Saturday, October 2, 2010

My Foreign Affairs Years: Mrs. Gandhi passes the mantle

The Indepndent, October 1st., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

The death of Mrs Gandhi and the emergence of Rajiv Gandhi, although a family affair, was a huge change in the Indian political context. It took away from Indian politics a colossus and brought in a novice. Rajiv Gandhi was just not a novice in politics; he was also one who in the first instance was not even interested in politics that was in the blood of the rest of the Nehru clan. In fact, he was publicly by-passed by Mrs. Gandhi herself as she allowed her younger son Sanjay Gandhi to take over the Nehru mantle ahead of elder brother Rajiv Gandhi till death by accident removed Sanjay Gandhi.

Mrs. Gandhi’s death announcement was delayed to allow Rajiv Gandhi’s return to the capital from West Bengal where he had gone on a party visit. The Congress, immediately upon the death of Mrs. Gandhi named him the Prime Minister. In the general elections held soon afterwards, he led the Congress to a massive victory. Riding on a sympathy wave, Rajiv Gandhi helped the Congress win 411 of 540 seats in the Parliament. There was a general feeling that the Congress would win comfortably but few had predicted the massive victory that the Congress won eventually. Those days, I used to write a lot of the political reports for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Dhaka. My own assessment was also a very easy win for the Congress. Amongst the friends in the diplomatic community with whom we were in regular contact also were of the same opinion. However, it was our Deputy high Commissioner Ahmed Tariq Karim, now our High Commissioner in Delhi who had predicted that the Congress would win over 400 seats. His prediction made him quite popular among his peers in the diplomatic community.

President Ershad came to New Delhi for the funeral of Mrs. Gandhi as did a large number of other world leaders of the time. In a courtesy call on the new Prime Minister, the President succeeded in achieving something unique. He was able to move Rajiv Gandhi to tears when he told him that in the death of the Indian Prime Minister, it is not just that he had lost a mother; “we too have lost our mother”. A friend at the Indian External Affairs Ministry told me that there was only one other dignitary who had come to the funeral who was able to make Rajiv Gandhi emotional. Otherwise, through those fatal days of the assassination and the funeral, Rajiv Gandhi was not seen by anyone to be emotional at all.

The massive electoral mandate launched Rajiv Gandhi to great political heights. Indeed he was an instant hit to not just the Indians who voted for him but also to the rest of South Asia for whom his tenure brought high hopes. Bangladesh was one of India’s neighbours that did not feel particularly comfortable while Mrs. Gandhi was in office. There was one story that went around in the High Commission about which I heard later that on his first visit to India, there were just too much negative elements in the air that was certain to make the trip a flop. Later in the evening of General Ershad’s first day in Delhi, when Mrs. Gandhi met him for the official dinner, she eased up that was discernible from the manner in which she spoke with the Bangladesh President and even from the sari she picked to wear that day that gave the impression that she had made an effort to be nice to her guest. The Indians of course were unhappy then with military rule in Bangladesh but the visit was saved from ending in disaster because for some reason Mrs. Gandhi was happy that day although that was seldom reflected in Bangladesh-India relations.

Years later when I was Ambassador to Japan and handling Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s official visit to Japan, I was tensed not knowing how the vibes between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia would work out as the Japanese Foreign Ministry gave me clear message in advance that they would not be able to tell us how their Prime Minister would react on various issues we would raise with him at the talks as their Prime Minister was well known for his mood swings. A senior Foreign Ministry official told me frankly that a lot would depend on what impression our Prime Minister made on him. The meeting with Junichiro Koizumi was in two parts. There were official talks at the Prime Minister’s Office and the second part was at the official dinner that was held at the Residence that was a part of the Prime Minister’s Office. At the official talks, Prime Minister Koizumi was formal and the discussions were not overtly friendly. The Japanese Prime Minister’s mood changed at the dinner table where official issues were also discussed. At one stage, he even praised the Prime Minister for her good looks! This unexpected change of mood was perhaps because at the dinner table, the Prime Ministers were more relaxed and were able to connect better. In my career, I have seen this happen so many times; where no matter what we as officials did, the ultimate outcome of high level discussions depended on how the leaders connected at their level .

Generally, at the High Commission in New Delhi, we were not at all upbeat when it came to furthering Bangladesh-India relations. On the Indian side, there was seldom the interest to look at Bangladesh in the context of its problems and expectations from India. Those days, the water issue was on top of the agenda. We had at the High Commission a First Secretary whose exclusive responsibility was to remain in constant touch with the officials of the Indian Water Ministry and the Indian Joint Rivers Committee. The officer was Khalilur Rahman whom most of us used to call Khalil Bhai. His feedback was always negative; that the Indian side never had any intention of considering giving Bangladesh share of the water of the common rivers of which the share of waters of the Ganges was of the highest importance to Bangladesh.

Rajiv Gandhi had no hang over from history; nor did he suffer from the mindset that the other politicians and the bureaucrats had about India’s neighbours. He made very positive gestures and we started to get very strong vibes that we would be able to achieve a major breakthrough on the Ganges water sharing. At one stage, the High Commissioner decided to communicate these strong vibes to Dhaka. On second thought and on the advice of Ahmed Tareq Karim, Khalil Bhai was sent to the JRC to find out the position. He was told by the JRC officials where most officers those days were from South India that our High Commissioner should do nothing on what the Prime Minister says because as far as the JRC was concerned, India’s stand on the Ganges water sharing had not changed even a bit. Those days the Indians would argue that there was little water in the Ganges at Farakkha during the lean season to share and that Bangladesh should build a link canal to bring the waters of the Brahmaputra through its own territory and join it with the Ganges at Farakkha and then share the augmented flow!

Nevertheless, Rajiv Gandhi was indeed a breath of fresh air in Indian politics vis-à-vis the neighbours. We got an insight to this when Bangladesh was struck by a devastating cyclone in Urirchar. Just after the calamity, Tariq Karim received a call came from the PMO that the Joint Secretary there wanted to meet him immediately. If memory serves me right, the JS was Ronen Sen , later India’s Ambassador to Washington. After an hour or so he returned and he was excited. Rajiv Gandhi had decided to fly directly to Urirchar and see the devastation to express his sorrow and sympathy with the people of Bangladesh. The High Commissioner was again in Dhaka and we were given a very short time to get a feedback to the Indian side without anyone else other then Tareq Karim and I at the High Commission knowing what was about to transpire. Those were the days when we had to call Dhaka through the operator and sometimes, it would even take days to get a call. We somehow managed to contact the High Commissioner almost instantly and he was able to give us a positive feedback by the early hours of the following day.

Rajiv Gandhi’s visit was one of those rare occasions after 1971 when India made a gesture to reach out to the people of Bangladesh. But it was not long that the expectation generated by the visit was wasted away because at the bureaucratic level, India was in no mood to relent to the legitimate demands of its neighbours. Of course, Bangladesh also contributed its own share to help India harden its attitude and the closeness of the military led regime towards Pakistan was one cause for India’s unrelenting stance and for us at the High Commission, sometimes quite an embarrassment in the context of our war of liberation.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and can be reached on email

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