The Ghost of St. Kitts
IN MARCH 1995, I was in transit in Delhi between Khartoum, where I had completed a tour of duty of a little over two years as ambassador, and Kyiv where I had been named to go as ambassador. There was a feud between two groups of bureaucrats in the Ministry of External Affairs, to neither of which I belonged. One group, as a means of getting at the other, inspired a story which appeared on the front page of the Delhi edition of the Indian Express, which claimed at that time to be India’s largest selling English language daily, in which my name figured prominently. In the headlines the newspaper suggested that the Ministry of External Affairs had tried to exorcise the ghost of St. Kitts and failed. The story said mainly that there had been a move to post me to London as India’s Deputy High Commissioner—something I had not asked for nor known about until in August 1994 in Khartoum I received a telephone call from an agitated gentleman in the Indian High Commission in London, one who is good at keeping a tab on decisions of this kind, to tell me of such a proposal. The Indian Express said that some people brought the decision, which procedurally did not require Prime Ministerial approval, to the notice of Prime Minister P.V.Narasimha Rao who had my move to London cancelled. I heard gossip about the machinations that went on and the reasons for those machinations leading to the cancellation. Since I had neither asked for nor manipulated to get the London job and since I was not heartbroken at being told that I was not going there after all, I treated the gossip as no more than amusing bar room stories. The Indian Express went on to say that I was in the end going from wilderness to wilderness.
I wondered if the newspaper meant to suggest in its headlines, in a literary flourish, that it is I who was the ghost of St.Kitts, a little like Banquo’s ghost. If that was the allusion, I wondered who I shook my gory locks at. Or, maybe, there was a ghost of St. Kitts, which like the ghost of Hamlet’s father haunted the Ministry of External Affairs. If that was so, then who was Hamlet and who Claudius and was there something rotten in the state of Denmark, I asked myself. Then I said to myself that it was possible the reporter had neither of the two Shakespearian ghosts in mind but referred to some other literary ghost I did not know of or that he, in the manner of many who write in India’s English language newspapers, was not making any literary allusion at all but was using an expression merely for effect.
In January 1996, the Times of India of Delhi published a front-page story about the role of P.V. Narasimha Rao, at that time Prime Minister of India, in the St.Kitts affair. I found the timing of the story mystifying and suspected that feuding between factions of the Indian National Congress, a few months before India’s election for the federal parliament, was behind the publication then of a story which had been reported many times over, a few years earlier and therefore already well-known among those who were interested. It was not news any longer. I featured prominently in the Times of India story too.
A few years later, in the year 2000, a senior leader of the Indian National Congress, a former minister in the Indian government, called me over the telephone at Bangkok, where I was ambassador then, to ask me about my opinion on some matter of interest to a relative of his. He prefaced his remarks saying he was sorry I had gotten into that scrap over St.Kitts. Two years later, in March 2002, I was a guest at luncheon at the house of a member of parliament from a political party in the coalition in power in India then. I was introduced by the parliamentarian to the leader of her political party as the man who was involved in the St.Kitts affair. Another year later, at another luncheon in Delhi in February 2003, the hostess, the wife of a senior Indian politician, introduced me to one of her guests as the man who was consul general in New York at the time of the St.Kitts affair.
The story then that I am about to tell was widely reported in Indian newspapers between 1989 and 1991 and has not been forgotten about since then in many circles. It was important enough to merit space on the front pages of two major English language Indian dailies even six or seven years after it first broke out. Many people who have since 1991 suggested that I must write a book have had this story in their minds. In any thing I write about my experiences as a diplomat, this story with which my name has publicly, and, it seems unforgettably, been associated, has to be included. My fear is that readers may find my tale disappointingly bathetic.
I have already mentioned stories that appeared first in a newspaper in the Gulf and later picked up by some Indian newspapers in mid 1989 suggesting that Ajeya Singh, the son of V.P. Singh, who had begun to look like a considerable challenger for the Congress Party at the Indian parliamentary election due at the end of that year, had visited the Caribbean island republic of St.Kitts and Nevis and deposited substantial sums of money in a bank there. Some members of Rajiv Gandhi’s party, who had espoused the story, had begun to raise questions about the source of those funds. To me, whose knowledge and understanding of this story was no more than that of an ordinary newspaper reader, this, independently of the truth of the matter, looked like a smear against V.P.Singh directed by people around Rajiv Gandhi who was by then himself deeply into controversies about allegations of commissions paid to people in official positions in India in a contract for the purchase of some howitzers for the Indian army from the Swedish gunmaker, Bofors.
