Rajiv Gandhi votes for Rajesh Khanna in New Delhi on May 20, 1991. The picture appeared in almost all Delhi papers on the morning of May 21, hours before Rajiv was assassinated.
In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi lined up Amitabh Bachchan and Madhavrao Scindia to humble veteran politicians H.N. Bahuguna and A.B. Vajpayee. In 1991, he fielded debutant Rajesh Khanna against L.K. Advani at a time the BJP stalwart was riding high on the Ramjanmabhoomi movement.
Advani won by 1,589 votes from New Delhi but not before Khanna cried foul. The actor claimed the winner started celebrating in “high spirits” even before counting ended. Advani hurriedly vacated New Delhi and opted for Gandhinagar where he won by over 1,25,000 votes.
Rajiv’s trust in Khanna was restated by P.V. Narasimha Rao — “Kaka” was declared the Congress nominee for the May-June 1992 New Delhi by-election amid protests from powerful leaders, including H.K.L. Bhagat.
Pitted against actor Shatrughan Sinha of the BJP and Jai Bhagwan Jatav of the Janata Dal, Khanna won the seat by 28,256 votes despite Advani and Vajpayee campaigning for Sinha.
On May 20, 1991, Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi were seen voting for Khanna at Nirman Bhavan polling station. It was 7.30am, the weather still pleasant before the heat of the day. Behind the couple, the line was lengthening.
Just behind them stood Khanna, cracking jokes and telling Rajiv how he admired Sanjay Gandhi. The actor recalled how he had visited 10 Janpath — it used to be the Indian Youth Congress office in 1975-76 — with prints of Ashique hoon baharon ka and had wanted to dedicate the movie to the Youth Congress. But Sanjay found the name of the movie a tad “scandalous”.
To cameramen’s delight, Priyanka too had come to vote, having turned 19. A party worker brought out a puja thali to begin proceedings on an auspicious note. But in his nervousness, he dropped the tray as he approached Rajiv.
Sonia, who was standing behind Rajiv, froze. He was quick to observe her discomfort. He gently pressed her hand, trying to reassure her. But Sonia remained tense. She could hardly find the Congress “hand” among the plethora of symbols on the oversized ballot paper.
Sonia would later say: “I thought for a moment I would have to walk away without casting my vote for him (Khanna).”
This was the last public picture of the former Prime Minister that appeared in almost all Delhi newspapers on May 21, hours before Rajiv was assassinated at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu.
Senior Congress leaders like R.K. Dhawan believe Khanna was fielded against Advani to spite Bachchan who had fallen out with the Gandhis. Khanna’s 1991 election aide, Brij Mohan Bhama, still recalls how Rajiv wanted Khanna to win “in order to settle scores with Bachchan”.
Khanna soon emerged as a popular figure in the Congress. Although he lost the New Delhi seat to Jagmohan in 1996, he and Sunil Dutt were sought-after campaigners for the party.
Major Dalbir Singh, in charge of the AICC “control room” at 24 Akbar Road, would be flooded with requests from candidates of all regions that Khanna should campaign for them. He was preferred over most Congress Working Committee members of the 1990s, including Madhavrao Scindia and Manmohan Singh.
Till death, Khanna had a deep interest in politics. Each time a vacancy arose in the Rajya Sabha, he would hope for a nomination. In 2009, Sonia reportedly offered him a ticket from Amritsar but he declined saying his health did not permit him to “do justice as Lok Sabha member”.
“I would never like to ditch my own people with hollow promises like other politicians. I am of the opinion that when you are not able to serve the masses, then don’t make fake promises to them since these are the sins.”