New Delhi: President Pranab Mukherjee, in the second volume of his memoir 'The Turbulent Years: 1980-96', has talked about how Rajiv Gandhi was distressed and events unfolded after the news of Indira Gandhi's assassination was confirmed.
Narrating the sequence of events, the President wrote when he along with other several Congress leaders including Rajiv were travelling to Delhi from Kolkata in an Indian Airlines special flight, after they were informed about Indira's news, Rajiv went into the cockpit and when he came back, announced 'she is dead.'
There was absolute silence, he wrote, adding that 'Rajiv was exceptionally calm and displayed total control and fortitude, possibly a trait he had inherited from his mother'.
Soon after this, the Congress bigwigs present in the flight started discussing the next course of action.
"Once we were able to regain some semblance of composure, we began discussions on what was to be done next. Balram Jakhar, Ghani Khan Choudhury, Shyamlal Yadav, Uma Shankar Dikshit and Sheila Dikshit started discussing the future course of action amongst themselves, and I joined in a bit later. I cited precedents from, the time when Prime Minister Nehru and, later, Shastri passed away while in office (27 May 1964 and 11 January 1966, respectively). In both instances, an interim government was formed with Gulzari Lal Nanda, the senior-most minister, as the interim Prime Minister. However, that took place when the incumbents died a natural death. This was an extraordinary situation when an incumbent Prime Minister had been assassinated. Apart from a political void, a lot of uncertainties, too, had been created."
"At the conclusion of the discussion, it was decided that we should request Rajiv Gandhi to take over as the full-fledged Prime Minister to meet the challenge posed by this extraordinary situation. Somebody suggested that I formally make this request to Rajiv and work out the modalities to be followed. I took Rajiv to the rear of the aircraft and requested him to take over as Prime Minister. His immediate question to me was, 'Do you think I can manage?'
'Yes,' I told him, 'we are all there to help you. You will have everyone's support."
"I told Rajiv that he should go back into the cockpit and relay a message to Delhi that Mrs Gandhi's passing away should not be officially announced till a new government was sworn in. To avoid any confusion or uncertainty we had decided that both Rajiv's appointment as Prime Minister and Indiraji's assassination should be announced simultaneously. Later, l learnt that Vice President R. Venkataraman had also given similar instructions in Delhi earlier."
The special flight of Indian Airlines landed at Delhi airport at around 3 pm where they were received by Cabinet Secretary Krishnaswamy Rao Sahib, along with the Home Secretary and other officials.
Rajiv along with his close friend Arun Nehru, an MP, immediately rushed to the AIIMS where Mrs Gandhi was admitted.
Krishnaswamy Rao Sahib apprised Pranab of the prevailing situation and urged him to take over as Gulzari Lal Nanda had done in the past. (When prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and, later, Shastri passed away while in office, an interim government was formed with Gulzari Lal Nanda, the senior-most minister, as the interim Prime Minister.)
"I told him that Rajiv Gandhi would be sworn in, and then I, too, headed to AIIMS," Pranab wrote.
"I reached AIIMS at around 3.25 p.m., about ten minutes after Rajiv. I found ministers P.V. Narasimha Rao, P. Shiv Shankar and B. Shankaranand, among others; Chief Ministers from Congress-- ruled states like ND. Tiwari (UP), J.B. Patnaik (Orissa), Bhajan Lal (Haryana) and Shiv Charan Mathur (Rajasthan); Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, P.C. Alexander; Mrs Gandhi's close confidant, G Parthasarathi; and Pupul Jayakar standing together on the verandah of the eighth floor outside the operation theatre."
"As soon as I reached, PC Alexander sought me out and informed me that everyone there were of the view that Rajiv should immediately be administered the oath of office as Prime Minister, so there would be no need for an interim arrangement. I concurred and told him that everyone on board the flight was of a similar opinion. P.C. Alexander consulted me regarding the next steps and how Rajiv Gandhi should be elected the leader of the CPP. I told him that there was no time to convene a meeting of the CPP, and that the Congress Parliamentary Board (CPB), which was the highest policy-making of the party could meet and take the decision which could later be ratified by the CPP. All those present agreed with this proposal. Rajiv's consent was also obtained."
"At around 4.10 p.m., I decided to head to 1 Akbar Road, the office of the Prime Minister, to organize the meeting of the CPB. As I couldn't locate my car in the chaos outside, Arun Nehru offered me a lift in his car. Kamal Nath also got in with us. By the time we reached 1 Akbar Road, P.V. Narasimha Rao and G.K. Moopanar were already there."
"The CPB normally consisted of eight members. At that time, only two members-P.V. Narasimha Rao and l-were in Delhi. Indira Gandhi, as Congress President, had last reconstituted the CPB towards end-September 1984. The party Constitution mandated that the Congress President and the leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha were the ex-officio members of the CPB, while the other six members were nominated by the Congress President. As Indira Gandhi was both the Congress President andleader of the party in the Lok Sabha, she was the sole ex-offcio member. The nominated members were PV Narasimha Rao, Maragatham Chandrasekar, Kamalapati Tripathi and I. She did not fill the remaining one seat. Two members, Kamalapati Tripathi and Maragatham Chandrasekar, were not in Delhi at that time. However, GK Moopanar, General Secretary in charge of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) and the CPB, was present."
"I prepared the first draft of the letter to the President. PV Narasimha Rao revised it. It was then typed by RK Dhawan. The letter not only informed the President of the resolution of the CPB-electing Rajiv Gandhi as leader of the Congress party in Parliament-but also requested the President to invite Rajiv Gandhi to form a government. The letter was signed by GK Moopanar as General Secretary, and enclosed with it was a copy of the resolution signed by PV Narasimha Rao and me."
Rajiv Gandhi was then formally invited by the President to form the government.
Accepting the invitation, he forwarded the names of the Council of Ministers (Pranab Kumar Mukherjee, PV Narasimha Rao, P Shiv Shankar and Buta Singh) to be sworn in with him on the same day. Accordingly, the swearing-in ceremony was organized in the Ashoka Hall of Rashtrapati Bhavan at 6.45 pm on the same day (31 October 1984).
Before the oath taking ceremony, silence was observed for two minutes.
"After the swearing-in ceremony, the Cabinet held its first meeting in Rashtrapati Bhavan itself. Rajiv Gandhi presided over the four-member cabinet. P.C. Alexander was asked to read out the condolence resolution, which he did in a trembling voice."