Defeat and Distraction - Section 14

It was some months later that I got a call from Rajiv Gandhi asking me to come over to his house. ‘Sam, we’ve decided to pull the plug and call elections.’ By now V.P. Singh was out of office; he had resigned only a month after my heart attack. He had been succeeded by Chandrashekhar, leader of the minority Janata Party, whose government was in power with support from the Congress. Chandrashekhar, as prime minister, was very supportive of all my initiatives. But now Rajiv thought the time had come for him to return to the forefront.

We immediately began to plan the election campaign. Three of Rajiv’s political advisers were present—Jitendra Prasad, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Oscar Fernandes—as energized and excited as I was. The first order of business was resources: How much of what would we need? The four of us practically ran back to my house to start working the numbers and laying out the details.

We hired a new ad agency. In the previous election, which we had lost badly, we had run a series of negative ad campaigns depicting animals fighting, to convey how the other parties would never be able to create a stable government. If they came to power, politics would turn into a dogfight. It would be utter chaos. Chickens would be clawing at each other.

I hadn’t liked that, but I hadn’t been one of the decision makers. This time I was. This time I decided we wouldn’t have a negative campaign; this time our focus would be on positive things. Rajiv would bring stability. He would bring the people together; he would be inclusive, not divisive. We needed to work together to expand the economy, to create jobs, to reduce inflation, to modernize the country and make it competitive. He was the one who could do that. We created slogans related to progress, stability and growth.

Every day meetings would start at my house at 44, Lodhi Estate. The players included Pranab Mukherjee, Jairam Ramesh, R.D. Pradhan, Suman Dubey, Krishna Rao, and several others. We’d all sit down and lay out a plan for that day, responding to the newspaper headlines, making our own headlines. We planned out all the communication, the logistics, the ads. The advertising expenses were massive, and we decided they needed to be controlled. We were printing campaign posters by the hundreds of thousands and sending them all over the country. There were 560 parliamentary candidates and each one would be given thousands of posters. But the people in charge were using external printing-presses, even though the party had its own press. When I found out about this, I stopped the work being done outside and turned the job over to our internal printer to save costs.

That move caused a ruckus. We had apparently always used an outside printer for this purpose, and those in charge were mad. They went to Rajiv about it. And they weren’t the only ones. Many people, insiders and external consultants, wanted to do one thing or another—100,000 rupees here, 200,000 there. They’d go to Rajiv for approval, but he would send them to me. And more often than not, I’d said no, which made me the focus of waves of anger from every corner. One famous person wanted to make a movie on Rajiv Gandhi for a lot of money. ‘No,’ I said, ‘we’re not doing it,’ which was not received well. I became Rajiv’s gatekeeper for a while.

Rajiv was campaigning well, giving speeches all around the country. It looked more and more as though our optimism was going to see us to victory. Everyone was charged up. I was charged up. The stars seemed perfectly aligned. During his time in the Opposition, Rajiv had strengthened the party. His adversaries, on the other hand, had not demonstrated any real capacity to govern. We knew that we were doing well, that we would win this time. Maybe not with the massive majority we had earlier, but we would win. We were going to be back in power again.

In late April 1991, we were just a few weeks from the elections, and our momentum was building. I was already thinking beyond the formation of a new government, to the new efforts we could make in telecom, education, technology, infrastructure and other initiatives of national importance. The new digital standards for mobile phones had just been publicized as well, which would open up our own markets to a communications revolution that would change the face of the country. I was champing at the bit to get started.

On the night of 21 May 1991, Anu and I went to bed early. I had just fallen off to sleep when the phone rang. I picked it up, half asleep. It was Mayank Chhaya, a young journalist who had started writing a biography about me.

‘Have you heard, Sam? Rajiv Gandhi got bombed, blown up.’

‘What? What do you mean?’

‘That’s what I mean,’ he said. ‘Rajiv Gandhi is dead.’

I was in shock. I couldn’t process it. It was too immense.

The moment I hung up another call came in, this one from the election commissioner, T.N. Seshan.

‘Sam, why don’t you and Anu come to my house? A lot of people were killed, not just Rajiv. I have more security here. Come, stay with us.’

‘No,’ I said, ‘I think I want to stay at home. I’d rather be at home. I don’t think anyone is going to hurt me. Besides, I’m sure people are going to want to get in touch with me.’

