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When bugs didn’t bug Blair
- Former PM’s aide reveals Delhi nuggets in book

London, July 10: The diaries of Alastair Campbell, friend, confidante and long-time press officer to Tony Blair, provide some understanding of British policy towards India and Pakistan.

In Britain, where the controversial diaries have just been published, Campbell’s account is being examined for insights into domestic political rivalries, especially that between Blair and Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer who was kept waiting for 10 years before he could succeed to the top job in the country.

However, for the Indian reader, there are choice morsels scattered through the 794 pages that constitute the first volume of The Blair Years: Extracts from the Alastair Campbell Diaries (Hutchinson; £25).

There are references to President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan; Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he was Blair’s counterpart in India; and the steel tycoon, Lakshmi Mittal; and the Hindujas and Labour MP, Keith Vaz.

When Blair became Labour Party leader in 1994, he recruited Campbell, a former Daily Mirror journalist, as his press spokesman. And when he was swept to power with a landslide win in 1997, Blair took Campbell with him to 10 Downing Street as his director of communications.

It was a position Campbell occupied until 2003. During his Downing Street years, Blair depended on Campbell’s judgement to such an extent that the press officer came to be regarded — and hated — by many as the most powerful man in government after the Prime Minister. During the 2005 general election, Campbell was brought out of retirement by Blair — called “TB” throughout the diaries — to help him with his media campaign.

On a visit to Pakistan in October 2001, when the Americans and the British were anxious to include Musharraf in their war on terror, Campbell’s diary has the following entry: “TB reckoned him (Musharraf) to be a very tough character.”

The Pakistanis told Blair they wanted to get Osama Bin Laden but Campbell notes: “They seemed pretty keen to get OBL, but you could never be absolutely sure who was saying what for what reason.”

Campbell describes a dinner: “At dinner I was between two five-star generals who spent most of the time listing atrocities for which they held the Indians responsible, killing their own people and trying to blame ‘freedom fighters’. ”

Campbell adds: “I think all of us, other than the experts, had been a bit taken aback at just how much Kashmir defined their relations and just how deep the mutual hatred and obsession was.”

After Pakistani “black humour” about Blair’s plane being downed by a Stinger, Blair arrived in Delhi. Campbell then records a curious incident.

He writes: “We arrived in Delhi and drove into town. TB motioned to the (British) ambassador, asking if the car was bugged. He gave a kind of non-committal no. Then at the hotel, our security service guys had found two bugs in TB’s bedroom and said they wouldn’t be able to move them without drilling the wall, so TB used a different room. We decided against making a fuss.”

In talks with Vajpayee, Blair argued “the need for restraint by India to build stability in the region”.

Vajpayee pointed out that India was a democracy, to which Blair repeated his earlier call: “With humility, I think it’s important to continue with restraint.”

In January 2002, Blair, accompanied by Campbell, returned to India and met Vajpayee once more. Again, Blair urged India to make concessions. “TB pushed hard but got very little change out of Vajpayee. He was holding out for a lot more from the Pakistanis.”

At the official dinner, Campbell sat next to Vajpayee and asked the Indian Prime Minister about his famed silences. “He was an attentive host, but so quiet. I asked him whether it was a strength or disadvantage to have such a quiet voice, and whether he used silence as a weapon. He said he liked to think his authority came from within, as well as from the position he held… words were precious, and there was little point speaking when nothing was to be said.”

Shortly after Blair returned to Britain, he plunged into a row over a letter he had written to his Romanian counterpart in support of Mittal. The press had linked Mittal’s donation of £125,000 to the Labour Party with Blair’s letter which had backed the Indian tycoon’s bid to take over a steel complex in Romania.

Campbell’s diary entry for Monday, February 11, 2002, notes that Mittal Steel was registered in the Netherlands and states: “The Mittal situation was tricky. TB was totally dismissive of the whole thing, saw nothing wrong in it. I said it was a bit odd he was writing letters to the Romanian PM about what in the end was a Dutch deal, even if Mittal ran the company. He was clear we just had to ride it out and tell them to get stuffed.”

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