Rajiv Gandhi, Through the Eyes of Sonia and Priyanka Gandhi
On Rajiv Gandhi’s death anniversary, we take a look at the man, in the words of his wife and daughter.
(This article has been re-contextualised and reposted from The Quint’s archives in view of Rajiv Gandhi’s death anniversary. It was originally published on 20 May 2018.)
The country remembers him as Indira Gandhi’s son, who was thrown into politics under unfortunate circumstances. Or as Independent India’s sixth prime minister whose term was mired in controversies.
But to his family of four, Rajiv Gandhi remained a soft-spoken, caring family man.
Let us take a look at the man in the words of his wife Sonia Gandhi, and daughter Priyanka Gandhi.
The Man, Before He Became PM
Before he became the prime minister, or even a rallying politician, Rajiv had a regular-paying job as a pilot.
He was head-over-heels in love with his Italian wife, Sonia – and that feeling was mutual. In an interview with Shekhar Gupta in 2013, Sonia said that her love for Rajiv was the reason she left the comforts of Italy for an unknown India.
Rajiv adored his two little children, Priyanka and Rahul, and had immense respect for his mother, the formidable Indira. But he was not involved in politics – Indira is known to have said that her daughter-in-law would divorce her son, should he ever join politics.
An Avid Photographer
Rajiv shared an inexplicable bond with his camera. Having picked up the art from his father, Feroze Gandhi, he honed his photography skills at leisure.
Most of his photography was between the year 1968, when he married Sonia, and 1984, when he became the prime minister.
In the book Rajiv’s World, on Rajiv’s photographs, Sonia writes that whatever activity he took up, he “immersed himself in every detail with tremendous curiosity and enjoyment” till he mastered the finer nuances of the art.
A master photographer, he was almost inseparable from his camera, and would always carry the device when he went on tours and rallies. It was through photographs that he showcased the tenderness he shared with the people in his life, reminisces Sonia in her book.
The Reluctant Politician
Rajiv’s younger brother Sanjay's death forced him to step into his shoes, at the behest of his mother. Sonia is known to have pleaded with him, but his mother's request outweighed her cries. He contested – and won – the Lok Sabha elections from their home constituency Amethi in 1981.
After his mother's assassination in the early hours of 31 October 1984, Rajiv tragically took his oath to become the country's prime minister, the very same night.
In an interview with Sonia Gandhi in 2008, veteran journalist Vir Sanghvi revealed that former IAS officer PC Alexander had walked in on the couple hugging each other in the AIIMS hospital that fateful morning, with Sonia begging Rajiv against taking the post. In response to Sanghvi, Sonia said:
Sonia went on to say that she lost a little of their life together once he took over the mantle.
When people like Rajiv and Indira take up politics, they took it up as the cause for their lives. And they became the people’s over their family’s.
The Fateful Day
Sonia’s worst fears came true, when on the night of 21 May, 1991, news of her husband's assassination in Tamil Nadu's Sriperumbudur reached her ears.
She confessed to having ‘blanked out’ when she heard the news.
But was she supposed to have gone to Madras with Rajiv, then?
“I was thinking I'd go with him, because he had just returned from Amethi when I met him. He was tremendously tired, and his arms had swollen up since people had pulled at him, wanting to touch and hug him. So I did think I'd go with him, but then it was a matter of only two days. And there was also the question of space in the airplane. He was flying the aircraft to Madras, and there would have been no space for me in it, so I decided against going,” she recollected in her interview with Sanghvi.
Rajiv Gandhi’s killers, jailed for over 27 years, are currently imprisoned for life – a punishment that was commuted from death penalty upon Sonia’s intervention.
When the Daughter Came Face-to-Face With Her Father's Killer
On 18 March, 2008, almost 17 years after she was jailed, Nalini Sriharan, one among the accused, was in for a shock. The daughter of the man she was accused of killing was staring at her through the other side of the bars of her jail in Vellore.
Nalini, in an account to The Hindu, said she was in a state of disbelief when Priyanka arrived to meet her. After a few seconds, when Nalini had recovered from the shock, Priyanka reportedly asked:
And immediately after saying so, she reportedly broke down in tears, with Nalini joining in.
I am Rajiv’s Daughter: Priyanka's Pride in her Father
Ahead of the 2014 elections, Narendra Modi – then a prime ministerial candidate – had said in an interview to Doordarshan that he considers Priyanka his daughter.
On campaign trail in Amethi soon after, Priyanka was stopped by several reporters for a response. In her SUV, she initially ignored the question, shaking hands with supporters. Later, she got out of her car and faced the reporters, with a terse:
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