What Rajiv Gandhi said 21 years ago

Days before he was assassinated on May 21st 1991, Rajiv Gandhi at an election rally in UP said “mehangai ke bojh taley dabein hain sab, aur koi sukha bhi nahii pada” (we are burdened with rising prices and there isn’t even a drought). Ironically the Congress has been in power for 13 out of the 21 years since his death but mehangai is still an issue.

In his last television interview given to Daniella Kaneva of Bulgarian TV, a day before he was killed, he said that he wanted to bring about changes in the way things were done in India. “We have to reduce the role played by the government in people’s lives and make India’s voice heard internationally,” he said.

His last words: Rajiv Gandhi’s last video interview was recorded on board an aircraft, as he sat in the co-pilot’s chair

Daniella, a seasoned journalist and close friend of Rajiv and Sonia, was the one to record the last video interview with Rajiv. She had accompanied him to Bhubaneshwar from where he returned to Delhi, to cast his vote and fly off to Sri Perumbudur, where he was assassinated at an election rally. Daniella had conducted the interview aboard the Beechcraft that he was piloting while she sat in the co-pilot’s chair. It wasn’t a brilliant interview, the audio quality was poor, and the cameraman was squeezed into the cockpit doorway. But it was newsworthy because it was the last video interview where Rajiv spelled out what he would do if he became Prime Minister again.

Daniella brought the tape to the edit room, dry eyed and incoherently said to me "do you want a dub (copy)…it is his last interview." I had been in the edit room for two days without a break, editing hours of tape of obituaries, funeral proceedings and file footage demanded by international channels that had sent representatives to see if India would again erupt into flames, like it did after Mrs Indira Gandhi was assassinated. I nodded and dubbed the tape and forgot about it.

I viewed the tape again this week and this is what I found he had said twenty-one years ago:

“The most difficult problem we have today is of casteism and communalism. We (the Congress party) find it difficult to live with it.” When asked if the BJP could emerge as the 2nd largest party in the near future, he said, “Yes, the BJP will come up as the second largest party in some states. But where centrist parties have disintegrated, like J & K, we see that fundamentalists fill in that vacuum. See, the regional parties will have to get a national perspective. Today, some have regional perspective; some have a caste or religious perspective. But the nation has to be your constituency. They (regional parties) have to broaden their perspective. Coming back to your question, if the BJP reduces its sharp religious line and looks at economy and political lines, it could be a good start.”
When asked about global politics and the role India could play, he replied, “We have not had a functioning government for so long, there is the Gulf crisis, our economy is in a mess; all this has to be tackled. Look at the global situation. From a bipolar world we have moved to a unipolar one. This is not good, as it is not a democratic system of international order. In fact, that should be the goal of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM). We have to increase our influence in the UN, make our (NAM’s) voice heard. The UN has become totally redundant in its present form.”

He added, “There isn’t a functioning democratic system in the world today. We haven’t progressed as we are still using war as a solution to problems. We have to find more civilised ways of doing things. India in the past 15 months has gone into the background. We are a non-entity. We have to bring India back into the frontline.”

On 21st May, minutes before Rajiv and Sonia were to arrive at the polling booth, a Mahila Congress worker dropped the steel thaali, which had all the arati paraphernalia. She was supposed to welcome the Gandhis and Rajesh Khanna the Congress candidate from Central Delhi. There was some uneasiness as someone muttered “abshagun (bad omen) hai.” It was too late to prepare another thali; Rajiv and Sonia cast their votes and Rajiv left for Sri Perumbudur.

Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash

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