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Time to tell a prophetic secret

Washington, Dec. 23: A few weeks ago, I asked a very senior Indian official who meets Prime Minister Manmohan Singh several times a day on official business what it was like working for P.V. Narasimha Rao when he was Prime Minister.

This particular official worked so closely with Rao during much of the long years that he was a member of the Union cabinet that there was a highly erroneous impression within the bureaucracy that the Prime Minister did this officer's bidding. That impression gained ground when Rao, in one of his early decisions as Prime Minister, elevated this official to the highest civil service job in his line of work.

The official confessed, with relief clearly writ on his face, that it was much easier working for Singh. He proceeded to say that the difference between the two Prime Ministers was that if you can convince Singh about the need to do something, he will act immediately and decisively, even if the task at hand was something unpleasant or risky.

But not Rao. Even after he had been convinced, Rao would be cautious. He would further debate the pros and cons of a particular course of action in his mind. He would procrastinate. Which was not surprising considering that he was the author of the famous line that inaction itself is action.

The Americans were sometimes at the receiving end of Rao's inaction, which he often combined with a kind of wiliness that the straight-shooting diplomats in Foggy Bottom were unable to fathom. One such occasion was in 1994, when he came under intense pressure on the nuclear issue.

President Bill Clinton had launched a personal initiative to halt, roll back and eliminate the nuclear programmes of both India and Pakistan. At another level, India's strategic community was clamouring for a test in Pokhran. Leading this pack was A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, now President.

Rao decided that he would give each side a long rope. He told the Americans that he was willing to explore the idea of a conference of nine countries on denuclearising the subcontinent: India, Pakistan, the five declared nuclear powers, Japan and Germany. He told the Indian strategic community that he would never agree to any limits on India's nuclear option.

The Americans were thrilled that India finally appeared to be moving in the direction of embracing the global nuclear regime. When N. Krishnan ' a long-retired ambassador to the UN whom Rao trusted and had resurrected for the talks in London ' met the Americans in April, he was sweet reason itself.

Why not include Iran, Libya and North Korea in the talks' Krishnan asked. These countries either had bombs or were trying to acquire them. Why not Brazil and Argentina, which could share the experience in denuclearising their region' Perhaps countries like Belarus, Kazakhstan and South Africa, which had renounced their nuclear weapons, could be invited, too.

The Americans were apoplectic. It was as good as calling the whole world to the table, which would mean years of chatter that would get nowhere. It was classic Rao-style diplomacy. But he got away with it.

A month later, on May 19, Rao drove into the White House to meet Clinton. He had managed to pull off a visit that was reasonably successful. In the run-up to the trip to Washington, his aides had feared that the Prime Minister was walking into a snake pit.

The reams that have already been written about Rao since he demitted office about his successes in steering India away from the ruins of the Cold War and global socialism do not do adequate justice to the man's vision and his insights.

Rao was a man of few words. But there were exceptions. And when his rule of silence was broken, he could be uncharacteristically talkative. Travelling with Rao to New York as part of the media party covering his visit to the UN, our Air-India special plane was once held up at Lisbon airport.

It was meant to be a refuelling stop, but there were some problems which delayed the departure. It was the wee hours of the morning and officials left the Prime Minister alone as he sat on a sofa in a special section of the airport lounge. I went to him and started a conversation.

What Rao said in the next half-an-hour was prophetic. The Cold War is not over, he said to my great surprise. Only one phase of the Cold War had ended. Rao predicted that the next phase of the Cold War would be in India's neighbourhood. As a nation and a government, we would then have to take some hard decisions, Rao worried.

Shortly afterwards, I mentioned this conversation to a senior American official, carefully excluding a portion of what he said about China. The American laughed, all but ridiculing the Prime Minister. A week after Rao was hospitalised with respiratory problems that have now turned out to be fatal, I happened to meet the American official, who has since retired.

He was humble enough to eat his words. Look at Afghanistan, which is India's backyard, he said. Just look now at Iraq and Saudi Arabia, which constitute India's extended neighbourhood. I was wrong, he confessed. Rao truly had the capacity to look into the crystal glass, he said in admiration.

Rao said on that cold Lisbon morning that a big challenge for India in the 21st century will come as competition and rivalry between America and China intensify. What truly surprised me was Rao's unambiguous view that in this rivalry, India must side with the Chinese.

Rao told me that the conversation was not for reporting. But unlike the nuclear secret that Rao took to his grave, I did not promise him that I would take his insight to my grave.

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