They decked him in flowers. Minutes later he was dead.’ New York Times reporter Barbara Crossette gives an eyewitness account of Rajiv Gandhi’s murder
- Barbara Crossette
- guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 22 May 2012 07.30 BST
On the way to the rally 25 miles south-west of Madras, Rajiv Gandhi had been riding in the front seat, window open. A special fluorescent light mounted on the dashboard of the Indian-made Ambassador played on his face so that people could see him.
They threw in flowers, their faces frenzied with happiness. The biggest smiles in India live in the gentle South. He threw the garlands back at others, along with scarves and shawls presented to him at stops along the way.
At one point, he stopped to greet a shy woman being jostled by the crowd. He placed a scarf around her neck and spoke to her. She covered her face with her hands and then clutched the cloth and held it close to her.
In the last national election campaign, Gandhi had been criticised for being too aloof, too insulated from the people he hoped to lead. This time, determined to carry his message directly to the people, he went on punishing road journeys, stopping at hamlets to shake hands and ask for votes as if he were a town council candidate.
“What else can I do?” he said in the last interview of his life as the car pulled away from Poonamallee, a town along the route. He had been asked dozens of times a day whether he was afraid of this new style of campaigning. He was asked again Tuesday night, as he arrived at Madras airport.
“I campaigned this way before I was prime minister,” he said. “I’m not prime minister now, so I’m campaigning this way again.”
As his caravan pulled into Sriperumbudur, he asked a local candidate whose campaign he had come to boost: “What shall I tell them here?”
“Talk about village development,” said Maradadam Chandrashekhar, the candidate, as they stepped out of the bullet-proof car into the tropical night.
A minute or two later, Mr Gandhi was dead, blown to pieces in an explosion.
Where have they taken the body? reporters asked police. “There is nothing left,” someone said, as bystanders began to wail. The carnival lights went on twinkling grotesquely. Bodies were strewn in a circle at least 20 feet wide.
Mr Gandhi’s security had been almost non-existent last night. A hundred times, one of those hands that reached into the car to grab his arm or stroke his hand could have stabbed or shot him.
He looked once at the sleeve of his kurta. “I have been on the road 23.5 hours a day almost every day since the first of May,” he said during the ride. “At the end, I am swollen and bleeding, or have a cut arm. Here and in Kerala there is this cheek pinching. And sometimes in Muslim neighbourhoods they kiss me – you know: one, two, three times, that special hug.”
Five minutes before arriving here, Mr Gandhi had been talking to me and to Neena Gopal of the Gulf News of Dubai. We were riding in the back seat of his car with Mrs Chandrashekhar and a local party official. The South was friendly territory, and Mr Gandhi expected his party to do well here.
The car had stopped about 25 yards short of the platform erected on an open meadow for this rally. As Mrs Gopal and I paused to talk to Suman Dubey, Mr Gandhi’s campaign press adviser, Mr Gandhi went on ahead towards the stairs to the platform.
There was a sudden burst of what sounded like firecrackers and then a large boom, an explosion and a cloud of smoke that scattered people all around. It was all over in seconds.