WITHIN DAYS OF MY ARRIVAL IN NEW YORK as the Indian consul general, I had received an invitation from a group of Indians in Columbus, Ohio to go there to take part in some festivities they were organizing on 5 th and 6 th October 1989. I had accepted that invitation. P.V.Narasimha Rao as the Minister of External Affairs of India came to New York towards the end of September to address the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly. After fulfilling the protocol requirement of meeting him at the airport on arrival and coming up with him to his hotel suite and taking leave of him, I did not meet him for the next three or four days which I was neither required nor asked to do. The Ambassador, Karan Singh had come across from Washington D.C. He had his meeting with Narasimha Rao. It was agreed that the minister, the ambassador and some of the Indian delegation to the UN General Assembly would come home for dinner on 3 rd October evening as my guests. At the end of the dinner, I accompanied P.V. Narasimha Rao to his car and said I must take leave as I was going to Columbus, Ohio on 5 th October and thus would not be in town when he left New York on his homeward journey on 6 th October. Later that evening Narasimha Rao’s private secretary called to ask if I was going to Columbus the next day, that is, the fourth of October. I corrected him.
On 4 th October I was to go to a number of places with Karan Singh who was spending that day in New York. At about 8.30 in the morning Narasimha Rao’s private secretary called to ask me to meet the minister. I said it would take me about 45 minutes to get to the minister’s hotel. A little later, one of the officials from the Ministry of External Affairs accompanying the minister also called to ask me to come and meet the minister. He asked me in addition if my office had the authority to notarize documents signed by a foreigner, to which I said we had indeed such authority. When I arrived at the minister’s hotel suite some time after 9, this gentleman was there. He started to tell me what this meeting was about when Narasimha Rao came into the sitting room. He said that in connection with these reports about V.P.Singh’s son depositing money in a St.Kitts bank, a statement was being recorded. It would be brought to me for consular attestation, which I should do. I asked him if I could get someone working under me to do it. He said I should personally do the job. I then asked if I could tell the ambassador. He said I should not. I said that my problem was that there were a series of meetings to which the ambassador had asked me to come with him. To find time for this job I would have to excuse myself from some meeting for which I would need to give the ambassador a reason. The minister said I should make some excuse using his name. I then asked to know the name of the person who would bring the documents and said that 4.30 in the afternoon was the earliest I could make myself available for this purpose. The minister then went to his bedroom. I thought he went to make a telephone call. He came back to confirm the 4.30 appointment and to tell me the name of a government official who would bring the documents.
As I was driven back to office, I reflected on my predicament and felt uncomfortable. I was not happy about being drawn into what was to my mind clearly a battle between two political parties in India and yet I saw no alternative to acting on the minister’s instructions. I had barely enough time in office to have a quick look at instructions about notarial acts by diplomatic and consular agents—the last time I had performed such functions was in 1972 and needed to refresh my memory—and to tell the deputy consul general to be available with consular seals and registers at 4.30 in the afternoon. Then I joined up with Karan Singh for a day which included a visit to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the seat of the Episcopalian Archbishop of New York—Karan Singh was active, along with the Archbishop, in an inter-faith movement. We had lunch after which I excused myself from a meeting Karan Singh had with a literary agent where he had wanted me to come. I told him I had been asked by the minister to meet him at 4.30—a brazen lie told under the instructions of the minister.
