DELHI , AS WE KNOW IT TODAY, was built by the Moghuls. The British pasted their city on to it just as independent India added a number of ‘colonies’, ‘extensions’, ‘enclaves’ and ‘vihars’—not to speak of West End and Mayfair—to the old patchwork. At the heart of the Moghul Empire was a square mile or two of territory around the Red Fort. At the heart of the British Indian Empire from the second or third decade of the twentieth century were two or three square miles of territory around the Vice-Regal Palace. Independent India has been ruled from roughly the same two or three square miles around the same building, now renamed Rashtrapati Bhavan. In Moghul India, the central institution of governance was the durbar or the court where what counted was the emotional proximity of a courtier to the emperor and not the intrinsic worth of his advice. In the durbar people clambered over each other, lied, cheated and killed in order to have access to the emperor. The denizens of the durbar, like some of the later Moghul emperors themselves did not allow the realities of India to enter their consciousness and spoil the pleasure of their pursuits.
In the twentieth century, faced with demands from educated Indians for inclusion in the institutions of governance the British tried to create their own durbar of Indians. Because of their other ideas about the white man’s burden, their belief—arisen out of their desire to curb the greed, the rapacity and the skullduggery of the employees of the East India Company—in the need for a professional, public spirited, independent and honest civil service, the rise of a new group of Indians imbued with the notions of liberty, with nineteenth century utilitarianism and twentieth century socialism, claiming to speak on behalf of all Indians and asking for nothing less than complete independence, the colonial rulers lost their way somewhere in the third and fourth decades of the twentieth century. The durbar they tried to create was inadequate as an instrument of governance in the ferment of the last two and a half decades of their rule in India. Mid-way through the Second World War, they decided to cut their losses and leave after the War.
In independent India, in spite of all the appurtenances of democratic rule, the durbar is back. As the thin veneer of alien notions such as the rule of law, independent, politically neutral and honest civil service and law enforcement agencies, the accountability of the rulers towards the ruled, has worn off, old India has asserted itself. With that the durbar has become stronger, complete with fawning, intrigue, chicanery and all kinds of game playing in an ambience far removed from the realities of the country around.
WE CAME BACK to that old durbar city of Delhi at the end of May 1985. Rajiv Gandhi, elected with a majority in parliament larger than that of any of his predecessors, was still new as the Prime Minister, admired for his handsome looks, ‘freshness’ and ‘innocence’, the central figure in a kind of Indian Camelot. Underneath the glitter was the same old India.
At the Ministry of External Affairs, they told me that the decision was that I should go and work at a non-governmental body, the Indian Council of World Affairs which had been established in the 1940’s with the purpose of promoting the knowledge and understanding of international affairs. I was advised to wait for the return of the foreign secretary from a series of journeys abroad a fortnight or so later. I went on a vacation for about a month and met the foreign secretary on my return. He asked me to meet Baliram Bhagat, the President of that Council, a Congress Member of Parliament of long standing, and submit an initial work programme and a financial estimate. When I met Bhagat, he told me that the Prime Minister was greatly interested in activating the Council and wanted it to undertake studies in various aspects of international relations. When I asked Bhagat if there were some subjects he or the Prime Minister were more interested in than others, he said the Prime Minister was interested in studies of everything. He said nothing about his own preferences. Not much wiser after my meeting with either the foreign secretary or Bhagat, I spun out a programme from my own imagination and put a monetary value on it. The money, including my own salary, would be paid to the Indian Council of World Affairs which in its turn would finance the activities in the work programme I had drawn up.
While waiting for some of the administrative and financial decisions to be taken by the Ministry of External Affairs, I set about getting to know the Council. I discovered first of all that it was near bankrupt. In fact Bhagat had written the previous year to G. Parthasarathy, who as the Chairman of the Policy Planning Committee of the Ministry of External Affairs had been de facto Minister of External Affairs under Indira Gandhi. Bhagat had asked for half a million rupees as financial help. The foreign secretary of the day, while sending down instructions that the money be paid, had written that the Council was an important institution which should not only be helped financially but also the Ministry of External Affairs should send a joint secretary to help run it. It fell to my lot to be that joint secretary.
I also found that successive Congress governments of India had used the Presidentship of the Council to berth some of their senior politicians with whom they did not know what to do for the moment. Real control over the organization had passed on four or five years earlier to a local Delhi politician from the Congress Party with minimal interest in anything academic, who was its Treasurer. The Governing Board of the Council had on it the names of some of the senior most Congress politicians of the time including Rajiv Gandhi, or so the papers of the Council said. When it became known that I was going to the Council, some people thought I was going there as a saviour.
Scholars who had known the institution as a worthy platform for discussion and debate told me their stories of how it had come to such a sorry pass. A group representing the employees of the body told me how for years no books had been bought and how the Council’s auditorium had been used for staging popular Punjabi plays and the lawns for private wedding parties rather than debate and discussion on international relations. It turned out a little later that the leader of the employees’ group had affiliations with the Baharatiya Janata Party which was in the opposition at that time. I learnt to take what this gentleman had to say with spoonfuls of salt. Some people suggested that Government of India should take the management of the Council over and suggested that this could be done under the law governing the registration of societies. I read the Registration of Societies Act of Punjab of 1860—which was the law in force in Delhi—and concluded that that Act gave Government of India no powers to intervene in the functioning of private societies. The only people who could bring about a change in the management were the ordinary voting members. Those who had taken over control of the Council had made sure that the ordinary membership was stuffed with people who would vote for the management in all circumstances.
In this period of waiting, a joint secretary at the Ministry of External Affairs sent across to me papers about a problem between the Council and the Ministry of Finance of Government of India. A few years ago, at the suggestion of the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of External Affairs, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) had paid some money to the Council to finance some study by Tarlok Singh, a former member of the Indian Planning Commission. For Tarlok Singh, the Council was to be no more than a platform. At some point that study was abandoned. The UNDP wanted its money back or an account of the manner in which it was spent. The Ministry of Finance, through which the UNDP dealt with Government of India, supported them. When I talked to the Treasurer and the Secretary General of the Council they badmouthed Tarlok Singh—one of them said that Tarlok Singh worked for the C.I.A.—and said they would soon send the accounts the UNDP was asking for. When I reminded them, they did no more than procrastinate. It soon became clear that neither the unspent money nor the accounts would come.
I thought of the money the Ministry of External Affairs was getting ready to pay to the Council to finance my work programme and my pay. Some of the people at the Ministry of External Affairs I should have talked to about these difficulties did not have the time, the patience, or, in some cases, the ability, to understand what I had to say. I went across to the financial adviser of the Ministry without whose agreement no money could be spent, briefly explained to him my concerns and said that if he did not want the money to be paid to the Council for my work to vanish into thin air he must make expenditure out of those funds conditional on my control. He accepted that suggestion and wrote it into his approval. I knew that no one in the Ministry other than the foreign secretary could overrule the financial adviser and even the foreign secretary would not lightheartedly do so.
Another minor comedy was happening elsewhere at the same time. One day the foreign secretary asked me to write down for him a brief resumé about myself—I could not understand why I had to do it, for all that was relevant about me could have been culled from the Ministry’s records. As I gave him the resumé he muttered something under his breath about interference by GP (G. Parthasarathy, the Chairman of the Policy Planning Committee, now much diminished in importance under Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister and Minister of External Affairs). A few days later, the foreign secretary told me that the Prime Minister had approved of my going to the Indian Council for World Affairs. I learnt later that when G. Parthasarathy heard of the idea that the Ministry of External Affairs was going to pay money to the Council for a programme of activities, he pushed forward the candidature of someone else for conducting that programme, someone from one of Indian intelligence agencies who had worked in our Embassy in Beijing when Parthasarathy was ambassador there. This became for the foreign secretary a test of who between him and Parthasarathy had greater influence with the Prime Minister. The foreign secretary won out and was delighted. I should have felt flattered but was not as I had begun to see the realities of the Council.
