Rajiv Gandhi dies in bomb blast Reporter stood close by as Gandhi walked to death

May 22, 1991|By Barbara Crossette | Barbara Crossette,New York Times News Service

SRIPERAMBUDUR, India -- On the way to the rally 25 miles southwest of Madras, Rajiv Gandhi had been riding in the front seat, window open. A special fluorescent light mounted on the --board of the Indian-made Ambassador played on his face so that people could see him.

They threw in flowers, their faces frenzied with happiness. At one point, Mr. Gandhi stopped to greet a shy woman being jostled by the crowd. He placed a scarf around her neck and spoke to her.

In the previous national election campaign, Mr. Gandhi had been criticized for being too aloof, too insulated from the people he hoped to lead. This time around, 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.

He had been asked dozens of times a day whether he was afraid of this new style of campaigning. He was asked again last night as he arrived at Madras Airport for his campaign trip.

"I campaigned this way before I was prime minister," he said. "I'm not prime minister now, so I'm campaigning this way again."

Mr. Gandhi's security was almost non-existent last night. A hundred times, one of those hands that reached into the car to grab his arm or stoke his hand could have stabbed or shot him.

Just five minutes before arriving here, Mr. Gandhi had been talking to this correspondent and Neena Gopal of the Gulf News of Dubai. We were riding in the back seat of his car.

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 toward the stairs to the platform.

As Mrs. Gopal and I followed, 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 a matter of seconds. The crowd at first froze and then began to stampede.

Mr. Gandhi's driver pushed me and Mrs. Gopal and another reporter into the car and started driving quickly toward Madras. It was onlywhen we were out of town that he said he had feared that someone might have tried to attack the car, recognizing the license plate.

Along the way, we stopped at the Tanarai Institute of Medical Sciences near Madras, where Mr. Gandhi's body and the wounded had been taken. All along the route, however, it was clear that no one had heard of the assassination. It took the news agencies nearly an hour to begin telling the people of India that Rajiv Gandhi was dead.

In that last interview, I had asked whether Mr. Gandhi had any special regimen, any vitamin supplements or diet designed to sustain his energy, particularly in the heat of an Indian summer, with temperatures topping 110 degrees. He laughed.

"Most of the time I get nothing to eat at all," he said. In the car, there were a few bottles of water and a thermos of tea or coffee -- we never found out which.

Mr. Gandhi made one concession to comfort. He was wearing expensive running shoes, easier on the feet for long days on the hustings.

They were used to help identify his mutilated body.

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