Former Indian Prime Minister India Gandhi. (Photo: PTI)
After Sanjay Gandhi's death in an air crash on June 23, 1980, Indira Gandhi had turned extremely religious and began fasting on Mondays. Sonia Gandhi too joined her. Indira later switched over to fasting every Tuesday and Sonia followed.
Indira had sought to cultivate the majority community, accepting the invitation to launch the VHP's `Ekatmata Yatra', also called the `Ganga Jal Yatra.' This was a nascent Vishwa Hindu Parishad's first mass contact programme giving a glimpse that Hindu rituals and symbols could be effectively utilised for popular and political mobilisation.
Bureaucrat and author SS Gill noticed that by 1982-83, Indira lacked social solicitude towards Muslims. A clear indication came from her loyalist CM Stephen who declared in 1983, “The wave-length of Hindu culture and the Congress culture is the same.” Barely six months before her assassination, as Prime Minister she sought to assure the majority community that “if there is injustice to them or if they did not get their rights, then it would be dangerous to the integrity of the country.”
Indira was assassinated for conducting some drastic, emergent action to curb separatism in Punjab. The genesis of her killing was the 'Punjab problem'. In post-independent India, there was a perception that Sikhs did not get a fair deal in the 1947 partition of the coubtry. This feeling was accentuated when linguistic States were created but Punjab was denied the right of becomong a Punjabi-speaking State. The demand for a Punjabi Suba (province) was conceded in March 1966 by splitting Patiala and East Punjab States Union into Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab when Indira had just taken over as Prime Minister.
Indira had serious reservations about the creation of a Punjabi-speaking State. In her own words, “...to concede the Akali demand would mean abandoning a position to which it (Congress) was firmly committed and letting down its Hindu supporters in the projected Punjabi Suba… This startling reversal of the Congress policy was totally unexpected,” Indira wrote in 1980.
As if she had a premonition, on that fateful morning of 31 October 1984, Indira would just not let go of Priyanka as she readied for school. She hugged her tightly and reminded Rahul of her instruction. Indira used to greatly value Rahul Gandhi's grit and determination even as a child. When Indira died in October 1984, Rahul was barely 14 but she used to share with him subjects that she often avoided confiding in Rajiv or Sonia. For instance, Indira had feared for her life since June 2-3, 1984 'Operation Blue Star' and used to tell Rahul to "take charge" and not to cry in the event of her death.
Sonia had just finished washing her hair when she heard what she thought were crackers bursting nearby. Then she heard the maid crying. Sonia rushed outside shouting, ‘Mummy, oh my God, Mummy,’ picked up Indira and cradled her head in her lap. She didn’t stop to tidy herself before getting into an Ambassador car to accompany her to hospital. There was utter confusion when the car carrying the world’s most powerful woman reached AIIMS. There was nobody to receive her. A wireless link between the Prime Minister’s residence and AIIMS was not used.
At 2.20 pm, Indira was officially declared dead. Rajiv was in West Bengal and heard the news enroute as he flew back to Delhi. As soon as Rajiv reached Delhi, PC Alexander, Principal Secretary to Indira, and other trusted aides told him that the Cabinet and the Congress wanted him to be the new Prime Minister. Alexander said he had to make a determined bid to tear Rajiv away from Sonia at AIIMS. Sonia was pleading with Rajiv not to give his consent, but Rajiv believed that it was his duty to do so. It took Sonia many months to recover after Indira’s assassination.
Rajiv Gandhi, the young Prime Minister, quickly announced a general election ahead of its schedule between December 24-27, 1984. Rajiv’s election campaign was aggressive and focussed on making Sikhs seeking a separate homeland a key issue. The hidden agenda was to somehow exploit the insecurity among Hindus and projecting the Rajiv-led Congress as their sole saviour.
There was a complete sympathy wave in Rajiv’s favour with the party winning 415 out of 543 Lok Sabha seats, a tally that his mother and illustrious grandfather had failed to achieve. It was a personal triumph for Rajiv. He had travelled over 50,000 km by car, helicopter and aeroplane during the election campaign which stretched over 25 days.
There was talk of a secret meeting between Rajiv Gandhi and the then RSS chief Balasaheb Deoras, resulting in the Sangh cadre supporting the Congress in the 1984 Lok Sabha election despite the presence of the BJP on the political scene.
The RSS's support for the Congress days after Indira's assassination and before voting commenced was evident in an article authored by veteran Sangh ideologue Nanaji Deshmukh. Published in a Hindi magazine, Pratipaksh and headlined ‘Moments of soul-searching’ on November 25, 1984, Deshmukh’s article ended with a call to bless and cooperate with Rajiv Gandhi when voting was less than a month away. Nanaji Deshmukh wrote "Indira Gandhi ultimately did secure a permanent place at the doorstep of History as a great martyr. With her dynamism born out of her fearlessness and dexterity, she was able to take the country forward like a colossus for over a decade…she alone had the ability to run the decadent political system of our corrupt and divided society…”.