In office, A.P.Nanday, deputy director for enforcement in the Indian ministry of finance came at the appointed hour. He presented a letter from the director of enforcement, one K.L.Gupta, requesting one and all to render Nanday all due assistance in the performance of his duties in relation to certain enquiries he was making. The deputy consul general was present to assist me. By now anxious as it were to get this business quickly over and done with, I asked Nanday straightaway where the documents were. He said they were not ready. In which case, I said, there was nothing for me to do. He said he had brought the annexures to those documents on which I was required to attest the signatures of one McLean, the manager of the bank in St.Kitts where Ajeya Singh was reported to have deposited tens of millions of dollars. The annexures were copies of two pages from Ajeya Singh’s passport issued in 1986 by the Consulate General of India in New York and several pages of statements, all signed by McLean and, if I remember correctly, countersigned by Nanday with the legend ‘Before me’. I asked for some identity document from which we could verify McLean’s signatures. Nanday produced McLean’s passport. With that I signed the documents under a stamp saying ‘Signatures of-------attested’. It was agreed that Nanday would bring the main statement by McLean the next day for a similar consular act to be performed by the deputy consul general, as I would be away. Copies of documents thus notarized are kept in office. I had decided to keep the copies in this case with myself personally. I did not see the copies of those documents which the deputy consul general had notarized until my return to New York when I asked for those papers also for keeping with myself.
These deeds having been done I put them out of my mind. In mid-October I went to Syracuse University in up-state New York for two days where some people had invited me. On my return to office from Syracuse, the press officer of the consulate told me that a correspondent of the India Abroad, one of the two Indian community weekly newspapers in English published in New York—the other being the News India—had telephoned several times as he wanted to talk to me before publishing a news story concerning me. She told me that apparently the story related to some papers I had signed. From that I could see what the India Abroad story was going to be about. I later discovered from reports published by the paper that copies of the documents notarized by the deputy consul general and me had, unknown to us, been tabled in the Indian parliament on 13 th October.
I thought carefully about my situation as well as about the India Abroad correspondent’s wish to talk to me. I came to two conclusions: one, that to avoid being irretrievably sucked into this bog I was not going to talk about this matter either to news people or to friends, colleagues or anyone else except when I was asked questions officially by my hierarchical superiors in India—I was quite clear in my mind from the beginning that in answer to questions from my hierarchical superiors in India I would tell them in the most direct manner possible that I had done whatever I had done under the personal instructions of the Minister of External Affairs of the time—and two, that to preserve the status of my office I was not going to do or say anything which would make me answerable for my actions either to local publications in the USA or to the local Indian community. I held on to these two decisions against all pressures, relaxing my rule about silence only when talking to one or two colleagues or acquaintances in private. I said nothing in public until a court appearance in Delhi as a witness in September 2002.
Not being able to get across to me on the telephone, the India Abroad correspondent managed to accost me in the office building where he had come with the purpose of doing a story about the inefficiencies in our passport and visa office. We agreed on a day and time when he could meet me. At that meeting he started by asking me about the McLean attestations to which I said that I would answer questions on this matter only to Government of India. When he asked me whether Government of India had asked me questions I told him I did not think he was entitled to ask me that. Thereafter, week after week, the India Abroad carried a story either about those attestations or about the confusion and the inefficiency in our passport and visa office. Much of the criticism of the passport and visa office was justified. I had set about trying to put some order there. As a result, in an initial period, the confusion had gotten worse. Every passing week, the India Abroad campaign against my office and me personally grew shriller. Once the editor of the rival newspaper, the News India, called to sympathize with me and offered to write things to help me—an offer I declined. At one stage, in the midst of this campaign I sent a message to the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi asking for a government statement saying that I had committed no wrong. I thought I had a right to expect such a statement within the theoretical framework of the functioning of India’s civil services. There was no answer to that message.
In the first days of December 1989, after the Indian general election, a government under the leadership of V.P.Singh replaced that of Rajiv Gandhi. Around the end of the first week of that month one of the secretaries in the Ministry of External Affairs telephoned from New Delhi to say that the new Minister of External Affairs wanted to know the background to the McLean attestations. I briefly told him the story. Later I figured out that it would have been three in the morning in India when the secretary called. He had obviously lost some sleep over this matter while I had lost none in spite of the press campaign. Two days later a joint secretary telephoned to ask the same question. I told him that I had given an answer to one of the secretaries. When he asked me to send a written account, I told him that he would in that case have to send me a written request. He never did. I suspected that there was already a race among officials in Delhi to tell the new political masters the ‘truth’ about the McLean attestations.
