Now, blast-proof wall and sealed passages separate Gandhi and public
Rajiv Gandhi's new home reflects the modern political realities of India and the world. It has been designed by architects and security specialists to deter would-be terrorists and assassins. And it is only 200 yards away from the house where his mother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was assassinated seven months ago by the very men meant to protect her -- two Sikh members of her security guard.
Since assuming office last October, Mr. Gandhi has lived under the constant danger of threats to his life. When he visits Washington, he will be surrounded by the heaviest security cordon ever provided for an Indian premier.
The fortress-like residence where he lives with his Italian-born wife, Sonia, and their two children, Priyanka and Rahul, is a symbol of how dramatically the Gandhi family has been forced to alter its private life style.
Rajiv Gandhi was thrust into politics in 1980 when his younger, more ambitious brother, Sanjay, was killed in a plane crash. Until then the former airline pilot led a private life as part of New Delhi's young, Western-educated, jet-setting crowd.
Today he and his family live behind a five-foot-high concrete wall that is topped by three more feet of electrified barbed wire.
Within the outer wall is an eight-foot earthen embankment. His security advisers say this ``blast-proof wall'' is built to withstand the impact of an explosive-laden truck, such as the one that destroyed the United States Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983.
The entire prime ministerial compound, set next to New Delhi's fashionable Gymkhana Club -- bungalows, servants' quarters, garden and reception center -- is enclosed within the double set of walls. All roads leading to the residence have been sealed, as have the usual entrances to the Gymkhana. Security men discreetly patrol the areas of the club's grounds closest to the prime minister's home.
Their posting originally led to howls of protest from modest women members, who saw no reason why they should have to play cricket under the watchful eyes of a man.
The sprawling gardens of the Gandhis' residence have now been taken over by members of the Indo-Tibetan border guard; its fluted rooftop is equipped with radar and massive banks of searchlights.
The prime minister does not need to leave the security of closed doors to walk from his residential office to his home. The two buildings, which are identical in size and shape, are connected by a newly constructed, sealed passage.
The new Gandhi home and life style mark a departure, however prudent, from a tradition of accessibility, nourished by every Indian political leader since Mohandas Gandhi, who himself was assassinated in 1948.
The extent of the security which must surround the youthful premier is apparent three times a week at his public durbar, or meeting with the people.
Even the durbars are now highly prescribed affairs, for which permission must be granted well in advance. Visitors must pass through metal detectors, then be subjected to body searches. Identification badges are issued and, even once inside, only a few of the petitioners actually come in contact with the man who has always abhorred security arrangements and jealously guarded his private life.
But for Rajiv Gandhi, private life is a thing of the past. It will continue to be so until the intractable problem of Sikh separatism in Punjab State is solved.