On the fateful day, May 21, 1991, at Sriperumbudur, Rusy Karanjia, chief editor of the Blitz tabloid, was with Rajiv Gandhi for a few minutes.
Gandhi disclosed to Karanjia that he had learnt from the mistakes of the past and that in the days to come, he was going to be really an enlightened leader - either as the prime minister or as the opposition leader. Gandhi told Karanjia that he would meet the expectations of the people in his next term that seemed to be almost certain. Shortly afterwards, a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber detonated herself, killing Gandhi instantly.
Gandhi was always afraid of criticism. A little encouragement filled him with elation and worked wonders for him and he began to be less dissatisfied with the world around him and himself. Gandhi's move to usher in a new international order for protecting the global environment for future generations and similar other proposals were unique as no one could envisage that the bipolar global order would collapse in a short time, creating opportunities for the birth of a world order which shared the concerns of everyone.
He very rightly understood that if the world had to be saved from a possible nuclear or an environmental holocaust, traditional and Europe-US centric approaches to international relations would have to be abandoned and rejected. Former foreign secretary Maharaj Krishna Rasgotra's words lucidly explain Gandhi's mind: "All of Rajiv Gandhi's external policies were tailored and interpreted to fit this grand design of a new world's order for peace."
As early as June 13, 1985, Rajiv told the US Congress that he wished to promote India in the service of the world. It struck an immediate chord in each one of us, giving a delightful feeling. It was believed that a bright young avatar had truly arrived. Here was a man who could speak our language, who was in step with us and who understood our hopes and longings of a million years (should it be ears?) and hearts because he was not part of the Congress politics of manipulation and caucuses.
Gandhi was one of us. Fresh from the ranks, an ordinary guy with a family and interests in music and photography. Gandhi's entry into politics was not just as the son of Indira Gandhi but as the great Prince Charming who would defeat the demented demons violating our society and usher in a new era of honesty, equality and change. Remember his scorching remarks to his avaricious party men at the 1985 Congress centenary in Mumbai, denouncing power brokers and favour seekers, decrying the lethargy in the party and the distance between leaders and the people?
Gandhi's conviction that the panchayat raj was the only instrument to ensure power to the people was born out of his commitment to the masses. As he saw poor and ill-clad masses hailing him with sheer love writ large on their faces, he resolved to devote his time, his power, his position and eventually his life in their service. Wasting resources and time on needless tension was a sheer criminal act for him.
With the same zeal, Gandhi initiated the missions designed to upgrade technology in a time-bound manner. It was Gandhi who brought the computer and hi-tech knowledge boom to India, which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government tried to hijack in the form of the India Shining campaign. His education policy of 1986 still holds good today.
For the first time, the phrase NRI came into vogue as Gandhi opened the country's doors for Indian experts wanting to return home. In order to facilitate their return, he initiated quick administrative reforms that saw technocrats occupying policy-making positions for the first time, enraging the power-hungry.
As a child Gandhi was a perfectionist and would go on making efforts to improve. A deft motor mechanic, who at the slightest excuse would lie under his car to mend it, an expert cameraman according to Simi Grewal, for whom the young prime minister was no less than a professional who guided her own cameramen. He was the man who polished his own shoes.
Even as a pilot he was always busy with one manual job or another. That he was better off than many other Indians and was a privileged scion of the Nehru clan did not seem to matter to him. He was an airline pilot, granted he had the advantage of being the prime minister's son and grandson of another, and showed others that they didn't have to be an obsequious khadi-clad type to make it to the top.
Many of his political rivals cracked snide jokes about his Italian Gucci and Lotto shoes, his Cartier sunglasses, Armani suits and designer jeans knowing well that he was magnetic, better looking, better dressed and a man of immense charm. Few politicians could match Gandhi's open, cheerful, disarming smile. It converted even the hardest of cynics, or at least reduced their opposition. One of Rajiv's great strengths was his youth. He had so much to live for, so much to do, despite all our caviling, cribbing and carping.
There was a lump in many throats, certainly in mine as I groped for thoughts and words while watching his son, daughter and widow standing so compelling alone and with such dignity as the flames devoured a man loved by generations. Truly, he would have made India the most powerful country.