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Rajiv Gandhi’s vanity project: How the PMO was renovated and beautified months after the Bhopal Gas tragedy

Rajiv Gandhi also wanted his office to represent India's culture and artistic skills. He also took on loan some paintings and murals, such as the Somaskanda, from the reserve section of the National Museum and the National Gallery of Modern Art, informs Sunita Kohli in the article.

21 May 2021 marked the 30th death anniversary of the 6th Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi. The sombre occasion saw countless articles written paying tribute to the Prime Minister, who was assassinated by an LTTE terrorist while he was on an election campaign in Tamil Nadu. An interesting trivia cropped up in one of the articles, authored by one Sunita Kohli, which was published in The Week. According to the author’s account, Rajiv Gandhi authorised and commissioned the renovation of the PM’s office months after the country witnessed the horrifying spectre of Bhopal Gas Tragedy.

Kohli had reportedly worked with Rajiv Gandhi on a host of projects—the redecorations of prime minister’s secretariat in South Block; the prime minister’s office and cabinet meeting room in Parliament House, Rashtrapati Bhavan, Hyderabad House, Panchsheel Bhawan, Jawahar Bhawan and two official Boeing aircraft. However, the beautification of the Prime Minister’ Secretariat grabs the spotlight, since it was carried out just months after Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister and in the wake of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.

As per the author’s own admission, the most significant work she undertook with Rajiv Gandhi was the restoration and redecoration of the prime minister’s office (PMO) and secretariat in South Block in 1985. Kohli says Gandhi wanted to restore the “dignity and ordered beauty” of the secretariat as envisioned by its creator, Herbert Baker. Crores of money was spent in renovating and beautifying the Prime Minister’s Office when the aid could have gone for those who were suffering from the debilitating effects of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.

Source: The Week

Speaking on the design changes brought in the office of the PMO, Kohli says in the article, “The prime minister’s own chamber was totally redesigned. The room itself is handsome and symmetrically proportioned, but this was lost in the earlier arrangement. All items of furniture were custom-designed for this office. A new desk was manufactured, like the earlier one made in the 1950s for Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had been shifted to Teen Murti Bhavan. Its replica, used by Indira Gandhi, was now in the prime minister’s Parliament House office.”

Source: The Week

Kohli says Rajiv Gandhi had a flair for furnishings and was meticulous in adorning his office with the cultural artifacts. The original and carpet was organically cleaned and re-laid. The upholstery fabrics were hand-woven and developed in natural fibres. The Prime Minister also wanted his office to represent India’s culture and artistic skills. He also took on loan some paintings and murals, such as the Somaskanda, from the reserve section of the National Museum and the National Gallery of Modern Art.

Even the general entrance to the PMO office was converted into an exclusive entrance for the Prime Minister and other eminent visitors. On the eastern face of the South Block, Rajiv Gandhi demanded the construction of a higher wall and Kohli dutifully obeyed the Prime Minister, constructing a sandstone wall in line with Baker’s techniques.

Bhopal Gas tragedy

Bhopal gas tragedy was a gas leak incident on the night of 2–3 December 1984 at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India. It is considered among the world’s worst industrial disasters. Over 500,000 people were exposed to methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas. The highly toxic substance made its way into and around the small towns located near the plant. At least 3,700 people lost their lives, as per official estimates, while the real tally is claimed to be closed to 16,000. More importantly, the toxic gas altered the metabolic system of people, including pregnant women, affecting generations of people, causing birth defects and disabilities. Activists estimate more than 5 lakh people were affected by the Gas leak tragedy.

However, Rajiv Gandhi nevertheless went ahead with the beautification project of the PMO office. Gandhi had assumed the office of Prime Minister on 31 October 1984 following the assassination of his mother and India’s then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. Bhopal Gas Tragedy took place a month after he took the PMO office. And months later, in 1985, the Prime Minister Office’s renovation started. A decision to renovate the Prime Minister’s Office is not an off the cuff decision. It takes months of consideration, planning, shortlisting contractors to commence the beautification project. Given that Rajiv Gandhi assumed office in November 1984 and the project started in 1985, it cannot be discounted that Rajiv Gandhi gave its approval for the project when India was reeling under the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.

Rajiv Gandhi’s government had allowed Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson to escape to America

It is worth noting here that Rajiv Gandhi has also been accused of helping Warren Anderson, the chairman of Union Carbide, escape the country. Four days after the deadly leak, Anderson was arrested on his arrival in the capital city of Madhya Pradesh. However, after being held under arrest for only a few years, Anderson posted bail and quickly left the country, never returning to face trial.

Several news reports suggest that the Congress government at the Centre, headed by Rajiv Gandhi, enabled Warren Anderson to escape the country. Anderson, who is considered as one of the accused in the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, was let off the hook by Rajiv Gandhi’s government.

Not only did Gandhi provide a safe passage to the accused, but he also used the public exchequer to bankroll the renovation of the Prime Minister’s Office, which was unnecessary and not pressing in the view of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. It is also notable to mention that Gandhi also went on to use the country’s resources for his personal indulgences. In 1987, Rajiv Gandhi had used the Indian Navy’s INS Viraat as his “personal taxi” to transport his family and their companions for their vacation in the Arabian Sea.

Rajiv Gandhi and his family had used INS Viraat for his personal vacation

The holidaying group included Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi’s mother, her brother and a maternal uncle. Also present were then Amitabh Bachchan, his wife Jaya Bachchan and their two children, Amitabh’s brother Ajitabh, and former minister Arun Singh’s brother Bijendra Singh’s brother’s wife and daughter. The location for the vacation was Bangaram, a small uninhabited island in the Lakshadweep archipelago.

INS Viraat, the lone aircraft carrier of the Indian Navy at that time, was used to ferry the Gandhi family and their guests, which moved in the Arabian sea for 10 days for this vacation. An aircraft carrier does not move alone in the sea, a carrier is the nerve centre of a carrier battle group and it is always surrounded by several warships and support vessels. Even a submarine was also present during the trip. This means a huge expenditure. Gandhi was not fazed by the astronomical cost incurred from the usage of the INS Viraat. Nor was he bothered by compromising the security of India’s maritime borders by using a warship for his personal family holiday.

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Jinit Jain
Engineer. Writer. Learner.

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