I thought I should find out how some other bodies in Delhi engaged in research, discussion and debate on all manner of policy issues, worked. I met the Executive Director of the most prosperous, prestigious and visible of these. A retired member of the Indian Foreign Service, he asked me a number of questions about why I was being sent to the Indian Council of World Affairs and wondered whether I was being sidetracked. When I told him I had just come back after a tour of duty as Ambassador to Zaire, he made it quite clear by his manner and speech that he thought me no better than anyone who represented Mobutu. I could not get to ask many questions or receive answers. The chief of another institute, a bureaucrat still in service, spent most of his time rubbishing the work of the academic researchers at his institute. His main complaint was that his academic researchers had a penchant for the history of an issue, forgetting that for policymaking the present and the future were more important. This institute was in theory private but completely dependent for budgetary support on one of the ministries of Government of India, which for that reason had the unquestioned right to appoint its Director and others. The chief of another centre, a former university professor, gave me lunch and advice. He said I should not waste time and money on financing research that would lead to published books. No one read books, he said. He said I should concentrate on organizing high visibility seminars and symposia, the end products of which should be small, glossy looking booklets, copies of which could lie around on coffee tables or office desks of ministers or lesser people. He showed me a sample, a product of his centre. He later became a close, high visibility adviser of a minister of external affairs of India.
Even before I could properly start at the Indian Council of World Affairs, Baliram Bhagat became the Minister of External Affairs. Though he kept the Presidentship of the Council, he would evidently have very little time for it. I would from then on be left to the mercies of those who controlled that body. They did not like the idea of Ministry of External Affairs paying the Council money which would not be under their control. I was getting nowhere. In the mean time I got to understand the people at the Council better. In a meeting I had with Minister Baliram Bhagat I said to him that nothing could be done about the Council as long as the Treasurer controlled it. Bhagat asked me how to wrest its control from the Treasurer. I said that since the man was from Bhagat’s political party he might try to act through party channels. Bhagat asked me how. I said it was hardly for me to advise him on how to handle matters within his political party but perhaps the Treasurer could be offered something by the Congress Party in return for giving up his hold on the Council. Bhagat paused for a moment and then said I must try and make things work. I waited for some more time pretending to try and make things work.
Then one day, on the 9 th of January 1986 I think, I collected the few papers I had kept in the office room of the President of the Council which had been given to me for my use and decided not to go back but wait my time out till I could get some other assignment. During six months of my enforced idleness, people in the transit accommodation of the Ministry of External Affairs where I was living thought I had retired—some might perhaps have thought I had been forced into early retirement as a disciplinary measure. In those days of idleness I had become unimportant both in fact and appearance for I had no office, no personal staff and no official car in a city where a person’s worth was determined not only by his position in government hierarchy but also by the size and location of his office, the kind of official car he had and the number of people he has on his personal staff. With time these external manifestations of power and authority of an individual have increased.
Later in that January, I was accosted in the corridors of the Ministry of External Affairs by the secretary in charge of personnel there, a complete oaf, whom I had known earlier in a foreign capital. He told me the minister was very upset that I had not been doing anything at the Council—I was not impressed, as I had made my views clear to the minister. The secretary then berated me for being uncooperative, excessively concerned with rank, position and authority—the same man had some time earlier measured out the surface area of his office room to see if another secretary did not have a larger office room than him. I closed that conversation saying I would gladly start at the Council after the Ministry had arranged the terms under which I would work there. This gentleman called the Treasurer of the Council for a meeting where I was also invited. I excused myself and the meeting was inconclusive. The joint secretary in charge of personnel, who told me he had found the Treasurer quite reasonable, took up the secretary’s refrain. I repeated my answer about the Ministry working things out first. I knew it was beyond these two gentlemen to do so as I also sensed their keenness to do something to please the minister.
Around the end of that January I was able to persuade the foreign secretary that nothing was working out with the Indian Council of World Affairs and the venture had to be called off. A meeting for the foreign secretary, the Treasurer of the Council and myself with the Minister of External Affairs was fixed for the last day of that month. The foreign secretary and myself went into the minister’s room on time and we explained why the whole idea about sending one of our people to the Council had to be dropped. The minister was sympathetic. When the Treasurer of the Council came in a little late, he talked of Tarlok Singh saying he had been working for the CIA. He said how people like him stood for India’s national interest. The foreign secretary remonstrated saying that he or I could hardly be accused of working for the CIA. In the Treasurer’s presence Baliram Bhagat had wilted. He said nothing.
Within a day or two there came an announcement that one of the secretaries in the Ministry would become the new foreign secretary two weeks later. I went and met him. It took him less than five minutes to conclude that the Indian Council of World Affairs had a past but no future. He said he would get me back into the Ministry but that he needed time. I had to wait another five months doing nothing other than getting into an occasional consultation over the future of the Indian Council of World Affairs.
Later during the month of February a minor weekly newspaper of Delhi wrote in its gossip column about the Indian Council of World Affairs saying how the real control of the organization was with the Treasurer and how Baliram Bhagat was powerless to act against him because, the paper alleged, the Treasurer had done a number of personal favours to Bhagat. Very soon after that Bhagat resigned as President of that Council. One day early in March I encountered Bhagat as I was leaving the Ministry of External Affairs building and Bhagat was coming in. He said, with uncharacteristic irritation in his voice, that the Indian Council of World Affairs must be taken over by Government of India in the same manner as the Asiatic Society of Calcutta had been and that I should go and discuss these matters with a certain additional secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, or the PMO as that office is called modishly by those who want to show proper respect for its power and authority.
Since Bhagat had mentioned the take over of the Asiatic Society by the government I first tried to see what had happened at the Asiatic Society. Government of India had enacted a law declaring the Asiatic Society (it had been founded in the eighteenth century by ‘Oriental’William Jones) an institution of national importance and giving the Government the power to take over its management by first of all asking its managing committee to show cause why given certain circumstances the Society’s management should not be taken over and only on not receiving a satisfactory answer to that question, take over the management of that body. In brief, due processes of law had to be followed. In actual fact the Asiatic Society had not been taken over by Government of India. Thus armed with a little more knowledge, I met the additional secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office and argued that there was no law under which Government of India could take over a private association like the Indian Council of World Affairs. When he asked me what could be done I repeated my old argument that the best and the simplest would be to use the influence of the Congress Party leadership to get the Treasurer to let go of his grip. He said that in the state of disarray and indiscipline in the Congress Party at that time such a solution was not possible. The additional secretary called a meeting with the secretary in the Ministry of Law and myself. The secretary supported my view about the legal difficulties. That meeting was inconclusive.
Some time later G. Parthasarathy, the Chairman of the Policy Planning Committee called me. He was working on a paper for the Cabinet for a take over of the Council. It was necessary to give an estimate of the initial cost of take over. He asked me to prepare such an estimate. I had two more discussions with him. In one I pointed at possible legal difficulties. Knowing that he had been the motive force behind the law about the Asiatic Society, I said that after all Government of India had not been able to take over the Asiatic Society. He told me how exasperated he felt about the mess at the Asiatic Society. He then said that precisely in order to deal with the problems of bodies such as the Asiatic Society and the Indian Council of World Affairs Government of India had plans in 1976(one of the years of Mrs. Gandhi’s autocratic rule, I thought to myself) to enact a law giving it the right of intervention in cases such as these. But that proposal had been overtaken by events.
