By Swaraj Mishra*
This story is a little different from all other stories posted under this column. It relates to the elections in Odisha, but it has an eerie connection with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the then Congress President. And curiously enough, the story is narrated by a famous historian Prof. Manmath Nath Das, who was Congress Party’s candidate from Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha constituency in 1991 elections. Rajiv had come to address his election meeting at Bhubaneswar on 20th May 1991, the day before his assassination.
Prof. Manmath Nath Das, a famous historian and former Vice Chancellor of Utkal University, was born on 5th January 1924 in Sankhari Village of Baleswar District of Odisha. During his eventful service career he had won many laurels both at National and International levels. Despite of his closeness to famous political leaders of his time like Dr. Harekrushna Mahatab and Biju Patnaik, he had successfully stayed away from politics. But in 1991, he could not hold on to that stand.
Manmath Nath remembers the day. It was the 20th of April 1991, when he got a phone call directly from Rajiv Gandhi, the then Congress President. He was listening to Rajiv’s voice for the first time on phone. It was a very sweet and soft voice, Das recalls. “Das ji, you are my personal candidate to Lok Sabha from Bhubaneswar. Please give your consent. I shall take charge of your election”, Rajivji said. It was unexpected and too sudden a request for Prof. Das to handle. He could not speak a word for some time. But when Rajivji repeated his request Das could not say ‘No’.
The election was tough. There were 13 candidates in fray for Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha seat including sitting MP Shivaji Patnaik from CPM, Shanti Das from BJP and Banka Behary Das from Janata Party (Chandrasekhar). Prof. Das was facing some resistance from his own party workers at the grass-roots level as he was not a local person and hailed from Baleswar. But nobody could oppose him openly, as it was known by that time that he was Rajivji’s candidate. Rajiv Gandhi also came to attend his election rally at Bhubaneswar on 20th May 1991. He was happy because the meeting had went off very well.
Prof. Das recalls his conversation with Rajiv Gandhi at State Guest House after the meeting that evening. In his autobiography ‘Jibana ra Patha Prantey Diganta ra Drushya’, he writes – “Rajivji was in a jolly mood. Suddenly he said ‘I know some of our own men are not happy with your nomination. But I shall see to it. ‘I mustered courage to ask the question that had bothered me long; ‘Rajivji, how could you give your trust to this humble man?’. The Congress President smiled and told, ‘I may have my own reason.'” That was it. It was already 10.15 pm in the night and Prof. Das took leave of Rajivji to return home.
The following day was 21st May 1991, Tuesday. In the night Prof. Das got the message of Rajiv Gandhiji’s assassination by a group of suicide bombers at Sriperumbudur near Chennai at 10.10 pm. He was at his dining table. When he pushed his plate aside and got up from the seat, all his family members assembled. He narrated the shocking message that he had just received. His little granddaughter asked innocently. “Is it the same person Grandpa, whom I gave the bouquet yesterday evening?” Yes, Rajivji is no more”, said the Professor.
The remaining poll dates got postponed by around three weeks because of Rajivji’s assassination. There was a sympathy wave in favour of the Congress party. But Prof. Das lost the elections from Bhubaneswar. He lost to his nearest rival Shivaji Patnaik from CPM by a margin of 7,981 votes. “It was not any great shock to me”, writes Prof. Das in his autobiography. “The Man who was to become the Prime Minister after the elections lost his life. Compared to that my Loss was nothing really.”
*The author is a columnist.