Some newspapers in India joined the India Abroad in the media campaign, most of which was directed at me personally and the rest at my office. The Indian Express printed a kind of debate on its editorial page about my action containing views for and against me. One person gave many legalistic arguments to suggest the severest punishment for me including imprisonment and the stoppage of my salary and pension. Even the most favourable defence of my action was that I had done no more than commit a minor technical error under the instructions of the minister—no one said that I had in fact broken no law nor gone against any rule, which is what I was quite clear about in my mind and which is why I remained indifferent to what the newspapers were writing.
Another pressman telephoned from Delhi to say that a senior Foreign Service officer and a former official spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs had told him that I had attested the McLean papers under the instructions of the former Minister of External Affairs. He asked if I could confirm. I told him to check with his original source. A little later, in early 1990 the Statesman of Kolkata wrote an editorial about the confusion in my passport and visa office. When the Ministry of External Affairs asked for my comments on that editorial I answered saying that most of the criticism was justified but to set things right I would need to spend about one quarter of a million dollars which I had asked for a few months earlier for the repair and renovation of the office building and for remodelling the physical infrastructure of the passport and visa office. I got the money within two or three weeks, almost at record speed. Some public good came out of that media campaign.
I did not know if any of that campaign was officially orchestrated nor was interested in finding out, but the foreign secretary of the time advised me during a passage through New York towards the end of January 1990 to be on good terms with the editor of India Abroad in my own interest. I decided not to act on that advice in a hurry because of my own earlier decision not to explain my conduct to any group or person other than Government of India. I had had no brushes with the editor, no arguments nor any quarrels. He kept his distance from me from the time his paper made me a target. I was not prepared to make overtures to him under the pressure of writings against me.
Towards the beginning of that January, the foreign secretary telephoned to say that I should write a brief memorandum describing the circumstances in which I had attested the McLean documents, giving it the highest security classification of top secret/personal and send it to him. It was agreed that I would make it clear that I was writing that note in response to the foreign secretary’s instructions over the telephone. In my brief note I said that P.V.Narasimha Rao, the former Minister of External Affairs had asked me personally to notarize some documents that would be brought to me by one Nanday and that since what I had been asked to do was perfectly within the rules, I had no choice but to act on those instructions. I reckoned that my note, sent by diplomatic bag, would have arrived in Delhi on 14 th January. On 19 th January the private secretary of the Minister of External Affairs telephoned to say that the minister wanted something in writing about these attestations. I said that a note had been sent to the foreign secretary which should have got to his office by then. A little while later the private secretary telephoned to say that he had received my note. The politicians and others in Delhi were clearly in a hurry to see what I had to say.
On 18 th February, some ten days before elections in a number of Indian states in which the political parties in V.P. Singh’s coalition would face the Indian National Congress, the Indian Express printed the full text of my January memorandum sent to the foreign secretary. The India Abroad in its issue that came out immediately after also carried that text. Watching the reaction of people to that note, I suspected that many who might have thought I was deeply into some dark political secrets and a vast conspiracy were disappointed. Soon afterwards someone who ran a television channel for the Indian community invited the editor of the India Abroad and me to a luncheon at a restaurant at the Plaza Athénée, close to my office in New York. The food was good and the conversation easy, unencumbered by any attempt by anyone to offer explanations. The editor of India Abroad and I stayed on good terms for the rest of my New York stay. I disappeared from the front pages of the India Abroad—something I started missing. My wife told me prophetically that from then on no Indian politician would trust me nor would I get any assignment of importance. We knew, in other words, that I was blighted.
In early March there came word that a team from the Central Bureau of Investigation of India, the CBI for short, was coming to New York to investigate the circumstances of the McLean attestations. It was clear they would talk to me. Once again I thought carefully about my situation and came to the conclusion that one charge I must not make myself open to was that I did not co-operate fully with a police investigation. Around the time of the publication of my January note, the India Abroad also printed a news story quoting Narasimha Rao as saying that he had indeed asked the consul general to attest those documents according to the rules—in his later public statements on the subject I was described simply as an official. I was all the same anxious to avoid getting caught in a web of inconsistencies when I talked to the police. It is these thoughts rather than any heroic regard for ‘the truth’ or any moral outrage at ‘wrongdoing’ that decided me in favour of telling the two-man team from the Bureau my full story of the McLean attestations as it actually happened. They spoke to me twice, the second time presumably to check for inconsistencies.
