grin. I knew that he had been unable to recognise most of them.
In fact, his charming personality and demeanour laced with an infectious smile were his greatest assets, which won him many friends whether he was in or out of his office.
I remember how on discovering that the former Prime Minister was travelling with them on Air India’s Delhi-Bombay flight, several women and others had made a beeline to see him from a close distance, giving a hard time to his security officer Pradeep Kumar Gupta (who was also killed in the Sriperumbudar blast).
A middle-aged man had brought his small daughter to take Rajiv’s autograph announcing, “I am Sharma, Meerut city Congress President.” When Rajiv asked the little girl her name, the father butted in. “Sir, she is also Priyanka,” he said and there was laughter all around.
Another young man in his 30s was awed by Rajiv. “Good morning, Sir,” he said, “nice to see you in person. What a handsome personality.” The ‘handsome personality’ blushed and smiled without any comment.
Who knew that 14 months from then, the same charming face would be mutilated beyond recognition and that, if exposed, his admirers would have been shocked to see whatever was left of him.