G. Parthasarathy’s plan was to get a Presidential ordinance issued late in the evening some day between two sessions of parliament declaring the Council an institution of national importance and decreeing its takeover by the government. At night the same day the Council’s premises would be physically occupied. The reason for thinking of these moves in darkness was to pre-empt those people who were in control getting an injunction from the courts. I had one other meeting with Parthasarathy on this question where an old associate of his was also present. Both of them had worked together on the takeover by Government of India of a Kerala State medical college. I argued futilely that there was a difference between the two cases. Some eleven months or so later and some time after I had been working on some desk in the Ministry, I was asked by one of the secretaries in the Ministry of External Affairs to vet and refine the draft paper for the Cabinet, presumably prepared by Parthasarathy, for the takeover of the Indian Council of World Affairs. I no longer had any more interest in that body than simple curiosity. The Minister of External Affairs—no longer Baliram Bhagat—and the Prime Minister, approved the draft. After that nothing was done to implement the proposal contained in that paper while Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister. It was the successor government of V.P.Singh—a Congress Party apostate who at one stage was accused by Rajiv Gandhi loyalists of acting in collusion with US intelligence agencies—, which actually took over the Council. The Treasurer and others went to court and the High Court of Punjab struck that decision down. A little more than a decade later the BJP-led government took the Council over once again. I do not know what legal wizardry they used.
Early during my adventure with the Indian Council of World Affairs I ran into one of our more eminent ambassadors who later became foreign secretary. He was visiting Delhi on consultations. He asked me what I was doing. I told him what I had been asked to do. He said it was good for me as that project would give me the opportunity to build up a network of contacts in the local Congress Party. He is a worldly wise man. I should have followed his advice. It is my pettifogging habit of worrying about minor niceties of financial propriety rather than looking at the big picture, which came in the way of my building up a foundation of support in the Congress Party. All I got out of one wasted year was a view of the inner workings of an element of Indian civil society and a question in my mind whether there were not many other private associations in India which did not also suffer from the same ills from which the Indian Council of World Affairs suffered. There must be or else there would be no need for the kind of blanket authority for intervention which Parthasarathy told me Government of India was thinking in 1976 of acquiring.
In April 1986, there was a meeting in Delhi of the Foreign Ministers of the Non-aligned movement. The meeting and the American bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi happened almost simultaneously. American sources let it be known publicly at that time that Moamar El Quaddhafi himself was one of their targets. The Non-aligned Foreign Ministers were filled with righteous anger and decided to send a delegation of three among them including Baliram Bhagat to Tripoli as a gesture of solidarity. Government of India also decided to place an Indian civilian aircraft at the disposal of the Foreign Ministers for this call on Quaddhafi. The entire visit was cancelled—because, I suspected, of the strong disapproval of the Non-aligned initiative expressed privately by the USA—even before all the arrangements had been made. Soon after that there was a reshuffle of the Indian Council of Ministers. Baliram Bhagat lost his seat in the Cabinet. His departure from the Ministry of External Affairs almost certainly facilitated the final rupture of my links with the Indian Council of World Affairs.
TOWARDS THE END OF JUNE THAT YEAR there was an evening function organized by the Indian Foreign Service Association. I cannot remember what the occasion was. An additional secretary pulled me aside to ask if I would like to help one of the Ministers of State for External Affairs with some projects relating to Africa. I said I would not mind. The next was a call one or two days later from the minister’s office asking me to go and meet him. Quite obviously the minister wanted to see what I looked like before accepting me. Africa was in the air in much of that part of the Congress Party establishment which professed interest in foreign affairs. Rajiv Gandhi had one month earlier made a quick tour of some of the frontline states of Africa—a term which after the dismantling of the apartheid régime in South Africa is forgotten but which those days meant the six states of Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique and Tanzania which due to geography or professed ideology were in the forefront of at least the diplomatic struggle for the abolition of apartheid in South Africa and of the liberation of Namibia from South African control.
Around this time Rajiv Gandhi started his yearlong championship of the SWAPO’s campaign for Namibian independence and of the wider campaign against apartheid in South Africa almost as if he had been advised that this was one sure road to a prominent place among the top leaders of the world. Support for neither of these two campaigns was new in Indian foreign policy but there was no time earlier when Indian championship of these causes held the attention of so many people in India as much as during about one year between mid-1986 and mid 1987. Rajiv Gandhi probably sincerely believed in helping these causes as well as the frontline states. He promised the construction of a 400-bed hospital in Luanda which never began, and the renovation of an army museum in an old Portuguese port there which made a delayed, uncertain start, and was still making slow unimpressive progress when I made a short visit to Luanda in early 1989. He promised the delivery of around 35 million rupees worth of small arms to SWAPO. This was meant to be a top-secret operation. The arms were to be transported by East German ships. The first shipment went quietly enough. For the second, the East Germans had a problem. Their ambassador came and met me to explain the difficulties. At the same time the East Germans had started a search for ships sailing out of Mumbai, which could carry these arms meant for SWAPO. They were thinking of subcontracting their job. A visitor from Mumbai who met me around this time told me it was widely known in shipping circles there that India was sending arms to SWAPO.
Because of their leader’s known commitment to the anti-apartheid cause, members of the Congress Party of different hues and shapes wanted to contribute to it. Their preferred method of helping the cause was to organize conferences, debates, discussions, workshops and symposia to discuss the evil of apartheid. Their preferred venue was Delhi. A Congress member of Rajya Sabha, the Youth Congress, the All India Women’s Conference, dominated by the Congress Party and sundry academics from Delhi University or Jawaharlal Nehru University whose ‘expertise’ on Africa rarely extended beyond a knowledge of the history of the anti-apartheid struggle, all wished to organize some event on apartheid in South Africa. They all ended up coming to the concerned minister of state for help and advice on such matters as texts of resolutions to be adopted, agenda for the meetings and even speeches to be made by the head of the group organizing the event. Initially my full time occupation was to help draw up such documents and to attend interminable ‘briefing’ meetings in the minister’s office where the participants rarely talked on the same subject for more than two minutes.
At the beginning of August that year, on the departure on assignment abroad of the incumbent head of the geographical division dealing with sub-Saharan Africa, I added to these onerous duties the routine responsibilities of joint secretary for Africa. In addition to sub-Saharan Africa, as a Muslim joint secretary in the Ministry he had been dealing with Haj Affairs also in accordance with established practice. For many reasons some organizational matters relating to the Haj had been the responsibility of the Ministry of External Affairs or its predecessor, the Foreign and Political Department of Government of India, since the late 1930’s. The existing law establishing a Haj Committee in Mumbai was made in 1957 when all pilgrims travelled by sea from Mumbai to Jeddah and back. Arif persuaded me to continue dealing with Haj affairs and on getting my agreement persuaded the minister that that arrangement would be the best.
Soon after I assumed these responsibilities, that year’s Haj season started. Each year, at the time of the Haj, Government of India sent out a goodwill delegation to Jeddah and Mecca led by a prominent Muslim politician. Dr.Farouk Abdullah, the former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, led that year’s delegation. It was the responsibility of what was known as the Haj Cell headed by an under secretary working under my oversight to get the financial and administrative approvals for the visit of the goodwill delegation. Given the stature of the leader of the delegation the papers had to go not only to the finance secretary and the cabinet secretary but also to the prime minister. While this delegation was still in Saudi Arabia, two or three days before the end of their approved stay in the country our ambassador to Saudi Arabia sent a message suggesting an extension of their stay by a few days saying that the extension would give the leader of the delegation the opportunity to call on the King. Following our instructions we promptly told the ambassador that no extension was possible. Then came a message on the last approved day of their Saudi stay to say that the King had agreed to receive the leader of the delegation one or two days later. It was obvious the official seal of approval would have to be given to the delegation’s extended stay.