The day after my first conversation with the CBI, the cabinet secretary in Delhi telephoned—at around midnight my time and waking hours for him—to say that he had heard I had new things to say. Without saying so he made it clear that he was talking about the St.Kitts affair. I told him there was nothing really new other than some incidental detail. He asked me to send him a top-secret letter giving my story in the fullest detail and reluctantly agreed because of my insistence that I could copy my letter to the foreign secretary. Thereafter some Indian newspapers printed versions of the story based on what I had told the CBI and some additional information they picked up such as a log of telephone calls made by Narasimha Rao from his hotel suite on the 3 rd, 4 th and 5 th of October. It was not difficult to see that the V.P.Singh government was trying to do other things in addition to starting criminal cases against all those who were part of the ‘conspiracy’ behind those attestations and other related activities. Settling political scores and exposing V.P. Singh’s political opponents looked to be more important for the government than ensuring that breach of law such as it might have taken place did not go unpunished.
In March, a little before the arrival of the CBI team, Karan Singh and his wife came to New York to meet some people before they left for India. He had resigned as the Indian Ambassador to the USA after the change of government in Delhi. As usual, my wife and I went to meet them at the airport. On the drive from the airport Karan Singh expressed surprise that I had never told him about all these controversial matters. I had no difficulty saying at that moment, so many days after the publication of my January note, that the minister had asked me not to tell him. Though Karan Singh has written in his short account of his stay in the USA as ambassador that I gave that answer sheepishly, I do not recall having felt that way. I did fully understand any feeling of hurt that Karan Singh might have had at my not having told him earlier. In his place I would have felt the same way.
Though during the rest of the time of the V.P.Singh government, I attracted little or no attention from the media, I knew I had become an object of curiosity for friends and strangers alike, if not also an object of ridicule for some. One colleague who was in our mission to the United Nations made it a form of greeting to ask me the first thing whenever I met him: ‘Any more attestations?’ He later became part of P.V. Narasimha Rao’s office when Rao became Prime Minister the following year. Another, a former secretary in an Indian ministry who also became part of the prime minister’s office under Narasimha Rao asked me, during a passage through New York in April, what was happening. When I told him ‘nothing’, meaning no one had yet asked me to explain my conduct, he said I should be careful, adding that those days a group of three or four officials met every morning in the cabinet secretary’s office to review progress in a number of cases including what was by then named the St.Kitts forgery case. I was warned that this group was naturally under pressure to find someone to punish. The wife of one of the ambassadors I had worked under who wanted to know the story started by saying that she was surprised when she saw the first news reports because she was convinced I could not be involved in any wrong doing. A senior Indian journalist whom I barely knew sought to hear the story from me. Someone else saaidI should seek a meeting with V.P.Singh’s son Ajeya Singh, suggesting by implication that the proper outfit for me for such a meeting should be sackcloth and ashes. I did not act on that advice or on any similar other.
I met Ajeya Singh very briefly on a social occasion once and after that in October 1990 in my office at his request. He called one morning to say that he was going back to India the same day or within one or two days and had discovered to his horror that he had lost his passport. I asked him to come across to my office where over tea or coffee he wrote out a letter reporting the loss of his passport and asking for a replacement. He also filled up the necessary forms and paid the fee. Setting all procedural requirements aside I gave instructions for the immediate issue of a passport for full validity and wrote that no verifications were necessary, as we knew very well who Ajeya Singh was. I remember deriving some pleasure in setting all procedure aside for Ajeya Singh because I was under some criticism for supposedly violating norms in the case of the McLean attestations. I knew that no official would have the courage to ask me why I had set procedures aside for the issuance of a passport to the prime minister’s son. I saw incidentally that the passport which Ajeya Singh said he had lost was the one of which the copies of the first few pages McLean was said to have produced claiming that those were the proof of identity Ajeya Singh had given when he came to deposit money in his bank in St.Kitts.
