On the night of 30 October 1984, after dinner at our hostel mess, some of us friends went for a walk. For some reason I forget, we were in a celebratory mood. So we bought cigars. And as we lit the first cigars of our lives, we saw a convoy approaching fast. There was one car in the convoy where a light had been fixed on the top of the glove compartment to shine on the face of the man sitting by the driver. As the car flashed by, this man smiled and waved at us. He was gone before we could react, and anyway, none of us were the waving-back-to-unknown people type. Only after the cars were some distance away did we realize that it had been Rajiv Gandhi. What a fool, we thought. Waving at random people on the road! And this guy thinks he’s going to be prime minister!
About 21 hours later, to our general incredulity, he was PM.
Today, 28 years to the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated, most people may not recall that at that time, her popularity had hit a new low. She had tried one of those old tricks of hers to get rid of an elected state government, but this time the whole plot was so blatant and outrageous that it only caused widespread national anger and failed miserably.
In August 1984, when Andhra Pradesh chief minister N.T. Rama Rao (NTR) was in the US undergoing heart surgery, his finance minister N. Bhaskara Rao broke away from the Telugu Desam Party with a bunch of MLAs and, in a total mockery of constitutional norms, managed to be sworn in as chief minister with the support of the Congress. This ridiculous government lasted only 31 days and NTR was reinstated when Bhaskara Rao and Co. could not prove their majority in the assembly. (This misadventure’s principal legacy was the creation of a new young leader, NTR’s son-in-law N. Chandrababu Naidu, who rallied the remaining Telugu Desam MLAs, literally hid them away, and made sure that the Congress could not buy their loyalty.)
Rajiv Gandhi was by now very centrestage, and all of it looked like a bit of a sad joke. The general was lost in her labyrinth, and her son didn’t seem up to the task she had in mind for him. It’ll remain one of the great unanswered questions of history: if Mrs Gandhi had not been assassinated, would Congress have won the next Lok Sabha elections?
Later that night, we came to know that Rajiv Gandhi would be addressing some meetings in nearby towns and villages. This seemed as good an excuse as any to bunk class. Next morning, some friends convinced their entire class to go “absent without official leave” for one lecture. “Mass bunk” was a proud tradition, though rarely fully successful; but this time, for this class, it was. They wrote a message on the blackboard for the unfortunate teacher: “Sir, we have all gone to see the future Prime Minister of India”, and retired to the canteen or to their hostels to pursue other interests. Of course, no one went for Rajiv Gandhi’s meetings. He was still, as far as we were concerned, a joke.
Next time these students met the professor, he goggled at them and asked: “How did you know?”
Then came the news. Stories floated, All India Radio and Doordarshan would only say that she had been wounded and was in hospital. We had no idea that she had taken 33 bullets, but almost all of us seemed to know that she was no more. Around noon, we heard Radio Australia say that she was dead, killed by her Sikh bodyguards. A numbing sense of shock swept through the campus. No one was playing carrom or table tennis in the common room any more. The music systems were off. No one was shouting or laughing. Very few thought of going to class.
The next morning, none of the Kolkata papers reached the campus, which was three hours by express train from the city. A few of us cycled down to the railway station a few miles away and managed to buy some papers. One of the Bengali papers had a headline that screamed: “India has lost its mother.” There were pictures of Rajiv Gandhi standing by a highway, next to his car, maybe 30 miles from where we were, receiving the news of his mother’s death.
For the next few days, nothing moved on the campus. There was a sort of confused stasis. Newspapers were difficult to come by, and Doordarshan and All India Radio remained in a state of bland mourning. Far away from any big city, we had no idea what was really going on. Then, a Sikh classmate, who had gone home to New Delhi on some personal work, returned. He had shorn off his hair and beard. That’s how he had survived. He told us about the riots, how neighbours had gone crazy and burnt alive Sikh families they had known and lived alongside for years.
In that cocoon of an elite campus, we had never been touched by the nation’s broader political currents. We had never thought about concepts like “secularism” and “communalism”. Friendship, camaraderie, and academic and sports rivalries more or less defined our naïve and ignorant existence. It was an awakening that also thrust a mirror at us, but we didn’t have the maturity to fully understand what we saw in it.
A year later, we were all cheering for Rajiv Gandhi. He seemed to represent a new vision that we could relate to as would-be technocrats (and even so many years later, I feel no embarrassment at all for the hope we felt at that time in Rajiv Gandhi, and the trust we reposed on him). The future lay ahead of us, modern and full of promise. Within a few months, we were finding it difficult to remember what our Sikh friend had looked like with his straggly beard and the long hair he used to let free over his back on weekends. There were inter-hostel sports tournaments coming up, and there were GRE and CAT to prepare for.