We promptly moved papers. By the time the papers reached the Prime Minister’s desk, he was left dealing with fait accompli. He was sufficiently annoyed to ask for punishment to whoever was responsible for the situation. When those papers and instructions came down to me I found that the longest the papers stayed on any one’s desk on their upward journey was the cabinet secretary. It was clear that there could be no punishment for the ambassador, Dr.Abdullah or the cabinet secretary. Clearly this exercise of pinning responsibility was a charade. I played my part by getting the under secretary to write a clear account of the episode detailing what action he took at what time. I wrote a stout but truthful defence of the under secretary saying in essence that there was no delay on his part at any stage. I did not see those papers again.
AT THAT TIME, in the Ministry of External Affairs, there was a cabinet minister, a man from Andhra Pradesh, who combined the External Affairs and Commerce portfolios as his responsibility, and there were two junior ministers, one a former member of the Indian Foreign Service and the senior of the two and the other with whom I dealt most of the time . Some time late in that July, unknown to myself, I seemed to be in trouble with the cabinet minister. Someone had printed a report in a newspaper widely read in the home base of the cabinet minister saying that the junior minister of state who was assisted in his endeavours by a certain joint secretary, Mr. Rai, was doing the real work those days in the Ministry of External Affairs. I did not know why because of this report I should have been the object of the cabinet minister’s or the other junior minister’s wrath but in a number of small ways they made their feelings towards me quite clear. Also soon afterwards a Delhi newspaper published a story about expenditure incurred on refurbishing the bathroom attached to the office of the junior minister of state. In a meeting of several officers and the three ministers, called to discuss some statements in Parliament, the cabinet minister started by talking about too many leaks in the media and threatening action against those responsible for such leaks. The minister of state promptly expressed his agreement with the cabinet minister citing the story about the expenditure on the bathroom in his office as another case of leak calling for action. That sounded like sniping between the cabinet minister and his junior.
Our ministers and the Ministry no doubt dealt with matters more weighty than newspaper leaks. Some time in August, the minister of state I dealt with said to me that in September the Prime Minister would go to Harare to attend the summit meeting of the Non-aligned Movement. It would be appropriate for him to announce some Indian initiative in support of the anti-apartheid struggle. He asked me to give this matter some thought and come up with a proposal. I wrote a paper suggesting that at Harare the Prime Minister announce that India would over the next five years give an annual grant of 50 million rupees to be used by the six front line states for procuring goods, mainly capital goods, from India. In this paper I said nothing about the annual gift of a variety of non-military goods worth around 12 million rupees that India had been giving for a number of years to the African National Congress, my intention being not to suggest any change in this programme. In the proposal I wrote my reasons, mostly those of a shopkeeper, in support. The minister of state forwarded my proposal to Prime Minister’s office. I did not know if he consulted anyone before doing so. Then one day after a meeting with the visiting Canadian Foreign Minister at which I had been asked to be present because the Canadian wanted to discuss Southern Africa, our cabinet minister turned to me to say that I should remember that as the minister in charge of External Affairs he expected to be consulted on all major policy issues. He found that there were important proposals being sent to the Prime Minister’s office directly without any consultation with him. He added that in future it was going to be my responsibility to ensure that papers meant for Prime Minister’s office were routed through him. I could see that he was talking about my proposal. I could also see who the real addressee of that reproach was except that I decided not to be a messenger between the cabinet minister and one of his junior ministers—I found even the thought of doing so in howsoever circumlocutory a fashion demeaning.
A few days later, I was asked by the secretary who was my direct hierarchical superior to come with him to a meeting with the cabinet minister to discuss the Indian initiative on Southern Africa to be announced by our Prime Minister at Harare. I took with me a document issued by the Secretariat of the Southern African Development Coordination Conference in which their Secretariat had put money values on various projects necessary for the economic development of the region. The value of projects in the transport sector alone, considered essential by all those who discussed the development needs of Southern Africa, was four billion American dollars. The document I had with me was one year old.
Before we went to the cabinet minister I had a brief discussion with the secretary when I argued that given the scale of investments which some experts had estimated were necessary for the development of the region, we should either contribute what we thought we could afford or think of making an impact with the contribution of a few hundred million dollars. To me the first approach looked better. I had known the secretary earlier and had thought him to be a courageous man. But he had also told me in another context that he followed the policy of not opposing anything that came from the PMO. As we went into the minister’s room, I was not very hopeful that the secretary would take a clear stand. The Minister started by saying, his eyes fixed on me and a copy of my earlier note in his hand, that when we proposed an initiative by the Prime Minister of India, we should think big. The Secretary repeated my argument about the estimated quantum of development assistance for Southern Africa being so large that we could not hope to make a difference with a few tens of millions of American dollars. After some discussion in which two other joint secretaries had joined as silent spectators, we were told to write a new proposal suggesting the announcement of a grant of ten million American dollars for the frontline states by the Prime Minister at Harare. I was also told to send the new proposal to the Prime Minister’s Office that night itself—I managed to do so by just after midnight.
After some time a metamorphosed form of our proposals emerged from the Prime Minister’s office. An Africa Fund would be established. India would announce a contribution $50 million over a five-year period in the form of goods from India—roughly double what I had initially suggested—and would lead a drive for raising contributions the world over. At Harare, at the Non-aligned summit in September 1986, the Prime Minister of India announced the launching of Africa Fund. He also announced that, given the importance for India of the Anti-Apartheid campaign, a special cell would be established at the Ministry of External Affairs. Thus started in Delhi an Africa Fund office in the Ministry of External Affairs. A former ambassador of India to the United Nations, with a joint secretary to assist him, headed it. In time that office expanded further. Ambassador and joint secretary worked hard, travelled and campaigned for contributions to Africa Fund. Hardly any affluent industrialized country committed any contribution. The Soviet Union, some socialist countries of East Europe and some developing countries expressed their willingness to send assistance in kind but their preference was to help the Frontline States bilaterally. Some agreed, after a great deal of persuasion, to their bilateral assistance being also counted as contributions to Africa Fund.
In Delhi in January 1987 there was also an Africa Fund Summit, with the participation of top leaders from the Frontline States and the Prime Minister of India. Coming forward with bright new ideas about how to raise contributions for Africa Fund within India or outside became an industry. Someone suggested an Africa run in Delhi, someone else an Africa concert. In one meeting in the office of the junior minister of state where I was also present one worthy from the Prime Minister’s Office, a member of the Indian Foreign Service, argued how important it was to persuade Bob Geldof—I do not remember if he was already knighted—to give a series of concerts to raise money for Africa Fund. This gentleman said to the minister that he need do nothing more than invite Bob Geldof to the next Republic Day celebrations in Delhi as the guest of the Prime Minister. Once he sat in the proximity of the Prime Minister, in the same box as him, at the Republic Day parade in Delhi, he would be so completely won over by the Prime Minister’s charm that he would be hooked on India and would be willing to do wonders for Africa Fund.
In February 1987, the minister of state, after a swing through Africa ended up in London. I was one of two officials accompanying him. At his request Bob Geldof came and met him in his suite at the Savoy. He said first of all that he did not do concerts for political causes and then, more vehemently, he did not see why he should do anything to help ‘thugs’ like Kaunda and Mugabe. This last remark must have shocked the minister because in the Indian political establishment there was a special weakness for Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia. Bob Geldof missed an opportunity to be exposed to Rajiv Gandhi’s charms. Africa Fund continued its existence for some more time but no one noticed when its end came.