Nearly every Indian I knew wanted to talk to me or ask me about this, the St.Kitts affair. Some were just curious. Others were interested in ‘juicy’ gossip. Some made good-humoured references to it when talking to me. Others were outright offensive. By contrast no American I knew, even those who read the India Abroad or Indian newspapers or otherwise kept in touch with Indian affairs, ever mentioned this subject howsoever obliquely to me or asked me any question. That was, I thought, out of a desire not to embarrass me. The closest any American came to mentioning this subject was Barbara Crossette who had been the New York Times bureau chief in India. When at a Columbia University seminar on sustainable development someone introduced me to her, she said: ‘Oh, you are Mr.Rai!’
Some time in 1990, P.V.Narasimha Rao, now out of power, passed through New York on his way to some town in Pennsylvania to visit one of his daughters. A nephew in law of his, Manohar Rao, a genial and likeable man, who worked in New York, kept in regular touch with me. He asked me if an official car could be sent to the airport to meet Narasimha Rao to which I readily agreed. I also told him that we would be happy to have the former minister home for dinner either on his way in or his way back home. Narasimha Rao had to cut short his US stay as he had received word of the illness of his eldest son. Manohar Rao telephoned again asking for an official car to take Narasimha Rao to the airport. He said Narasimha Rao would not be able to come to our place for lunch but suggested that we go to his place instead. I declined because while I would have defended my decision to invite the former Minister of External Affairs of India for lunch to our place, I was afraid that by going to Manohar’s house I might, in the atmosphere of 1990, give an opportunity to people to say that I was in some secret cahoots with Narasimha Rao—there were enough people ready to rush to Delhi to report on me. Narasimha Rao did all the same make an effort to speak to me on the telephone from Manohar’s house, and not finding me then, spoke to me from the airport. He asked me if I was in trouble to which I said that so far nothing had happened to suggest that I was. He talked about the illness of his son when I asked him and gracefully accepted my good wishes for his speedy recovery—an altogether civil and correct conversation. Between then and the following year, when Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister, there was a transformation.
When at the end of June 1991 P.V.Narasimha Rao became the Prime Minister of India, one colleague from half way across the world and another from West Europe telephoned to almost congratulate me. I was hearing from them after a very long time. They probably thought I was a special protégé of Narasimha Rao and, with him as Prime Minister, I was set to go places, therefore someone worth being nice to. Knowing the exact nature of my rather distant relations with Narasimha Rao, I had no illusion and no expectation.
In July the Indian Express printed an interview with Narasimha Rao. There was a question about his role in the St.Kitts affair. He said he had received directions from such quarters that he could not refuse and he called an official from the consulate to do what needed to be done. A little more than a year later I met at the house of someone a retired Foreign Service officer who had become a member of the BJP. He said to his host and to me that after all in saying that I had attested those documents under Narasimha Rao’s instructions, I had done no worse than Narasimha Rao himself who had referred to directions from higher quarters when asked the same question. But then he was Prime Minister—the powerful have no faults, so goes a line in Tulasidasa’s Ramayana.
After Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister a colleague in the Indian Mission to the United Nations who had earlier worked under me told a number of people that I had bet on the wrong horse. In August that year, News India, the rival publication of India Abroad, front-paged a story under broad headlines reading ‘Consul General Rai Recalled’. The story said that for my role in the St.Kitts affair I was being posted back to Delhi to do a ‘desk job’. That report was the beginning of a long shrill campaign by that newspaper against me. But by then I had got used to brushing off such talk and such newspaper writing. I had concluded that I could afford to sit pretty, doing and saying nothing as long as there was no move by Government of India to call me to account for which there was a well laid down procedure. Such a move was never made.
In September that year A.P.Venkateswaran, whose public dismissal as foreign secretary in January 1987 had quite seriously damaged Rajiv Gandhis’s reputation, came to New York. At dinner at home, he collared one of our guests, an American of Lithuanian origin and an expert on the Soviet Union and tried to persuade him that Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev bore the primary responsibility for the break up of the Soviet Union. For the American, Gorbachev was the best thing that could have happened to the Soviet Union. I was to learn later how close Venkateswaran’s view was to those of many ordinary people in the former Soviet Union. At the end of the evening Venkateswaran said that he wanted to drop by the next day in my office for a chat.