Then the floodgates opened. Calls began pouring in from other people Rajiv and I had worked with, from TV and radio stations and newspapers—from overseas as well as within India.

We only had bits and pieces of information to clutch at. It wasn’t clear what exactly had transpired, what was going on. Was this solely an attack on Rajiv? Was something far more pervasive in the works? The whereabouts of Suman Dubey, a close friend of both Rajiv and myself, were unknown, so someone asked if he was at my house. Suman’s wife was beside herself with worry.

A reporter from the New York Times told me, ‘No, Sam. Suman was there. But he’s okay. I saw him.’ Calls kept coming in. I was on the phone continuously. Nobody knew if the assassination was part of a plan, or if others would be targeted too. It was mayhem and confusion all around.

Then someone knocked at the door. It was a KGB agent I knew, someone who maintained contact with political figures for the Soviets. ‘I’m here to make sure you’re okay,’ he said. ‘I’ve been told to take care of you. If you want to go someplace, if you want to fly out, I’ll be able to arrange it.’

‘No, I don’t need anything,’ I said. ‘I’m okay. Nobody’s going to do anything to me. We have to see how this is going to unfold.’

I was surprised that somebody from the KGB would offer to protect me. If anybody other than Indians should have been protecting me, I’d have thought it would be the Americans. But no one from the embassy contacted me. I hadn’t thought about it until the KGB person showed up. I wasn’t a US citizen any longer, but my wife and children were, and Anu was living here with me. But they hadn’t been keeping track, or maybe they were and didn’t think that we were at risk.

The next day Anu and I went to Rajiv Gandhi’s house. His body was being flown to Delhi from Tamil Nadu where the assassination had occurred. By then we knew that a woman had triggered the bomb. Speculation was rife that it was someone from the Tamil Tigers outfit in Sri Lanka, where India had been involved in ending the civil war.

Anu and I waited for the body with a few others. Eventually, the remains arrived, carried in on a stretcher with a sheet on top. Under the sheet Rajiv’s body was laid all in pieces, blown to bits by the force of the explosion.

Anu and I sat together on one side of the stretcher, Sonia on the other side. No one spoke. We sat there in silence. I was thinking about the future of India and all the programmes we had launched to lead India into the 21st century. I was also thinking about the great loss to the country and the time it would take for everyone to recover from this tragedy. I was concerned about Priyanka, Rahul and Sonia, their futures, and the sacrifices they had made for the country. Time passed, feeling like an eternity. Then we stood up and went home.

A massive crowd was at the funeral, flowing rivers of people decked in white—the colour of mourning. Rajiv’s body was being carried on a flower-decked gun carriage, the tricolour flag of India draped over him. Overhead, a helicopter released clouds of orange blossoms to rain down on the assemblage below. Then the body was placed on the pyre and the logs set aflame. Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka were visible in white near the fire—an image that will remain etched in my heart and mind for eternity.

It seemed to me that the world was coming to an end. Rajiv was gone. Everything I had done was because of his political will and his support. Now he was gone and his support had disappeared with him, evaporated in an instant. My friend was no longer around. My confidence shrivelled up. My future looked bleak and uncertain. My hope and dreams for India were shaken. All the investments we had made in C-DOT, telecom, the Technology Missions and the many other initiatives may never materialize. Maybe India will fall behind by a decade. These were scary thoughts.

Then something else hit me. I was almost completely out of money. It hadn’t even dawned on me earlier, I hadn’t given it much thought—I was so excited by the possibility of doing more work in India, with Rajiv’s backing, that I just kept on with it. Until now, I had not paid much attention to my family, finances and future.

I realized I needed to do something, but what? I had no idea. I had two kids back in the US, Salil was applying to colleges, Rajal thinking about it already, and I was almost penniless. They were still children only yesterday,I thought. How did they grow up so fast? How could I have let this happen without thinking about it, without planning for it?

The irony of the situation was that almost everyone thought I was a millionaire, which I had been when we sold Wescom—but that was more than ten years ago now. For three years I had gone back and forth from Chicago to India every two weeks, on my own money. I had asked for and received a one-rupee-a-year salary for over ten years in India. The government had given me a house and a car, but I had taken care of the rest of my expenses and my family’s from my own personal funds, which were now all but finished.

And now, in India, with Rajiv gone, all I could see was darkness. I couldn’t imagine what would come next. All I knew was that to put my life in order I needed to be back home with my family in Chicago.