In that year of Africa, G. Parthasarathy’s Policy Planning Committee nominally strengthened but in reality greatly debilitated because its Chairman had lost access to the Prime Minister, had two rounds of discussions on Africa. Before the first round the gentleman who functioned as the secretary of the Committee asked me to join in. When I asked if I would be permitted to speak he said a person of my modest status in bureaucracy should consider it a favour to be invited to sit in at such an exalted Committee. A few days before the meeting, the minister of state asked me to put down on paper a few thoughts about Africa. Those became the bases of his presentation at the Committee. The secretary who was my hierarchical superior talked about Africans being ungrateful—he like many other Indian diplomats felt that India’s diplomatic support in the United Nations or elsewhere for many African causes such as decolonisation, independence of Namibia or end of Apartheid in South Africa or India’s humanitarian and technical assistance to various countries in Africa had not generated the kind of diplomatic support India expected on causes important to it. The minister said testily that we should not be thinking of gratitude. One of our strategy experts talked of the need to have a paper examining the position of the two super powers in Africa. Since no one else had anything to say, the meeting came to a close by default with the Chairman’s decision about another meeting a few days later.
At the minister’s behest I wrote a detailed paper for the next Africa meeting of Parthasarathy’s Committee in which I argued that Soviet influence in Africa had peaked and was on the decline. I cited the case of Samora Machel’s Mozambique, which, I argued, shed its pro-Soviet sympathies after the economic difficulties of 1983-84 forced it to turn to the West and the World Bank for economic assistance. Then I argued that Angola under Dos Santos was slowly shedding its Marxism as well as its pro-Soviet views—an opinion based on some vague knowledge I had acquired in Kinshasa about the progress of the Chester Crocker mission. Finally, in the case of Ethiopia I said, basing myself on newspaper reports, that the Mengitshu régime was crumbling with some ministers leaving the country. In another section of my paper I said that in Africa, on the basis of our interests and our reach, we should attach the highest priority to the eastern seaboard of the continent and the Indian Ocean island states. Three other groups in that order of priority should follow this region: Southern Africa, including post-apartheid South Africa, the English speaking countries of West Africa and the rest. I sent my paper up to the secretary and sent a copy to the minister who had asked for it.
The secretary took such a long time deciding what to do with my paper that by the time he sent it to Parthasarathy it probably was too late for anyone to have read it when Parthasarathy’s Committee met to discuss Africa a second time. The strategy expert who had asked for the paper was not present. A minister of state, considered very close to Rajiv Gandhi, spoke about the rich diamond deposits of Namibia and the need for India to get into cooperative arrangements with the Government of independent Namibia. The Minister of State of External Affairs read out the portion of my paper setting out our priorities among four groups of countries of Africa. Everyone agreed with that list and order of priorities. A short, desultory, disjointed conversation over tea and biscuits followed before the meeting ended. A few days later the minister of state passed on to me for my comments a copy of a paper meant to contain a record of the two discussions in Parthasarathy’s Committee as well as its recommendations. One of the recommendations, the one about priorities, caught my attention. My first two groups had been melded into one. In my comments to the minister I said that this part of the recommendations did not quite represent what the Committee had agreed on. But then I also saw how irrelevant what I said was. It was important in that year of Africa in Delhi that the Policy Planning Committee of the Ministry of External Affairs should contribute to policy making on Africa. People who wrote the Committee’s recommendations being politically savvier than me would have known that to ensure a minimum of acceptability for those recommendations in the Prime Minister’s office they had to recommend that Southern Africa had the highest priority.
How futile mine or anyone else’s attempts at drawing up priorities among different countries of Africa were in the Delhi of those days was demonstrated soon enough. While the Non-aligned summit was on in Harare in September 1986 we received three cables in Delhi from there on bilateral matters concerning three African countries. The first was sent after a meeting between the Prime Minister and the President of Botswana. It communicated the Prime Minister’s decision that India would establish a High Commission in Gabarone headed by a resident High Commissioner. In an exercise undertaken at the behest of the Prime Minister’s Office prior to the Non-aligned Summit of Harare, the Ministry of External Affairs had advised that given the level of relations between Botswana and India at that moment, a High Commission in Gabarone was not a necessity.
The second cable was sent after a meeting between Thomas Sankara, the military leader who had usurped power in Burkina Faso and the Prime Minister of India. There was some mistrust between Thomas Sankara and the French Government partly because of his professed socialism and his stated admiration for Moammar El Qaddafi of Libya. Sankara wanted to diversify his country’s relations with the outside world. He requested Rajiv Gandhi for economic assistance and specifically mentioned the setting up of a textile mill. The cable from Harare said that the Prime Minister had told Sankara that he would ask the Minister of State for External Affairs dealing with Africa to lead a team of experts to Burkina Faso to make an assessment of Burkina Faso’s requirements and work out a programme of economic and technical assistance from India to Burkina Faso. The third cable was sent after a meeting between the Indian Minister of External Affairs and the Foreign Minister of Zaire. This cable advised us that our Minister had invited the Zairian Foreign Minister to visit India at an indicated time.
On the third cable, I was able to control the outcome. Our ambassador in Kinshasa and the Zairian Ambassador in Delhi were keen that the Zairian Foreign Minister should visit India immediately—nothing unusual as most ambassadors measure their success by the number of visits by ministers and others of higher status that take place between their country and the country of their accreditation during their tour of duty. Instead we sent a formal letter of invitation from the Indian to the Zairian minister suggesting as usual that actual dates for his visit be fixed through diplomatic channels. Soon afterwards Mobutu reshuffled his ministers, making Kengo wa Dondo who had been Prime Minister of Zaire when I left Kinshasa, his new Foreign Minister. Not much later than that Rajiv Gandhi also reshuffled his Council of Ministers and we had a new cabinet minister. The Zairian ambassador in Delhi who probably thought me to be among the friends of his country spoke to me two or three times about the need to renew the invitation to Kengo personally. He or people in Kinshasa would not accept my response that our invitation was to the holder of the office of Foreign Minister of Zaire. In the end I told the ambassador on a social occasion that Kengo was not visiting India as long as I was on the Africa desk and told him my reasons—the main one being my belief that Kengo had no loyalties to Zaire. Kengo wa Dondo did not make that visit to India.
On the first cable it was for others in the Ministry of External Affairs to start the process for setting up an office and sending a High Commissioner to Gabarone. All that took seven or eight months to organize. On the second it was obvious that the junior minister of state would have to lead a team of ‘experts’ to Burkina Faso. No one seemed to be in a hurry to make that visit. Our High Commissioner in Accra who was also accredited to Burkina Faso was asked to go to Ouagadougou, talk to people in the Burkina Faso Government and send to the Ministry a preliminary report. There were one or two meetings to decide on the kind of assistance India could offer to Burkina Faso. The assistance package that was developed was far smaller than what Thomas Sankara had asked Rajiv Gandhi for and probably hoped for. The Indian minister of state and his team ended up in Ouagadougou in the middle of February 1987 after a swing through Africa, which had earlier taken them to Botswana, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Ghana.
AROUND THIS TIME there took place a drama in which I became the central character. One day in December 1986, the secretary for Africa told me that the minister of state I dealt with was very upset with me and wanted my immediate removal from my position as joint secretary in charge of Africa. I asked the Secretary when I would be moved to another desk. He said he had talked to the minister and all was well for the moment. I knew neither then nor learnt later what I had done to so upset the minister. What I had done was not to follow the policy of not opposing anything that came from the Prime Minister’s Office. There were a few instances where I had argued against what might have been pet schemes of people in Rajiv Gandhi’s office. Foreign Secretary A.P. Venkateswaran telephoned me on a Saturday morning in January 1987, 17 th January to be exact, at home to say that I was being moved from the Africa desk on the orders of the minister. Venkateswaran told me that I would swap places with the joint secretary for the Gulf and that the change would take place on Monday 19 th January. I asked Venkateswaran whether this was a reflection on my work. Venkateswaran said no.