When he came the next day, he started by saying that he had always wanted to thank me for the stand I had taken at the meeting of the Indian Foreign Service Association to protest his dismissal in January 1987. Then he gave me a fascinating account of his meeting with Rajiv Gandhi after he had put in his papers. The next was the question whether I was in trouble. I told him that there had so far been no move to call me into question. I also told him how Narasimha Rao had made an effort to talk to me on the telephone to ask me if I was in trouble. Venkateswaran told me that after Narasimha Rao became prime minister, some of ‘our own people’, meaning Foreign Service colleagues, had gone up to him to say that I had talked too much about the St.Kitts affair and that I should be punished. I thought then that the News India had been encouraged in the previous month by someone to write that story about my ‘recall’.
In January 1992 Narasimha Rao came to New York for the summit level meeting of the UN Security Council, a brainchild of John Major of the United Kingdom. The arrangements were the responsibility of the Indian Mission to the United Nations. I was impressed by the efforts that were made to ensure that I came nowhere near the prime minister. I kept my distance, being present along with the Ambassador in Washington at a meeting, which I had a hand in organizing, that a prominent New Yorker had with him and at another with a Jewish group. While Narasimha Rao was still in New York, one of my younger colleagues in the consulate told me the name of somebody who had been selected to replace me soon. A few weeks later I was told by someone the story of how on the sidelines of the Group of Fifteen Summit—a creation of the Non-aligned Summit of Harare in 1986 for promoting economic and technical cooperation among the Non-aligned—in Caracas in November 1991 some members of Narasimha Rao’s delegation had debated whether I should be moved out of New York immediately. I had at one stage also been told how during the tenure in office of the V.P.Singh government one official in the Ministry of External Affairs had strongly argued that in notarizing the McLean papers I had merited great punishment and then put forward his own candidature for my job.
By early 1992, I had become quite accustomed to talk about my imminent departure from New York and even begun to enjoy the pleasure of simply letting people patter. In April someone in our Mission to the United Nations who had a relative in Narasimha Rao’s office told us that I was going as Ambassador to the Maldives. Finally, in June came the official telegramme informing me of my appointment as ambassador to the Sudan. Though I was not jumping with joy, it took my wife and me less than two minutes to decide that we would go without seeking a change. We also decided that we would do all that was necessary for enjoying our stay in the Sudan. We left New York on 6 th September 1992, at the end of a stay of three years and thirteen days, almost exactly on the completion of my normal tour of duty.
A few years later, in December 1995, when we were in Delhi for the state visit of the President of Armenia, at lunch at someone’s house I met a former foreign secretary and his wife. The wife asked me whether I had tried to clarify matters with P.V.Narasimha Rao and make up to him. Sensing that there was a world of difference between their outlook and mine on such matters and not willing to spoil the perfectly pleasant mood of that afternoon with self-righteous cant, I told them a lie. I said that I would not be given an appointment. She said that her husband had similarly been denied access to Narasimha Rao. In my case the reality was a little different.
Before going to take up my new assignment in Khartoum I had put in a request for a call on the Prime Minister among others. That was standard practice. I received a note from the Ministry of External Affairs saying that the Prime Minister would meet me at his residence at 12.30 p.m. on 26 th October 1992. When I arrived for the appointment they told me that they had no record of any appointment for me. At my insistence they double-checked and came back with the same answer. One or two days earlier another colleague who had similarly been informed of an appointment with the Prime Minister was likewise told by the staff when he arrived at his residence, properly clad in the ‘nationalistic’ buttoned-up coat of the same design as the tunic of Prussian generals or coats worn by Indian rajas, that they were unaware of an appointment with him. When a year or so later a stockbroker claimed he had personally handed over ten million rupees to P.V.Narasimha Rao, the Prime Minister’s office went into pathetic contortions about computer logs of the Prime Minister’s movements, his engagements diary and his meetings elsewhere at the same moment when the stockbroker claimed to have handed over the money, trying to prove that the stockbroker had lied. Reading these reports in newspapers I recalled my own experience of 26 th October 1992 and asked myself why the Prime Minister of India could not employ more efficient people for keeping his appointments diary.
