Veteran diplomat Chinmaya R. Gharekhan’s memoirs offer an insider account of the infamous espionage scandal of the 1980s
GN Bureau | June 13, 2023
Centres of Power: My Years in the Prime Minister’s Office and Security Council
By Chinmaya R. Gharekhan
Rupa, 336 pages, Rs 795
Chinmaya R. Gharekhan, born in Gujarat in 1934, was a distinguished member of the Indian Foreign Service who also served as India’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva during 1977-1980, and advisor on foreign affairs to the prime minister from 1981 to 1986. As ambassador of India to the UN in New York, he represented India on the Security Council during 1991–92 and was twice president of the Security Council. His memoirs, focusing on his time at the PMO and the UN Security Council, are bound to make for a riveting reading. His new book offers a peak into the decision-making at those two crucibles of foreign policy.
What was working with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi like? Was she a difficult person to work with? Did she lose her temper or shout at the officers in her office? Was she a religious person? Did she aspire for Nobel Peace Prize? How did she deal with the pressure leading up to the armed action in the Golden Temple in June 1984? Did her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi follow his mother’s line in foreign affairs? How did his style of functioning differ from his mother’s?
From advising two PMs—Indira and Rajiv Gandhi—on sensitive matters of state to negotiating complex global agreements at the United Nations, Gharekhan offers a look at the inner workings of international politics.
Gharekhan’s years of experience as a top diplomat at the United Nations have given him a unique perspective on global politics, and his insights into the challenges facing the world today are both thought provoking and timely. Through his personal stories and vivid anecdotes, readers will gain a new understanding of the complexities and nuances of international relations as well as the role that diplomacy plays in shaping the course of history.
With humour and candour, the book recounts the challenges and triumphs of a career spent navigating the intricacies of diplomacy. From high-stakes negotiations with rival nations to building alliances with unlikely allies, the book provides a masterclass in the art of diplomacy.
In this excerpt, he offers a behind-the-scenes look at the unraveling of a sensation spy scandal of the 1980s that many of today’s generation may not have heard of.
THE ESPIONAGE SCANDAL
The month of January 1985 turned out to be momentous. P.C. Alexander, principal secretary to the PM, was out; the French ambassador was being withdrawn at our request; diplomats from Soviet, Poland and German Democratic Republic embassies were expelled. And all this was a fallout of a spy network that was cracked. It was functioning right from the absolute nerve centre of the Indian government—Principal Secretary Alexander’s office itself! His entire personal staff was involved—private secretary N.T. Kher, personal assistant Malhotra, the clerk, even the peon. On the night of 16–17 January, the counterintelligence arrested Kher and, by morning, the others were nabbed. They were passing on the most sensitive documents to foreign governments through an Indian businessman named Coomar Narain, who was himself a PA once.
All the ramifications were still not clear, for they were still being explored. The key man was the deputy military attaché of the French embassy named Bolley. He had been thrown out, of course. Alexander resigned, accepting moral responsibility for the security lapse in his office. I saw him at about 2.30 p.m. the same day the case was cracked; I obviously had no clue by then. I asked him something and he said he would check with the PM. Had he not submitted his resignation by that time? Possibly not. Sharada told me about the espionage scandal at 4.00 p.m., adding that Alexander was under great pressure. We realized the enormity of the situation.
Vincent George, who had replaced Dhawan in the front office, called me the following day in the morning and said that the PM would meet us all at 10.30 a.m. to talk about what had happened the previous day. The PM had made short statements in both Houses without naming anyone, confining himself to saying that some officers had been functioning against the interests of the country and had been arrested.
In the meeting with the PM, Alexander was naturally not present. The PM said, ‘We are without a principal secretary now.’ He tried to sound calm, but it was clear that he was stressed. We discussed how to run the work of the office and how to tighten up security. In the afternoon, Sharada asked him about what should be told to the press. The PM asked whether the press could be fobbed off for some time, but Sharada said that doing so would be difficult. The PM said that he had accepted Alexander’s resignation, so he can tell them so.
Sharada asked, ‘Can we say “accepted regretfully”?’ Both he and I pressed for ‘accepted with regret’. The PM agreed.
The investigations led to the arrest of the PAs in the president’s secretariat, finance ministry, defence ministry and commerce ministry. It seemed that all of them had a weakness for the bottle. They had sold secrets for a bottle of scotch and for ludicrously low sums. The businessman Coomar had organized parties for them at his farm and made copies of the documents at his Hailey Road office. No senior officer was arrested.
The French connection received the maximum publicity. A cable was sent to Narendra Singh, our ambassador in Paris, instructing him to call on the French foreign minister to ask for the French ambassador’s recall and to reduce the size of the French embassy to the size of our embassy in Paris. Narendra sent back a cable, not objecting to the substance but suggesting a redraft.
Polish, Czech and German Democratic Republic embassies were also involved. Parthasarathi wondered what to do. The Polish PM was due for an official visit on 11 February. Should we call it off? Should we ask for the recall of these three ambassadors, too? It was a very embarrassing situation for us.
That was the first day of Bhandari as the foreign secretary. Parthasarathi, Bhandari and I went to the PM’s house. He showed a lot of cool. We had acted precipitately in asking for the recall of the French ambassador, he said.
The PM decided to ask for an emergency meeting of the CCPA. Hari Anand Bhandari, director, IB, was also summoned. The PM announced the decision: We ask the three embassies to send back the offending staff. Ought we to go further? His instinct was we should be even handed. Parthasarathi asked whether there was any way in which we could make a distinction between the crimes of the French and others. PV was clear, ‘We cannot afford to throw out the Soviets, we have to treat them differently. We have too much at stake with them.’ He said we would have to give out an official version soon, but our interests with the Soviets were far too serious for us to take a hasty action against them. The PM saw the wisdom in PV’s advice and that was that. Bhandari was asked to tell the three ambassadors to send back their offending staff.
Later, the PM said that we had dealt too harshly with the French. Bhandari told the PM he would try to retrieve the situation. I suggested that one thing we could do was to give an immediate agrément to the new French ambassador. The PM agreed. Bhandari suggested that we could ask the French to send a special emissary to talk things over. The PM agreed to that.
We had thought that the expulsion of the staff of the three embassies would be a quiet affair. But two days after the CCPA meeting, G.K. Reddy of The Hindu broke the story. Two days later, the Delhi newspapers got it from the confessional of one of the arrested officials. It was supposed to be an in-camera confession, so we were all concerned about the leak. Later, Sharada found the answer to the source of the leak. The magistrate was pounced upon by the media—AP, Reuters, AFP, The Times, and others. He was so overwhelmed that he blurted out the whole story.
[The excerpt reproduced with the permission of the publishers.]
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