Neither he probably, nor I knew at that time that any reassurance about my future he might have given would not be worth much, for four days later, in an uncharacteristic show of churlishness Rajiv Gandhi announced at a press conference the removal of Venkateswaran from his position of foreign secretary while an unforewarned Venkateswaran sat in the audience. This had surely been preceded by intrigues in Rajiv Gandhi’s durbar. Venkateswaran did what any man of honour would have done but very few those days thought of doing, no matter how great the humiliation, which was to quit.
In the morning of 19 th January as I had finished organizing my papers and, after clearing my desk, was waiting for the joint secretary for the Gulf, the secretary for Africa telephoned to ask for some briefing papers. He was completely surprised when I told him that I had been asked to exchange places with the joint secretary for the Gulf and that I was waiting for him to come to office so that I moved on to my next desk. He asked me to wait till he had spoken to the foreign secretary. Half an hour later he called to say that he and the foreign secretary had agreed that I should continue on the Africa desk till the conclusion of the Africa Fund Summit scheduled to open in Delhi later that week. On one of the next few days the additional secretary for Administration told me that he had tried to persuade the minister to change his mind about me. He had praised my qualities and the minister had said that while I had all those qualities, I did not deliver. ‘Deliver what?’ I asked the additional secretary. He said he had asked the minister the same question and received no answer.
After the end of the Africa Fund Summit I asked the secretary for Africa—foreign secretary Venkateswaran having quit, he was also filling in as foreign secretary—when I could move to my next desk. He told me that the joint secretary for the Gulf was staying on on his desk and procrastinated, saying I should talk to him the next day. On the following day he said I should speak to the additional secretary for Administration. When I spoke to him he thought of a few possible desks I could go to and when he suggested the Economic Division I said I would be happy. He promised that he would issue orders making me joint secretary for the Economic Division and transferring the Joint Secretary for the Economic Division, barely one or two days on that desk, to the Africa desk. When there were no orders the next day, I reminded the additional secretary who told me that the minister had made it clear to him that on his Africa trip which would also take in Burkina Faso, about to commence a few days later, he would take with him the new joint secretary for Africa and the joint secretary for the Economic Division. When after our discussion of the previous day, the additional secretary for Administration told the minister that I was moving on to the Economic Division and asked him whom he would like to take with him in addition to the new joint secretary for Africa, he apparently told the additional secretary that there was nothing wrong with me and that I should be part of his delegation. The additional secretary said to me that obviously all was well and that I should stay on as joint secretary for Africa. I said I would prefer to move on to the Economic Division and requested that he issue the orders he had promised. The orders were issued but the secretary for Africa had persuaded the minister that a final decision about my move out of the Africa Division would be taken after our return from our Africa tour.
Thus in early February 1987, the minister, his private secretary, a Foreign Service man, the new joint secretary for Africa and myself set out for Botswana to attend a meeting of the Southern African Development Coordination Conference or SADCC for short. Three people from the Africa Fund unit travelled there to canvass contributions to the Fund. Our high commissioner in Harare who was accredited to Botswana, a first secretary and one or two other persons form his mission joined us in Gabarone. Ours was one of the larger national contingents at that meeting. Our main intervention was the standard Indian anti-apartheid statement—about one year later, at another annual SADCC meeting the Secretary General of the organization told me that its focus was on the economic development of the region and not on the struggle against apartheid, which he reiterated to the Minister of External Affairs of India during a later visit to India by himself and the President of SADCC who was also the Vice-President of Botswana. From Botswana our four-member delegation went on to a number of places in Africa before arriving in Ouagadougou, our final African destination and the high point of our African journey as we were there in fulfilment of the commitment made by the Prime Minister of India to Thomas Sankara.
At Ouagadougou, in the midst of our discussions with the Burkina Faso Government over Indo-Burkina Faso economic and technical cooperation, the minister received instructions to go on to London to attend a meeting and a dinner on behalf of the Prime Minister of India. An England based Indian called Rajpal Singh Chowdhary who apparently was an important functionary in the British unit of the Indian National Congress was organizing those events. The minister’s secretary said to me in Ouagadougou that he wanted to know if I would like to go to London. I told him I would certainly go to London if such were the minister’s instructions though I knew there was no reason for me to go there and that I wanted it understood that I would not be induced by the London visit to agree to return to the Africa desk. I do not know what part of my response was passed on to the minister by his secretary but I was soon told that after the Ouagadougou visit and a pre-scheduled one day stop in Paris I should come with the minister and his secretary for a two day visit to London. In Paris, the minister had meetings with some French anti-apartheid campaigners, which had been set up by our Embassy there. The joint secretary for Africa parted company there for a short personal trip to Bucharest where he had earlier been our Ambassador. The minister readily agreed to my taking the day off which I used for loafing around in the city.
In London we were lodged at the Savoy. On the first evening of our stay there, our now three-member delegation was taken by our High Commission to a performance of the musical, the Cabaret. The next day the minister decided to extend his London stay by another day. In the evening there was the Indian National Congress dinner to which he went. Having no invitation to that event I dined in private. There were meetings with people like Bishop Huddlestone and Bob Geldof in addition to a meeting with the then Lady Linda Chalker, Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Our stay in London got extended twice again, one day at a time. One evening when the minister and his secretary had tickets for the Mousetrap, he had got quite late at meetings and at five minutes to eight passed on his two tickets to me. A Counsellor at the High Commission and I walked at semi-trot to the theatre and arrived quite out of breath, just in time for the raising of curtains. I wished it was not late February but April in London. But I was not complaining about five days of indolence at a renowned London hotel at the expense Government of India.
Soon after our return to Delhi the secretary for Africa told me that he had spoken to the minister who would be happy with my return to the Africa desk. All was forgotten, he added. He also said the African Ambassadors in Delhi were happy at the news of my return. I said first of all that I was not looking for an apology, secondly that having moved on to a new desk I should prefer to be left to work there and thirdly that I did not like being thus pushed around. The secretary was not amused but left matters at that. Some ten days later, the new foreign secretary with whom I had worked elsewhere talked about my return to the Africa desk at an informal gathering somewhere. I suggested the names of a number of other colleagues with knowledge and experience of Africa whom he might consider for the job. About one he said that he was already settled on a desk and he was loath to disturb him. I asked if the same consideration should not be shown towards me. No one talked about my return to the Africa desk after that and I was left to function as joint secretary for the Economic Division for the next twenty-nine months.
IN LATE SEPTEMBER and early October 1986 the Prime Minister of Zambia accompanied by five other Ministers or senior functionaries of Kenneth Kaunda’s political party and a handful of other officials came to India on an extended visit. During his visit to Zambia earlier that year Rajiv Gandhi had invited Kaunda to send such a delegation so that they could see India’s capabilities and from there the governments of the two countries could move towards closer cooperation. At the banquet in their honour given by the Indian Prime Minister I was told by someone in the Prime Minister’s Office that it had been decided that I accompany the Zambian team on their journey through India that took them to Agra, Indore, Bangloor, Chennai, Goa, Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Mumbai. It was an easy journey, performed in one of the Indian Air Force Boeing 737’s fitted and used for the travel of high state functionaries in India or by car in long motorcades. Looking after detailed arrangements for the journey was the task of the protocol department of the Ministry of External Affairs and local authorities. At Indore, Tata Exports, which had important business interests in Zambia, took care of some of the arrangements for a day visit to their leather factory at Dewas—a name I was familiar with only from E.M. Forster’s The Hill of the Devi. A junior minister in Government of India had been asked to be present when the delegation visited the famous Amul milk cooperative in Gujarat. Another junior Government of India minister had been asked to make a presentation about India’s civil service and administrative structures to the Zambians in Chennai.