I was back in Delhi on mid-term leave from Khartoum in the cold season of 1993-94. I asked for a meeting with the Prime Minister among others. I was given my appointment, this time in his government secretariat office. We had a perfectly normal meeting between ambassador and prime minister, talking about our relations with the Sudan and the policy we should pursue. I do not know if I should have used that opportunity to try to ‘make up’ to Narasimha Rao—to use the expression used by the wife of the former foreign secretary. The thought never crossed my mind then or at any other time because I did not think I owed anyone any apology, nor have I tried to offer any to anyone. Besides, through all the brouhaha over the St.Kitts affair, I was left with no feeling of respect for the gentleman. After that meeting in the cold season of 1993-94, I neither sought nor had any meeting with him and saw him thrice from a distance, on each occasion as part of a group.
After 1996 when Narasimha Rao was out of power, the successor governments started a number of criminal suits against him. One of these was that he had conspired with Nemichand Jain, better known as Chandra Swami, to have forged statements supposedly made by McLean of St.Kitts prepared and notarized. Convicted by a lower court, Narasimha Rao saw the higher courts quash the case against him. Irrespective of what the courts said, I was convinced that even if Narasimha Rao were part of such a conspiracy, which he probably was not, it would be impossible to prove it in a court of law. I have thought it strange that while the government expended its energy on pursuing a criminal case which could not stand, there was practically no criticism of Narasimha Rao by the press or by politicians for having misused the government’s official machinery for a partisan political purpose. I do not know if that was because in the eyes of everyone such misuse for political or personal ends was the natural order of things.
There was another oddity. In all the time the court case against Narasimha Rao in the St.Kitts matter was being pursued I did not, happily for me, hear of any move to summon me as a witness. But, some time after the Supreme Court of India had quashed the case against him, in June 2001, I received a summons to appear as a witness in a case of conspiracy to forge documents in the St.Kitts affair with which Nemichand Jain and his associate Kailashnath Agarwal were charged. Neither I, nor anyone else had ever said that I had had any dealings with Nemichand Jain or his associate in this or any other matter. Quite puzzled, I asked the concerned people why I had been cited as witness in a case against Nemichand Jain—there was nothing I could say about anything he had said or done. I was told that in the original case that had been filed Narasimha Rao and Nemichand Jain were both accused. Even after the case against Narasimha Rao had been thrown out, the one against Nemichand Jain had to be pursued. I concluded that the mysteries of the legal profession were beyond my comprehension.
After many delays and postponements, I finally had my day in court in September 2002. For good reason I had suspected that my court apperance might be put out to newspapers and had made it clear that there was to be no publicity. There was none, even though a very well known film actor who is also a member of parliament appeared as witness in the same court, on the same morning and in the same case. All I was asked to do in brief was to confirm before a judge orally whatever I had written to people or said to the police about my having attested the McLean documents under instructions from Narasimha Rao. What my testimony will prove against Nemichand Jain, I do not know.
Looking back, I have reflected on the many ironies in this episode. I had not ever made any attempt to get close to or paid court to or asked for any favour of any Indian politician or political party nor had I ever offered my services as anyone’s convenient tool. I owed no debt of gratitude to any politician. Yet for about one and a half years I occupied close to central space, albeit small, in a battle between two Indian political formations to malign each other. My name was bandied about in newspapers then and later. I became by turns villain, fool, a strange exhibit, a sheepish prevaricator, an incompetent speculator on politicians’ fortunes, hero and ghost. All that because of the supposed value of my signatures, for there could be no other reason for Narasimha Rao’s insistence on that October morning that I personally notarize documents that would be brought to me. In the normal course, others in my office performed such functions under my watch.
In Delhi in December 1995, at the banquet given by the President of India in honour of the visiting President of Armenia, I met someone who had been a minister of state in the V.P.Singh government. He expressed his admiration for the ‘courage’ I had shown in this St.Kitts affair. He even said teasingly, when Narasimha Rao walked into the very large reception room, that my friend there had just arrived. Others have similarly talked about my ‘courage’ or about the ‘unfairness’ of the treatment meted out to me. One colleague, probably to console me, went so far as to say in 1997 that the gentleman was paying for his sins. Hearing such prattle pleased me in the beginning but over time I have become as inured to it as I was to a different kind of chatter when the St.Kitts affair was alive. I have looked upon my conduct in this affair as being similar to that of Bernard Shaw’s chocolate cream soldier. At each turn I only took what appeared to be the shortest and the straightest path out of a narrow strait. Heroism was far from my mind.