Saturday, 20 August, was the 72nd birth anniversary of Rajiv Gandhi, and many newspapers featured front-page in-memoriam ads for the former Prime Minister and Congress leader, followed by first person accounts inside by people recollecting their memories of him. Rather morbidly, most tended to dwell on the last moments of his life, retracing his final footsteps in Tamil Nadu from the old Madras airport in Meenambakkam to Sriperumbudur 40-km away, where he was brought down by an LTTE suicide bomber in a bloody assassination at a public rally for the 1991 Lok Sabha elections. Perhaps this was their only memory of him.
I have a different story to tell.
Rajiv Gandhi appeared bored. Delighted by our distraction, he smiled at us, looking like matinee idol Feroz Khan... Impulsively, my photographer snapped a shot of him.
One wintry December morning in 1985, I encountered Rajiv Gandhi at the Mahalaxmi Racecourse. The Congress-I was celebrating its centenary year in Bombay with a three-day event grandly billed as "the greatest show on earth". And as Prime Minister and party president, he was its grinning showman. I remember the All India Congress-I Committee (AICC) general secretary Jitendra Prasad telling the press, AIR and Doordarshan (there was no other electronic media) that the show would "blow Bombay's mind". I don't know if it did. But I will never forget my meeting with Rajiv Gandhi.
You would not have recognized the racecourse. It resembled a temporary township. Makeshift tents, with mobile latrines and 24-hour water supply, had been rigged to accommodate the 50,000-plus delegates attending the centenary. A fully functional kitchen had been set up for them. The Congress Party's strength was more than that, of course. So, thousands of rooms had been blocked in hotels and guest houses for party leaders. Twenty schools and colleges converted into shelters for the grassroots workers. M. F. Husain had painted a 100ft-long backdrop for the stage called "India: a Country Awakes".
I woke up early and joined my political correspondent and photographer at the racecourse. The plenary session had begun. Murli Deora, the Congress strongman in Bombay, and Maharashtra Chief Minister Shivajirao Patil-Nilangekar, were on the stage. Rajiv Gandhi lolled on a mattress at the edge, propped up by a bolster, like he was at home. A year ago, at the age of 40, he had ridden a sympathy wave following his mother's assassination to win the parliamentary elections with a popular vote and become Prime Minister. He was a household name in India. Why shouldn't he be at home in Bombay!
Getting access to him was easy. The National Security Guard's Black Cat commandoes hadn't yet begun securing VVIPs. I think that started after Gen. Arun Vaidya's assassination in 1986. We walked to the edge of the stage and stared at him boldly. Rajiv Gandhi appeared bored. Delighted by our distraction, he smiled at us, looking like matinee idol Feroz Khan in starched white and a receding hairline. His pink cheeks glowed in the weak sunlight and his eyes twinkled mischievously. Impulsively, my photographer snapped a shot of him. We rushed to our office where the photo was developed and went onto the front page of my afternoon newspaper.
I remember thinking, here was the GenNext PM of India, a crusader for modern science and technology, and he was amazed at a simple printing process...
Two hours later, with the first copy fresh off the press, we returned to the racecourse. Nothing had changed. Rajiv Gandhi continued to lie among the bolsters. I reached out and gave him the newspaper. He took it curiously. And then sat up in disbelief. The photo of himself on the front page surprised him. This wasn't TV coverage in real time. It was reportage in a black-and-white tabloid. He looked at me inquiringly. I could see from his expression that he couldn't figure out how we had done it. I remember thinking, here was the GenNext PM of India, he symbolized our 21st-century dreams, a crusader for modern science and technology, and he was amazed at a simple printing process that was as old as journalism itself.