My task was reduced to sitting next to the Zambian Prime Minister whenever we travelled by car, making conversation with him on such occasions, acting as a conduit for his extremely rare demands, ensuring that things moved on schedule and, on one occasion, in Goa, quieten down a lady who was talking non-sense as she travelled in the same car as us. Whenever they were not following the official programme, the six senior Zambians preferred to be amongst themselves. On one occasion, in Mumbai, I failed the Prime Minister. He called me to ask for details of a mysterious attempt by a man to fire a crude gun at Rajiv Gandhi when he had gone to offer his tributes to Mahatma Gandhi on 2 nd October, the latter Gandhi’s birth anniversary. I was completely ignorant of the details beyond what the media had reported. I told him as much. Otherwise, by the standards by which such visits are judged, this one was successful.
At one stage during the visit I asked the Zambian Prime Minister how much longer, in his opinion, the apartheid régime was going to last. He said, if all went well, till the end of the century. I cannot blame him for lack of foresight. The transition in South Africa between P.W. Botha and F.W. de Klerk had not yet taken place. I remember reading an article in The Economist of London around the same time or a little later suggesting that German reunification would take place two or three decades later. It would have been difficult for anyone to foresee the speed with which the important political changes of the end-1980’s would come about. I did not think the Zambian visit brought to us any additional insight into developments in Southern Africa. No leader from any of the Frontline States told us much about the progress of the negotiations Chester Crocker was engaged in. Nor did the visit produce any enhancement of economic, technical, commercial, scientific or cultural cooperation between India and Zambia.
Soon after the Non-aligned Summit of Harare, we had a new Minister of Externaal Affairs, a very genial man, a man with a socialist past but also a man who had been castigated in the press during the days of Indira Gandhi’s emergency régime for a reported public show of excessive servility towards Sanjay Gandhi. Another, also a former member of the Indian Foreign Service, with a reputation for loyalty to Mrs. Gandhi and her scion, replaced the senior between the two junior ministers.
In the third week of October that year, Samora Machel of Mozambique was killed in an air crash. Government of India decided that Health Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao should go to Maputo along with some emergency relief supplies in a special Air India flight the next day to represent India at Samora Machel’s funeral. I suggested to the secretary for Africa an abbreviated procedure for cutting through bureaucratic red tape and that while at short notice we could only send medical supplies and textile products, it was important that we agreed quickly on an amount in Indian money. Based on our estimate of our capacities we agreed that half a million rupees would be a realistic figure. Thus prepared we went to see the cabinet minister. The new junior minister was present. The secretary did the talking and explaining and the cabinet minister listened while the junior minister concentrated on some papers he was reading. The cabinet minister told us he agreed but turned to the junior minister to ask him what he thought. The junior minister, barely raising his eyebrows, said we should think of one million rupees.
Back in his office the secretary told the Indian Red Cross and the National Textile Corporation to rustle up medical and textile goods worth half a million rupees each by early next morning to be loaded on the special Air India flight. He did what he could to accelerate the process. Eventually P.V. Narasimha Rao went to Mozambique with relief supplies worth some amount between six hundred and fifty and seven hundred thousand rupees. I do not know if anyone anywhere took notice of the money value of the relief supplies our Health Minister carried. I do not know what different people told Rajiv Gandhi about what they had done to express our sorrow on Samora Machel’s death. I had a shrewd suspicion they would have thought of creating an impression on him saying we had sent one million rupees worth of supplies with our Health Minister to Mozambique.
In Delhi there was a Mission of SWAPO under a representative who was treated like an ambassador in every way by Government of India. Government of India paid for all the running expenses of his embassy. He and his wife were very pleasant, simple and unassuming people. During all the time I was joint secretary for Africa he kept in close touch with me, occasionally telling me of developments in South Africa where we had no official presence. He considered me enough of a friend to have sought me out some years later when he was independent Namibia’s ambassador in Washington D.C. and I was the Indian consul general in New York. Once in Delhi he came with an interesting request. The term of the United Nations Commissioner for South West Africa, an Indian, was coming to an end. The SWAPO ambassador’s request was that we should not press for another term for him, as SWAPO would not be able to support us. He told me SWAPO’s preference was for Martti Ahtisaari, the Finnish ambassador at the United Nations. He went on to explain that with Martti Ahtisaari as the United Nations Commissioner, SWAPO expected to get substantial economic and technical assistance. I reported this conversation orally to the secretary for Africa. A few days later he asked me to write down on paper the request of the SWAPO ambassador. I do not know what he did with my written note or what he or others thought of the SWAPO request. Martti Ahtisaari did become the next United Nations Commissioner for South West Africa.
I do not remember feeling any emotion such as disappointment, irritation or surprise at the SWAPO request. Their position was based on their calculation of their nation’s best advantage. I do not know if many in Government of India or outside who believed in the solidarity of the Non-aligned or of developing countries would not have looked askance at that SWAPO preference for a European over an Indian for that job. India’s large tribe of those who believe in Third World solidarity is undying.
Championship of the anti-apartheid struggle was heady wine. One day, the joint secretary for West Europe showed me a note, with a high security classification, from the Prime Minister’s Office. In it the Ministry of External Affairs had been asked to calculate the economic consequences for India, if India were to cut trade and economic links with the United Kingdom for maintaining full exchanges with South Africa. I said that while we had for years followed a policy of no contacts with South Africa, we had never thought of boycotting those countries which maintained full relations with it, and it would not be in our interest to do so. The joint secretary for West Europe agreed with me and said that since he had established a reputation for being anti-British, his arguments against the suggestion that we apply our own sanctions against the United Kingdom would be more credible than anyone else’s. His arguments must have been very effective, for that was the last we heard of such a notion.
Some time later, Rev. Allan Boesak, a South African church leader, an old warrior of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and a leader of the coloured community there, was in India to attend some conference. In a meeting with Rajiv Gandhi he had said that many members of the Indian community in South Africa had perfectly comfortable, even collaborative relations with the apartheid régime. Their being able to travel to India freely created misgivings in anti-apartheid circles in South Africa. Government of India had for long allowed people of Indian origin travelling on South African passports visa free entry into India. Those members of the Indian community who had been ‘elected’ to P.W.Botha’s tri-cameral parliament had been placed on a list of people who would not be allowed entry into India. India could not be faulted on the sincerity and steadfastness of its anti-apartheid position. There was no reason for Government of India to be on the defensive vis à vis all comers. Yet, a few days after the Rajiv Gandhi-Boesak meeting and almost certainly as a consequence of it, the Ministry of External Affairs received instructions asking them to devise a system so that no person of Indian origin from South Africa could visit India unless his name had been cleared by the African National Congress. By the time these instructions wended their way down to me, I had already been ordered out of the Africa division or the first warning given to me. Yet, because with my pettifogger’s attitude I simply could not see how the government of a sovereign state could hand over to a foreign agency the power of veto over its authority to decide who could enter its territory, I argued against the position of the Prime Minister’s Office. That was almost the last important position I took before moving on. A few months later, another short duration joint secretary for Africa told me he was still fighting that battle. He won.
