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Missed goggles

When Nelson Mandela was visiting India in 1995 as chief guest during the Republic Day parade, the South African government had only two advance requests.

One, bright lights should not be installed anywhere along his path. Two, a medical team with ophthalmologists, to treat him if excessive glare affected his vision, should be at the South African President’s heels wherever he went.

Mandela’s eyesight had been affected by exposure to glare while working on a limestone quarry during his long years of imprisonment on Robben Island.

Unanticipated, the root of these simple requests was to turn into a protocol nightmare on January 26 although due arrangements had been made. Mandela viewed the magnificent parade and aerial display along Raj Path, but caught up in an animated conversation with President Shankar Dayal Sharma, he left behind his eyeshades and goggles at the parade-viewing rostrum.

As the VVIP motorcade was moving, Mandela realised his lapse and wanted to retrieve what he had left behind. What followed was a reminder of how the Indian government continues to work in compartments with rare room for flexibility.

The Special Protection Group’s (SPG) word was law during P.V. Narasimha Rao’s prime ministership: Rajiv Gandhi had been assassinated only a few years earlier. The SPG would not allow anyone, not even protocol officials of the ministry of external affairs, to wander around the secure area without special clearance.

There was an additional problem. The army maintained that the parade rostrum and surrounding areas were its fief. No one was going to breach its additional security there, no matter what the issue. These are part of defence traditions that are observed every year.

But it was an example of the Mandela magic that both the army and the SPG made an exception and allowed Manjeev Singh Puri, then deputy chief of protocol, to leave the VVIP motorcade and go back to the viewing rostrum to retrieve the goggles and shades.

On the day Mandela took office as President, he called a meeting of the entire staff of the presidential office. Most of them had been holdovers from the apartheid regime who had remained during the transition to majority rule because of the unique nature of how South Africa changed peacefully.

But most of them had also expected to be replaced from the most powerful office space in the country. To their unbelievable surprise, Mandela told them that everyone who wanted to stay on with him in office was free to stay. But if anyone chose to leave, they could leave without prejudice.

Most people who had planned to shift jobs that day decided on the spur of the moment that they would stay. This was no ordinary black President and unlike those they had seen in other African countries that had switched to black rule — like Zimbabwe, for example.

One of those who chose to stay was the head of the presidential press office, a white woman who was at the centre of the apartheid President’s spin. She was to later become Mandela’s shield. Reporters remember her for blocking photos, no matter who stood with Mandela, whether it was Bill Clinton or Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

She had an uncanny knack for spotting potential flash that might affect Mandela’s eyes and would dart forward anywhere to stop any picture from being clicked. For the protection of the President.

Mandela’s next visit to New Delhi was in March 1997. H.D. Deve Gowda was Prime Minister and his external affairs minister, I.K. Gujral, was still steeped in Soviet-style bilateral diplomatic engagements. Gujral had been ambassador in Moscow when he presided over many such old forms of ostentation during state visits.

Together, Gujral and Gowda sprang a surprise on South Block that a civic reception should be held for Mandela in New Delhi. The problem was that a generation of Indian diplomats had passed without organising any civic receptions for foreign visitors.

There was nothing in the archives of the ministry of external affairs by way of manuals for civic receptions. The last such function in the capital was probably in the 1960s, veteran diplomats who had retired remembered.

But Gujral and Gowda would not take “no” for an answer. Gujral wanted to recreate for Mandela the aura of such a reception held for Soviet leaders Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev when they were in India in 1955.

Ultimately, it was Sahib Singh Verma, then chief minister of Delhi, who stepped in and saved the day. The Delhi government organised the reception in the Diwan-i-Khas area of the historic Red Fort, where the Peacock Throne once stood.

It was during this visit that Mandela signed the “Red Fort Declaration” with India that constitutes the bedrock of India-South Africa relations.

Diplomats posted to South Africa have had to traverse a class barrier until now, as long as Mandela was alive: those who served in the country when Mandela was President and those who were posted there afterwards. The former had a leg up if they went later as ambassador or high commissioner, even as a consul-general. The latter belonged to a lesser class.

Puri, who retrieved the goggles from the Republic Day parade rostrum, was in the Mandela class because well after this incident, he was posted as head of India’s diplomatic office in Cape Town during the last year of the Mandela presidency.

But there was another super class of diplomats with anti-apartheid connections. Satyabrata Pal, author of an accompanying article in this newspaper who liaised with the African National Congress (ANC) out of Botswana before Mandela became President, was one such.

Shiv Shankar Mukherjee was another. He was deputy high commissioner in Zambia in the 1980s with concurrent accreditation to Angola.

So when the South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo) shifted its main base to Angola, Mukherjee was India’s liaison man with Swapo. The organisation was then fighting to end South Africa’s occupation of Namibia. Such a role was to give him a special standing decades later when Mukherjee went to South Africa as high commissioner.

The last farewell for Mukherjee when his term ended in South Africa was attended by Mandela. It was a small lunch at the residence of Amina Cachalia, a South African anti-apartheid fighter of Indian origin.

Mandela had once proposed to her, according to several accounts, and although she turned him down, they remained friends. The lunch was in her flat in a high-rise apartment complex in Johannesburg.

Mandela and Mukherjee arrived for the lunch at the same time. The high commissioner held the door open for the President, who had by then retired. But Mandela would not go in.

“You are an important person, you are high commissioner; I am an old pensioner,” Mandela told Mukherjee, an example of his charm and famous sense of humour.

Mukherjee would not give up, either. “I would love to be an old pensioner like you,” he responded. By the time the lunch was over, word had spread that Mandela was around and there was a crowd of a few thousands chanting “Madiba, Madiba” when the guests came out.

It is not very well known that when the ANC wanted to buy Shell House, its headquarters in Cape Town, India contributed liberally to the purchase.

Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao ensured that Mandela got the money for the purchase although India was then going through its worst economic crisis since Independence and had pawned its gold to tide itself over a foreign currency shortage.