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Is someone Holding India Hostage?

By Jawed Naqvi

27 November, 2006

Sonia Gandhi recently made a startling statement about her husband's premonition of death, but it went largely unnoticed. Describing her meeting with Rajiv after Indira Gandhi was assassinated on an October morning in 1984, she told a TV channel recently: "My husband was away. He was in West Bengal. He arrived and came straight to the hospital. It was a very difficult moment. He did say that is what was expected of him (to step into his mother's shoes) and I did beg him not to take that responsibility. I did say that, because I thought he would be killed too. He replied he would be killed in any case."

So Rajiv and Sonia knew that Rajiv would be inevitably killed whether or not he became prime minister? And who did they both think were going to target the future prime minister of India? We all parrot the easier lines. Sikh bodyguards killed Indira Gandhi at her residence in 1984. A Sri Lankan Tamil woman suicide bomber assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in Siriperembudur in 1991 and, of course, Sanjay Gandhi died because he was playing the fool with a private plane, plunging to his death near his mother's home.

Since the LTTE was not even remotely an issue for India on the day of Indira Gandhi's death, when the exchange with Sonia took place, the source of Rajiv Gandhi's fears was evidently elsewhere. Was he alluding to Sikh insurgents because they had got his mother in a shower of bullets with frightening ease? Would he be killed "in any case", by the same Sikh rebels? Is that what he was afraid of but defied nevertheless to become prime minister? Yes. It could be a possible source of worry. And that is why perhaps the prime minister's security detail ever since does not have a single Sikh personnel, even more ironically for a prime minister who is himself a Sikh – at a time when the army chief too is a Sikh. But to consider not becoming prime minister because a bunch of terrorists were out to get him? It's a little difficult to digest.

No that's not what Sonia Gandhi and her husband were afraid of. There had to be something more menacing, more capable of striking at will, more entrenched and threatening. Were the two thinking of a foreign country, as his mother was given to fearing about. An extremely powerful foreign agency perhaps? Or some highly motivated people within the Indian system itself, or both? These are probably very old questions, but unanswered questions nevertheless. They are relevant today because the threat to the future prime minister, should there be another from the Gandhi family, still looms large. Or has that threat waned.

A reasonable approach to these questions would be to scan the various anti-bodies that surrounded the Gandhis in their moment of crisis. There were three or four things that Rajiv Gandhi did during his turbulent five-year rule and later as opposition leader that may offer clues into his death.

To begin with, in his early days as prime minister, Rajiv had annoyed the business lobbies within his own party by declaring a war on the "politics of moneybags". The purported author of that famous speech in Mumbai in 1985 was believed to be Mani Shankar Aiyar, once Rajiv's man Friday. It is possible that the business lobbies that felt threatened by him had rejoiced at his death. But could they have plotted his extermination? Only as conduits, if at all.

Then there were political rivals within his Congress party, some of whom had approached President Zail Singh to dismiss his government. The commissions of inquiry that went into the assassinations of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi pointed to the possibility of the enemy within. But there's a global angle too. In the Cold War context, Indira Gandhi was seen as a Soviet protégé. She had often spoken of the threat from the CIA and from the Hindu revivalist RSS. Both are believed to have penetrated her porous Congress party and successfully destabilised her from within.

Indira Gandhi's emergency rule between 1975 and 77 was supported by the pro-Soviet Communist Party of India. In a post-Vietnam world, with the United States looking to avenge its humiliating exit from Saigon, Indira's move to fortify herself against the swirling threat from the right was of a piece with the global pattern. Within a short span Mujibur Rehman was assassinated in Bangladesh, Bhutto in Pakistan, Allende overthrown in Chile, the Iranian and Afghan revolutions were brewing with Soviet support and Zia ul Haq was being groomed to wage jihad with motivated Muslim foot soldiers against the communist government in Kabul. If we look around further there would be more examples of the global cat and mouse.

So CIA definitely. It must be a source of worry to Rajiv Gandhi. And why not? If we regard his proximity to the Soviet leaders of his time, his landmark handshake with Deng Xiaopeng and his strident disapproval of the Chandrasekhar government's refuelling facilities given to American war planes that were heading for the Gulf during the first war against Iraq. All this made him stick out like a sore thumb with the Americans. Just compare the two situations. BJP's foreign minister Jaswant Singh invites American troops to fight the Afghan war from Indian soil. And here was Mr Gandhi unrelenting on a core principle against foreign troops.

It is of course no longer embarrassing for an Indian to be identified as a CIA man. Some of them wear the proximity like a badge of honour. The Pew survey, not the most reliable yardstick, nevertheless showed Indians as resolutely supportive of President Bush when everyone else seemed to have deserted his destructive policies. The new flavour in India is America. Forget the Indira Gandhi days, no one today talks anymore about the CIA's presence in India, about its ability to penetrate the nation's polity, to strike deep inside its labyrinthine security agencies, of its insatiable appetite for informants and assassins, for moles inside the country's armed forces, for stealing invaluable secrets. (And gullible as we are, we continue to capture in droves the Jama Masjid-type looking men with some yellow paper that contains a secret map for Pakistan, Nepal or Bangladesh. Is there any secret left to be sold after the National Security Council was cleaned out very recently by we know who?)

Is it wrong to fear the worst under the given circumstances? Why did the most crucial file on Rajiv Gandhi's assassination disappear from Prime Minister Rao's office? Is it outlandish to suspect that India's lurch to the right was plotted with the help of key assassinations? And the answer should come from Sonia Gandhi. Who is threatening her that she decided to surrender a mandate that was hers to a bunch of people who have either never won an election or were defeated in the last polls. Only she can tell if someone is holding the country hostage, someone who perhaps controls the stock markets that rocked like an earthquake when she was about to be anointed in May 2004.

Someone she had in mind in her interview recently.


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