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 a.m.: ‘Indira Gandhi assaulted. Return to Delhi
I 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.
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, I 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.
Rajiv had, in the meantime, decided that he would take the oath along with three others – PV 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.
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.
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 PV Narasimha Rao and I both gladly agreed that his decision to place the mantle of prime ministership on Rajiv Gandhi was correct.
In the two months leading up to the elections of December 1984 I had Rajiv’s full trust. My name had been included in his letter to President Zail Singh proposing the list of ministers he had wanted sworn in along with him on 31 October 1984. Not only that, as the reader may have noticed, he had clearly placed my name at the top. Interestingly, the initials of all three, except Buta Singh, start with P.
The results to the 1984 Lok Sabha elections were declared on 24 December 1984. The Congress swept the polls, winning 404 seats out of 514, while the BJP got only 2 seats. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) got 30 seats, the CPI(M) 22, the AIADMK 12 and the Janata Party 10 seats.
On the morning of 31 December 1984, Rajiv was elected leader of the CPP at 11 am in a meeting held in the Central Hall of Parliament. I chaired the meeting and stood next to him when he announced to the media that the swearing-in would be held at 3 pm. Even then I was clueless about the manner in which the day would unfold.
I kept waiting for the call. Being dropped from Rajiv’s Cabinet was not even peripherally in my mind. I had heard no rumours, nor had anyone in the party ever vaguely hinted at it. As it happened, PV Narasimha Rao, too, was on tenterhooks, calling me several times to check if I had received a call.
When I learnt of my ouster from the Cabinet, I was shell-shocked and flabbergasted. I could not believe it. But I composed myself, and sat alongside my wife as she watched the swearing-in ceremony on television. As soon as it concluded, I wrote to the Ministry of Urban Development asking to be allotted a smaller house in place of my 2 Jantar Mantar residence (which was a ministerial allocation), pointing out that I had ceased to be a minister – this was something I had done in 1977, too. I then went off on a holiday with my family who had long suffered my neglect.
To return to the question of why he dropped me from the Cabinet and expelled me from the party, all I can say is that he made mistakes and so did I. He let others influence him and listened to their calumnies against me. I let my frustration overtake my patience.
Overall, the difference in age between Rajiv and I was only nine years. When I was dropped from the Cabinet, I was not even fifty years old. But we were clearly of very different backgrounds and temperaments. Rajiv was a reluctant politician. He was forced by circumstances to become Prime Minister at the age of forty. He was ahead of his times. He wanted rapid change and saw the old guard in the Congress as an obstacle to his vision. He was forward-looking, tech-savvy and welcomed foreign investment in India as well as an enlargement of the market economy. In contrast, I was a conservative, conventional political leader who favoured the public sector, a regulated economy and wanted foreign investment only from NRIs.
People have often asked me whether I bear a grudge against Rajiv. My response is to refer to an interview Rajiv gave Aroon Purie, Editor of India Today, just before his assassination:
AP: Earlier, you tended to do away with people Mrs Gandhi had used, people like Pranab Mukherjee and Dhawan and then, you reverted to them. Is that some learning process you went through?
RG: Many things said about them I found weren’t true.
Rajiv’s death shattered me. India had lost one of its most dynamic leaders at a young age and in a gruesome manner. Charismatic, amiable and full of new ideas, he endeared himself to those he came in contact with. His support base was truly pan-Indian. He should have lived and led our country and politics for many more years. There was so much more he could have contributed. But that was not to be.
However, it is true that no one is perfect. Rajiv has been criticised for his excessive reliance on some close friends and advisers who installed a so-called “babalog” government. Some of them turned out to be fortune seekers.
Rajiv’s actions on the Shah Bano judgement and the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill drew criticism and eroded his modern image.
The opening of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple site on 1 February 1986 was perhaps another error of judgement. People felt these actions could have been avoided.
The Bofors issue proved to be one of the causes of his undoing in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, though no charge has been substantiated against Rajiv till date.
Excerpted with permission from The Turbulent Years: 1980-1996, Pranab Mukherjee, Rupa.