I HAD COMPARATIVELY EASY TIME as joint secretary for Economic Division. There was the usual share of bureaucratic infighting both within the Ministry of External Affairs and between different Ministries of Government of India, probably not much more than in other governments. I enjoyed working with a hierarchical superior who left me considerable freedom to define and pursue objectives, successfully at times, unsuccessfully at others. They looked important at that time but from this distance in time seem to have been minor. As I went along I learnt not only about the sense and nonsense of India’s economic and technical assistance programmes, but by transference, also about the sense and nonsense of all economic and technical assistance programmes as I also saw the vacuity and uselessness of about 95% of joint commissions India had with other countries. I also saw the inner workings of the management of a few state enterprises owned by Government of India in particular the spuriousness of their autonomy in the face of their ministries of tutelage. I enjoyed working without catching much attention of the politicians, the ministers. My work took me on four visits each to Mauritius and Vietnam, one specifically to the Angkor Vat, and two to Kabul.
On the second visit to Kabul, in mid-1989, some months after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, I woke up in the middle of one night in my room in Kabul Hilton to what looked from the balcony of my hotel room to be the most spectacular and noisy display of fire works I have seen. It was exploding ammunition in a store near the airport which had been struck by a missile fired by the mujahedeen, I learnt the next morning. The next day at night I woke up again, this time to watch from the balcony of my room a volley of what I was told later were scud missiles being fired out of Kabul valley towards mujahedeen positions. It would have gone on for at least half an hour.
On the day of our departure from Kabul the colleague who had gone with me from Delhi and I went to meet the ambassador at his residence. The ambassador and a first secretary had just come back from the Presidential Palace after the eid-ul-adhha greetings of the diplomatic corps to the President. A bomb had exploded quite close to the Presidential Palace in the middle of that meeting. The first secretary who looked very shaken said that on their way back, within seconds of their car moving on from a stop at traffic lights a bomb or a grenade had hit precisely at the spot where their car had been standing and cut a cyclist to pieces. Yet in the midst of all that fighting Kabul was still a functioning city. We were able to visit the chicken street where practically all currencies of the world were traded in in cash from tiny, grubby shops. We went and visited the Kabul Museum with its extremely rich collection of Gandhara sculpture and we also went to a residential area where from a small side room shop we bought an Afghan carpet each. In our movements through the city we were unhindered and unafraid. Kabul and much of Afghanistan were destroyed later when the different guerrilla groups which had been armed to fight the Soviet troops fought each other for control over Afghanistan and even more when a group claiming to be purer Muslims than any removed the ‘ungodly’ Najibullah from power. For fourteen years after the Soviet withdrawal the country tore and destroyed itself while the world watched and wrung its hands.
My work took me on different journeys also to Arusha, Luanda, Antananarivo, Cape Verde, Harare and New York. While I was getting ready to go to Luanda to attend the annual SADCC meeting of 1989, I was told to go to Harare to be part of the delegation of the Indian minister of External Affairs, P.V. Narasimha Rao to the Indo-Zimbabwe Joint Commission. A secretary from the Ministry of External Affairs cancelled his participation in the joint commission, as there was to be no one of equal rank on the Zimbabwe side, thus making me the principal home based official aide to Narasimha Rao for the work of the joint commission. After the end of our official business in Harare, Foreign Minister Nathan Shamuyarira of Zimbabwe took us—P.V.Narasimha Rao, our High Commissioner in Harare, Rao’s Secretary, the Foreign Minister of an African country whose name I forget, and myself—for a day’s outing by road to the Great Zimbabwe ruins. These ruins were obviously of great symbolical value for nation building in Zimbabwe. After visiting the site we went for lunch where we all sat at a rather narrow table at which I found myself sitting almost opposite Narasimha Rao. Rao, a vegetarian, fed on whatever vegetarian food the restaurant could put together—rice, salad and ketchup, I think. Shamuyarira, a loquacious man, kept up most of the conversation while Rao, a taciturn man, ate mostly in silence except once when he lighted up to talk about experimentation by some architects in India in building modern mud houses. Those joint commission talks and that lunch were the closest I ever got to Narasimha Rao. I sought no greater proximity to him either before or after.
THERE IS ONLY ONE OTHER TALE I should tell from my days as joint secretary for the Economic Division. In June 1988, four of the five secretaries in the Ministry of External Affairs told me that they had all unanimously recommended my name for the position of Spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs. Two of them and my direct hierarchical superior even congratulated me saying that the Prime Minister’s Office had asked for a slate of three names from which they would select one for immediate appointment as the Spokesman. He added that he had very reluctantly agreed to my departure from the Economic desk. The composition of the slate was such that the secretaries were convinced that I would be chosen.
I told my hierarchical superior that I was flattered and grateful for their decision about me, that it would be graceless of me to remonstrate and that there was no question in my mind but to go by their decision; I had nonetheless some doubts about being the Spokesman when the Government itself was tottering. When the secretary asked my why I said that, I answered that there was no way Rajiv Gandhi could get re-elected as Prime Minister at the next general election and that I did not agree with the pundits who wrote in the media that corruption was a problem that interested only the urban intelligentsia. In reality, I said, there were very few issues as capable of inflaming the passions of the Indian electorate as corruption in high places. Privately I also wondered at the innocence of the secretaries about the ways of the Delhi durbar. Fairly soon after I was told that my name had been recommended for the Spokesman’s position, I heard rumours that in fact Rajiv Gandhi had already made up his mind about the next Spokesman, someone who had also been at school with him, but someone who was not on the slate sent by the Ministry of External Affairs. He would, on return from a foreign assignment two months or so later, be appointed to that position. That, in reality, is what happened.
EVER SINCE REPORTS WERE FIRST BROADCAST IN 1987 over a radio channel in Sweden that substantial bribes had been paid to people in the Indian government in a deal for the purchase by India of a number of howitzers from the Swedish gun manufacturer Bofors, Rajiv Gandhi and people around him had tied themselves up in knots of self-contradictory statements or statements which had to be modified in the face of newer revelations. They were acting as if proving themselves right on minor points as if in a court of law or blackening the face of their opponents was more important than preserving the credibility of the Prime Minister and the Government. By mid 1989 both were in shreds.
V. P. Singh, who had been by turn Rajiv Gandhi’s Commerce, Finance and Defense Minister had left his government and party in 1987, formed his own political party and had been campaigning successfully against Rajiv Gandhi on the issue of corruption in high places. By around the middle of 1989, about six months before the next general election, V. P. Singh’s campaign had started worrying people around Rajiv Gandhi. A counter campaign meant to smear V. P. Singh was started. There were personal attacks on V. P. Singh by some of the more vocal members of the Congress Party. One newspaper story even cited a letter supposed to have been written by V.P.Singh’s wife declaring him of unsound mind.
In July or so some Indian newspapers printed versions of a story in a newspaper published in the Gulf according to which Ajeya Singh, V. P. Singh’s son had travelled to the Caribbean island Republic of St. Kitts and Nevis to deposit some tens of millions of US dollars in a bank there. The Gulf newspaper said that the manager of that St. Kitts bank had identified the person who met him for depositing this money as V. P. Singh’s son Ajeya Singh on the basis of photocopies of pages of his passport, which had been given to him as identification papers. The import of this story was clearly to suggest that V. P. Singh who had led an anti-corruption campaign against Rajiv Gandhi himself had unaccounted money, which he wanted to stash away in a remote tax haven. I could not follow how this story was further developed and embellished by the media in India as I left Delhi in the last week of August 1989 for New York where I had been appointed the Consul General of India. I had no more than an ordinary newspaper and television watching citizen’s knowledge or interest in these stories about V.P.Singh and his son. Later experience has made it impossible for me to forget them.