| The memorial of Rajiv Gandhi at Sriperumbudur being decorated on Friday. (Reuters)
Sriperumbudur, May 21: A day before the Congress assumes power, the observation of Rajiv Gandhi’s death anniversary at the memorial here, marking the spot where he fell smiling 13 summers ago, was tinged with disappointment at Sonia Gandhi’s absence but also elevated by her decision to decline prime ministership.
Hundreds waited by seven black granite pillars symbolising unity in diversity, towering around a portrait of the slain leader, for Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka to join them in paying tribute but the Congress president was caught up in tricky talks over cabinet formation.
Sonia and her children have been visiting Sriperumbudur almost ever year since Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991.
But the disappointment at their absence was dwarfed by a swell of emotions over Sonia’s unprecedented abdication. Giant posters of Sonia — hailing her decision to refuse the Prime Minister’s post “for the greater good of the party and the Indian people” — and Rahul and Priyanka dotted the dusty town in Tamil Nadu.
“The kursi is not important for her and Soniaji’s decision in turning down the PM’s post is true sacrifice in the tradition of the Nehru-Gandhi family,” said Rajendra Dubey. He and his colleagues from the All India Rajiv Gandhi Brigade offered water from the holy Sangam at Allahabad — the seat of the Nehru-Gandhi family — at the memorial.
“She (Sonia) took the right decision in abdicating the PM’s post, though we would have all liked to see her there,” said R. Sreenivasan from Devipattinam near Rameshwaram. “She must have feared that the fate that befell her husband might also befall her.”
Some saw another angle in Sonia’s predicament. “It was the actions of (BJP leaders) Sushma Swaraj and Uma Bharti and the fear there could be another communal flare-up that forced Sonia Gandhi not to accept the Prime Minister’s post,” said A.K. Sulaiman, who still carries some of the shrapnel from the blast that blew Rajiv Gandhi to bits.
The thin turnout left the soft-spoken Sulaiman bitter about his partymen. “Power and position have become more important for them,” he said, referring to the Tamil Nadu Congress leaders who are camping in Delhi to lobby for ministerial berths.
Very few among the old guard, like former state Congress president Kumari Ananthan, were seen at the memorial. The observances began on a quiet note with local Congress legislator D. Yashoda placing a wreath. Scores of Congress workers led by Periyakulam MP Haroon Rashid took an anti-terrorism pledge.
R.V. Deshpande, minister for medium industry in the outgoing cabinet in neighbouring Karnataka, led 200 Congress volunteers who brought the Rajiv Jyothi from Bangalore.
The mercury was soaring with every passing hour, but the Rajiv Gandhi Ninaivagam (memorial) remained the pilgrimage it is to people. “I come every year this day to make offerings to the departed soul,” said Sreenivasan from Devipattinam.
Hundreds visit the spot on their way back from the temples at Tirupati, Kancheepuram or the hill shrine of Murugan at Tiruttani. Today, too, there were the usual visitors, many surprised why there was Carnatic music playing or an exhibition of Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister had been put up.
An old woman from Villupuram pointed at a picture of a handsome Rajiv smiling beside Mother Teresa, who had just won the Nobel Prize in April 1985, and asked: “Rajiv Gandhi ivanga dhane (Isn’t it Rajiv Gandhi)'”
A few frames further in the exhibition titled Evil Faces of Terrorism, she stood transfixed with her grandchildren before the gory picture of Rajiv Gandhi lying face down in a pool of blood amid mangled limbs. Slowly, tears rolled down her cheeks — a true tribute to a leader who died young and a poignant statement against the forces of terrorism.