The last journalist to have interviewed Rajiv Gandhi minutes before he died, Neena Gopal, recounts the final moments of his life, the lack of security at the fateful rally in Sriperumbudur, the hundreds of intercepts between April 1990 and May 1991 that showed the Tamil Tigers' plot to kill him and how the case was cracked. Gopal culls out the story through interviews of various senior officials and her own interaction with Gandhi. She also tells her readers how the former prime minister had a premonition of his death.
As foreign editor of Gulf News, Gopal had travelled with Gandhi in his car from Chennai airport to Sriperumbudur. She asked him if his life was at risk and he answered her with a counter question: “Have you noticed how every time any South Asian leader of any import rises to a position of power or is about to achieve something for himself or his country, he is cut down, attacked, killed... Look at Mrs (Indira) Gandhi, Sheikh Mujib, look at Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, at Zia-ul-Haq, (Solomon) Bandaranaike,” she writes in the book. When Gandhi got off the car, he asked Gopal to follow him. But she said that she had one more question. “I will wait for you here,” she said.
When the suicide bomber blew herself up killing Gandhi, Gopal was just 10 steps behind. “Every single person ahead of me had died in the blast,” she writes. She ends the first chapter with how Sonia Gandhi held her hands and asked to say what Rajiv had said before his death.
Gopal exposes the Indian government’s failures, right from the lack of security and the dimly-lit roads to the short-sightedness of its Sri Lanka policy, the differences between the intelligence agencies, the tension between the agencies and the external affairs ministry and the Tiger chief Velupillai Prabhakaran’s hatred of Rajiv Gandhi.
In the chapter called RAW Truth, the author talks in detail about the various intercepts from the Tiger camp and the plot to kill Gandhi. “Rajiv Gandhi avarunde mandalai addipodalam,” writes Gopal. “Dump pannidungo. Blow Rajiv Gandhi’s head off. Eliminate him. Maranai vechidungo. Kill him. Of the hundreds of intercepts between the thirty-eight-odd Tamil insurgent camps in the Nilgiris in India and their cohorts in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, almost every single one centred on arms shipments and gunrunning between Vedaranyam and Point Pedro, barely 18 kilometres from coast to coast. But no intercept would be as chilling as the kill order that came through in short bursts of VHS communication on a frequency that the LTTE favoured, that April day in 1990.”
“The IB and RAW didn’t agree on much,” says Chandran Chandrasekharan, senior Research and Analysis Wing officer, in the book. “If we had read the signals right, if we understood what was going on in Prabhakaran’s mind, who knows, we could have prevented this.” In the last chapter Gopal brings in the emotions, the aftermath of the war, and how, with the loss of Rajiv Gandhi, the separate land for Tamils was also lost.
The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi
By Neena Gopal
Published by Penguin Random House
Price Rs 324; pages 240